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Selling with humor

(MoneyWatch) What part does humor have in selling? If you have a sense of humor, you have a God-given gift and you should use it to your advantage.

Ignore those snobs who say humor has no place in sales and marketing, that prospects don't buy from clowns, or you should never poke fun at your own brand. They do not understand the likeability factor of humor.

Just look at Hormel Foods. Back in 2001 the company watched helplessly as "spam," the name of its iconic canned meat product, entered the Oxford English Dictionary as a word for unsolicited email messages.

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Sure, Hormel had ignored all the jokes through the years about that mystery meat in a can. Which part of the pig is the Spam? Actually it is spiced ham and pork shoulder meat, a product originated in the Great Depression and one that had a heyday back in World War II.

But now Spam is enjoying a renaissance after years of negative associations with its brand name. Spam decided to become part of the humor rather than the butt of the jokes. The turning point might have come in 2005 when Hormel did not unleash a legion of lawyers with cease and desist letters, but instead helped promote the Broadway musical "Spamalot," written by Eric Idle of Monty Python fame. The comedy troupe had long made fun of the stuff in the blue and yellow can. If you haven't seen the old Monty Python skit about the bloody Vikings ordering Spam at a diner, do yourself a favor and YouTube it.

Other clever marketing ensued. Hormel prints very funny postcards. A buddy of mine even won a national Spam cook-off, done up with the pomp and ceremony of a true culinary competition. Actually, her Spam Fajitas are quite delicious.

Having a sense of humor paid off for Spam. According to Hormel, the company sold 122 million cans of Spam last year - an 11 percent increase from 2009 - and that was the third straight year of strong growth.

A Hormel exec said; "I think of it like Old Spice: It's gone from dad's brand to a hip young brand."

Speaking of Old Spice, that brand did well with humor too. Wieden + Kennedy created a special ad for the 2010 Super Bowl for their client Procter and Gamble. The ad featured former NFL athlete Isaiah Mustafa in a video-centric marketing campaign that combined both traditional and social media.

Entitled "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like," the ad featured Mustafa reciting a monologue about how "anything is possible" if a man uses Old Spice. In a single uncut shot, Mustafa transitions from a bathroom to a sailboat to riding a horse on the beach, all without pausing his monologue or breaking eye-contact with the camera for more than a moment. The punchline of the commercial is Mustafa's non sequitur final statement: "I'm on a horse", delivered as the camera zooms out to reveal to the viewer that Mustafa is now sitting atop a horse.

Last year Old Spice launched a new campaign on YouTube featuring a challenge between Mustafa and pitchman hunk Fabio entitled Mano a Mano in el Baño. Mustafa said he wasn't worried, even though Fabio has been "the epitome of the sex symbol as a pitchman." Mustafa emerged as the winner.

But the real winner was Old Spice.

To recap Old Spice's humor laden blockbuster: A total of 40-plus million views on YouTube, with Facebook fan interaction soaring by 800 percent and Twitter followers up by 2,700 percent. Old Spice enjoyed a 107 percent increase in body wash sales within 30 days of campaign launch.

Old Spice, as the old saying goes, is laughing all the way to the bank.

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