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What Marketers Can Learn From Stand-Up Comics

Human nature is complicated. Why do we think that culture is any easier to understand? Rather than acknowledge the complexities, Corporate America wants to put the cultural conversation in a neat little package and boil it down to superficial elements such as race-based casting, language versioning, and we-are-the-world Benetton imagery that validates its notion of diversity and inclusion.

When it comes to multicultural marketing, by and large, Corporate America continues to miss the mark. At a recent conference of America's leading advertisers, CEOs and CMOs gathered to discuss the state of multicultural marketing and to celebrate the best examples of advertising addressing consumers from communities of color, the LGBT community, the disabled community, and others whom advertising has historically marginalized or ignored. A lot of complicated and convoluted buzzwords were tossed about as these successful and educated individuals tried to figure out why they couldn't capture and bottle authenticity when it came to really connecting with multicultural audiences — their fastest-growing opportunity for gaining market share and increasing sales.

On the second day of the conference, the luncheon entertainment featured Aida Rodriguez, a stand-up comic who took the stage and gave a master class in cultural relevance and connection. That's not what she called it. She called it a set, as comics do. That's also not what the audience would say they saw. They were entertained. She was a really funny comic who made them laugh from start to finish. But when all was said and done, if you step back and look at what this comic accomplished, it was exactly what these marketers have been trying to accomplish with their multicultural marketing: connection, engagement, and relevance at both a macro and a micro level, meaning that the message can be enjoyed by many, while also having a heightened impact on a desired subset of the group.

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What does Aida Rodriguez know that these marketers don't? What are the lessons that marketers can glean from smart stand-up comics?

1. Embrace Failure — Like scientists, stand-up comics not only expect to have some of their work tank, get rejected, not deliver, but they also understand that not failing means something is wrong. Are you keeping things too safe? Are you generating enough material to really grow and expand your act? Are you up at bat (or up at the mic) with the kind of frequency that comics require? Taking risks will result in material that falls by the wayside, material that gets cut from the act because it ultimately doesn't fit. You can define that as failure or you can define that as testing and learning. Comics, like scientists, test and learn. Marketers can't expect success in the multicultural space if they are afraid to try new things, accept "failure" as a by-product of growth, and learn from what doesn't produce results with even more rigor than relying on those initiatives that do.

2. Stay Connected — You can't connect unless you really understand what makes those you are connecting to tick. Marketers often forget how insular their worlds become. They wind up talking to themselves and people like them, and then wonder why they're not speaking the same language as their consumers. "Comics need to stay on top of trends, social commentary, and human behavior," says Rodriguez. "We always need to think ahead." Throughout her set, one could see Aida's focus on what's now and speak to what's next. It's what makes her storytelling surprisingly fresh, even when she's addressing topics that reach back in history and leverage the past in order to comment on the present and predict the future.

3. Authenticity — The It word of the moment for marketers, authenticity tops the list when it comes to what millennials expect from marketers. You know it when you see it, but it's challenging to define. Rodriguez's life as a comic has taught her a very straightforward lesson: "Be yourself." Authenticity starts with being true to who you are and how you see the world. That's a challenge for marketers who are always bending their brands over backward as they try to be everything to everyone. Like audiences at a comedy club, consumers have a radar for brands that try too hard or purport to be what they are not. "Not everyone is going to like you," says Rodriguez, "and that's OK . . . in fact, it's necessary." Pleasing is not the same as delighting, and brands are better served by creating a delighted following of fans and ambassadors than by being pleasing and forgettable.

4. Have Fun — Authenticity doesn't always mean fun, but it does mean being comfortable in your own skin. The same level of comfort is essential for letting go and having fun. When you know who you are and, for marketers, who your brand is, you have permission to be playful and even to cross some unexpected lines. Rodriguez manages to speak to extremely diverse audiences, playing with culturally specific topics in a way that, in the wrong hands, would be taken as more of an insult than an insight. Her authenticity allows her to have fun and her ability to have fun allows audiences to listen and laugh, even when they're not sure they understand the nuances of a joke. As an example, Rodriguez can play with tension points related to gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation and release the tension. If you're from the particular group being skewered, you'll likely get the joke on several levels. If you're outside of that group, you'll experience the contagion of fun as it spreads through the audience.

5. Speak to Universal Truths and Unique Specifics — Storytelling is about specifics, and today's marketing is dependent upon storytelling. It has been said, "Content is king," but recently marketers are adding, "Yes, but then context is God." Comics use context to write material grounded in universal truths — about family dynamics, or relationships or satisfying hunger — things we all experience and understand. They then layer on specifics to point the material toward a certain audience and deepen the connective tissue. Marketers should take note. Certainly consumers have a lot in common, but to get the laugh, which is the comedy equivalent of consumer engagement and response, it's rich specifics that create relevance, breaking through the clutter and moving consumers from head to heart.

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