As a brand, incorporating humour and personality into your marketing can help humanise your business to consumers. It allows them to form a genuine connection with your brand, makes it memorable, and helps it to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
But is it possible to go too far in adding personality to your product? Is there a point at which quirkiness and humour start to interfere with usability?
This is an especially relevant question to pose in the UK, where we’ve managed to cultivate a strain of overly familiar, chatty product packaging so unique and distinctive that it has its own name: ‘wackaging’ (from ‘wacky’ and ‘packaging’).
We’re talking about the likes of smoothie cartons which primly instruct you to “Stop looking at my bottom” if you turn them upside-down, or cereal boxes with rants about the joylessness of skimmed milk on the side.
Whether you think quirky packaging is clever, godawful, or don’t really notice it, the concept does raise interesting questions from a UX perspective. At what point does branding start to interfere with product usability? Is quirkiness always a usability no-no? And if it isn’t, how can you go about giving your brand a memorable personality without getting in the way of your own product?
The popular rise of wackaging is universally credited to Innocent Drinks, a company known as much for its cutesy, friendly packaging as for its fruit smoothies.
Innocent seems more than happy to embrace this reputation, with copywriter Lucie Bright telling the Guardian that “since Innocent began, lots of brands have emerged who have a more human and informal tone of voice on their packaging. We think this can only be a good thing.”
In 2015, satirical website The Poke took a well-deserved jab (ha) at Innocent’s packaging on Twitter, to which Innocent humorously responded in kind:
But not everyone is amused by the wackaging trend. As consumers became increasingly aware of the pervasiveness of wackaging, the backlash began to grow: The Guardian’s Sophie Grimshaw exclaimed, “Brands are not our friends – enough!”, while Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of the Leon fast food chain, called the trend “unbelievably irritating and infantile,” and Buzzfeed published a listicle rounding up ‘16 enraging examples of cutesy packaging’.
Maybe my sense of humour is just low-brow, but most of the examples in Buzzfeed’s article made me laugh. Still, I can understand why having to skim through awful puns and twee anecdotes just to find a product’s nutritional information, or being told that a product is suitable for “vegetablists” rather than vegetarians, can get a little irritating.
Image from wackaging.tumblr.com, a now defunct Tumblog created by journalist Rebecca Nicholson, who coined the term ‘wackaging’
A product’s packaging is a part of its branding and marketing, and there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with adding personality to your marketing. As I noted in the beginning, there are a number of benefits to it.
But packaging also serves a functional purpose for the user, and when branding starts to get in the way of how the product is being used, that’s when you risk crossing the border from endearing or unique into annoying.
There’s a difference between making a couple of well-placed jokes and then receding tactfully into the background, and saturating every part of your product packaging (or website navigation, or user interface) with quirky one-liners.
So how can you add personality to your brand or product without getting on your consumer’s bad side – or interfering with your own product’s usability? Let’s look at some examples of brands that manage to incorporate humour and personality without harming usability.
Swedish oat drink brand Oatly is an example of wackaging done well. If you object in principle to the very idea of quirky humour on packaging, you’ll probably still find it annoying, but in my view, Oatly manages to give its packaging character whilst keeping it out of the way of the important bits.
Three sides of Oatly’s cartons are given over to branding and marketing messages which promote the company’s ethos. As you can see from the above image showing Oatly’s UK packaging in 2016, one of those sides is taken up by a fairly silly lonely hearts ad aimed at finding a boyfriend for Oatly’s “friend Sara.” You might find it funny, or think it falls totally flat, but either way, there’s no obligation to read it.
The back of Oatly’s packaging is captioned “The boring (but very necessary) side”, with a humorous little message telling consumers that “If this side bores you, please read no further. Flip the carton around and have a wonderful day.”
Beyond that, the rest of the information – ingredients, allergens, best before date and so on – is presented completely straight-up, with no cutesy turns of phrase or first-person narration. There’s no “keep me in a cold place!” or “I don’t like lactose, so I don’t contain any” – the information on this side is presented just the same it would be on any other product packaging.
This strikes me as the best way to do wackaging: keep the important information functional and to-the-point, and use the rest of the packaging for the fun stuff. There’s plenty of room for it there.
So far in this article I’ve focused on physical products and packaging, but everything I’ve talked about is just as applicable to websites and digital products as it is to physical ones.
And for an excellent example of how to integrate personality into a digital product, you don’t need to look any further than Mailchimp, who have literally written the book on designing for emotion – which includes how to incorporate personality into design.
You can read an excerpt from the third chapter of that book for free on A List Apart, as I did when researching this article. In it, Aarron Walter, who founded the UX practice at MailChimp, talks about creating the fun and friendly persona of Freddie Von Chimpenheimer IV, Mailchimp’s mascot. More importantly, he talks about how to keep that fun out of the way of the functional side of Mailchimp:
“Freddie always has a kind smile that welcomes users and makes them feel at home. The cartoon style communicates that MailChimp offers a fun and informal experience. Yes, he’s a cartoon ape, but somehow Freddie can still be cool. He likes to crack witty jokes, but when the situation is serious, the funny business stops.
MailChimp often surprises users with a fun easter egg, or a link to a gut-busting YouTube video. Fun is around every corner, but never in the way of the workflow.”
Much like Oatly keeping quirky copy off the back of its cartons, MailChimp keeps its fun spaces separate from the business side of the platform. Freddie exists to inject humour into the proceedings, but doesn’t interact with the practical side of things:
“Freddie should be used sparingly, and only to interject a bit of humor. Freddie never gives application feedback, stats, or helps with a task.
Freddie’s random funny greetings at the top of each main page create anticipation for the next page to load. These greetings never provide information or feedback. They are a fun layer that never interferes with functionality or usability.”
Later on in the chapter, Walter cites an example of another brand that manages to skilfully balance fun and seriousness: Carbonmade.
Carbonmade is a web app that helps people to design elegant portfolios. Its website design is brightly coloured, cartoonish and funny, with a moustachioed sign-in button, a flag-waving octopus inviting users to sign up, and a list of “True facts” which proclaims that Carbonmade is a “Proven aphrodisiac”.
Carbonmade’s zany humour is focused on attracting new users to its service, but tapers off strategically once they sign up and start using the product. Walter describes this tactic as being “like a reverse mullet: party up front, and business in the back”. Or as Carbonmade designer Dave Gorum explains:
“My rule was and is to add fun up to the point that it distracts from the message.
Keeping things informal and bonkers makes it all the easier to get folks to click that sign-up button. There’s a taper to the silliness though. We lay it on pretty thick in our marketing site, dial it back a bit in our admin tools, and remove it all together on the product. It’s like a giant, flashy, goofy piece of candy on the outside, with a Swiss-engineered, straight-laced nougaty center!”
Adding personality in the right places works extremely well for Carbonmade, helping them to attract new customers and build up a rapport, but the brand also knows when to ditch the humour and get down to business.
All three of our examples have that in common. In the end, balancing personality with usability in your branding isn’t about the quality of puns or the number of jokes you use, but knowing how to keep those jokes out of the way of what your consumers are trying to achieve.
Think about your product workflow, or your typical customer journey, and how you can make the jokes work around it rather than against it. Humour should grease the wheels, not clog up the mechanism.
You won’t win over every single customer with quirky humour, of course – for some people, wackaging won’t ever be their cup of tea. But if adding quirky humour fits with your brand, there are plenty of ways to do it effectively, stand out from the competition and forge an emotional connection with your consumers, while still keeping the core of your product straightforward, usable and accessible.