Ask Cards Against Humanity co-founder Max Temkin about his brand, and he’ll answer in a manner perfectly befitting a former philosophy major: “Well…what’s a brand?”
It’s a valid question, and if you were to take the CAH approach and pick a random white card from the deck of the bestselling card game to answer it, you’d likely up with some pretty interesting answers:
Unlimited soup, salad and breadsticks.
A lifetime of sadness.
(Plus a slew of other, shall we say, NSFW options.)
And perhaps that’s appropriate for a company whose success is built on a unique voice that’s in turns lewd, crude and ridiculous — but always consistent, and never, ever boring.
For an episode of 12 For 12, we visited the Chicago office of the “party game for horrible people” and left with some key takeaways about how defying convention and embracing absurdity can turn a brand — whatever that is — into a bona fide phenomenon.
1. Apply your brand’s voice at every opportunity.
Having a distinct brand voice is important — everyone knows that — but what you might not think about are the opportunities to apply it outside of marketing, across every facet of outreach and customer engagement.
“The brand of the company is every customer service interaction they’ve had, every email they’ve sent,” explains Temkin (after warming up a bit to the questioning).
To see how Cards Against Humanity is doing this, look no further than the website’s FAQ section. This is typically where brands adapt a straightforward, customer-centric communication style designed to save their customer service teams from having to answer as many pointless emails as possible. But CAH’s is downright entertaining and reads like their actual content — funny and in-your-face. (In regards to a question about what version someone in another country would get in the mail, for example: “You’ll get the American version because we star spangled said so.”)
That being said, most companies should be advised not to take a page exactly from the party game’s book. After all, if a Geico, Bank of America or other corporate giants were to call their customers’ ideas crappy, their questions dumb and their country inferior, a la Cards Against Humanity’s FAQ section, people would probably be slightly less than pleased. So remember: while being a little less conventional and corporate can be a breath of fresh air for your audience, be sure it’s your own brand’s voice — the one your target customers know and appreciate — that you’re actually using.
2. Don’t copy the competition — be UNIQUE!
Black Friday is one of the biggest days in retail, when companies offer massive discounts and shoppers camp outside Best Buys and Walmarts at 4 am (and occasionally punch each other in the face over cheap flat-screen TVs and Tickle Me Elmos). But rather than just joining the fray, and slashing prices on their cards, on one Black Friday, Cards Against Humanity had a different approach: they decided to raise prices by $5.
“When I think, what is the brand of Cards, that little gesture — [that] we can raise the prices on black friday — that tells you everything we need to know,” Temkin says. “That we don’t really care if people give us their money or not; that it’s more fun for us to do the joke.”
Whether they sold more games or packs on that particular day wasn’t the point. (But they did). This small act of defiance and humor played into the larger brand strategy and contributed to CAH’s reputation as a company that does, well, whatever the hell it wants. For brands in every space, this is a valuable reminder that going against the grain and doing the opposite of what people expect can be a great way to stand out and differentiate yourself from competitors in your space.
3. Give attitude, but give back too.
While Cards Against Humanity may bill itself as a party game for horrible people, the company actually has an impressive record of charitable giving that includes $4 million donated to organizations such as Worldbuilders, the Sunlight Foundation, the EFF, DonorsChoose.org, the Wikimedia Foundation and the Chicago Design Museum. They also launched a $500,000 full-ride scholarship for women getting degrees in science. So while the product they’re peddling is effectively a well-curated collection of dick jokes, they’re actually doing some serious work on the backend to make the world a better place.
However, the benefits of their charitable giving extend beyond the warm and fuzzy (and the tax write-offs). According to one study of several hundred companies, and more than 380,000 employees, “giving back is associated with greater employee retention, higher levels of brand ambassadorship on the part of workers and more enthusiastic employees. Staffers who believe their organizations give back to the community are a striking 13 times more likely to look forward to coming to work, compared to employees who do not perceive their employers to be generous toward the community.”
If you needed another reason to be philanthropic, you’ve just found it.
4. Adopt a “Why the hell not?” approach.
Cards Against Humanity bought an island and named it Hawaii 2.
Cards Against Humanity is not in the travel industry or the real estate business. The company isn’t developing a hotel or moving its headquarters to take advantage of a little-known tax loophole. The people at CAH bought an island simply because they could and because one of their biggest strengths is their ability to continuously surprise their fans. For instance, throughout CAH’s history, customers have consistently paid to receive mystery gifts that ended up ranging from one square foot of the aforementioned island to a box of (literal) bullshit. (In one case, people even coughed up $5 to receive absolutely nothing).
Much like copying their voice isn’t advisable, duplicating this approach isn’t recommended for conventional brands. After all, as consumers, we’re far more likely to demand money back from a company than offer to pay them for nothing. However, it’s a good example of the value of going outside of the ordinary, investing in the irreverent and delivering the consistently awesome and often unexpected to keep your customers captivated and leave them wanting more (even if they don’t know what, exactly, they want more of).
5. Take a stand, but stay “on brand”.
With escalating political tensions and increasingly disturbing stories dominating our headlines, headspaces and social media feeds, it’s no longer enough for companies to stay silent and avoid controversy. Today’s customers are placing increasing importance on how brands stand on the topics they care about.
“Organizations have started to take political stances on issues of general concern and, over the coming year, this will grow more commonplace — driven by customers’ and employees’ accelerating expectations,” design consultancy Fjord wrote in its 2018 Trends Report. “No organization will be able to afford to sit back and claim to be neutral.”
While it may feel risky — and there’s always the possibility of angering or alienating certain portions of the population — in today’s Ethics Economy, brands simply can’t afford to stay silent. But, as always the case in marketing, companies have to voice their support in a way that makes sense for their brand.
When Nike elected to signal their support of Colin Kaepernick, whose national anthem protests against racial inequality have made him one of the most divisive figures in American sports and society, they featured him in a new commercial commemorating the 30-year anniversary of the “Just Do It” campaign and released a line of branded merchandise. And while their embrace of him and his views drew ire from a portion of their customer base — who reacted with a Nike boycott, slashed socks and sneaker-fueled fires — the company actually saw their online sales increase 31 percent, and the newest Nike t-shirt featuring Kaepernick sold out in hours.
Likewise, Cards Against Humanity reacted to President Trump and the federal government’s plans for a border wall — a literally and metaphorically divisive subject — with a clear statement via a big purchase: “a plot of vacant land on the US/Mexico border and the talents of a law firm specializing in eminent domain to make it as time-consuming and expensive as possible for Trump to build his preposterous wall.”
Cards Against Humanity Stops the Wall is one part of the company’s larger, crowdfunded campaign, Cards Against Humanity Saves America. Equal parts political and hysterical (much like the more recent Cards Against Humanity Hacks the Midterms campaign), this effort is a perfect example of how a company can clearly and effectively take a stand in a way that’s totally and beautifully on brand.
Catch the full episode of 12 For 12 here.