Method: Eight Things Stand-Up Comedy Teaches Us About Innovation
This is the ninth piece in the 10x10 series by innovation firm Method. Read more from the series here.
Comedy, especially stand-up, is widely regarded as the most difficult gig in show business. Similarly, successful product innovation is so difficult, it could be regarded as the stand-up comedy of the business world.
E.B. White once said that analyzing comedy is like dissecting a frog: Few people are interested and the frog dies of it. However, a sacrifice must be made to help more great ideas see the light of day, and studying how good comedians work can reveal insights into how innovation can benefit from the same advice.
1. Know Your Audience, Then Ignore Their Advice
When it comes to innovation, the customer is rarely right. At least, they’re rarely right about what they want next. Businesses run on process, and the traditional market research process of concept testing is indeed an efficient process: Nothing kills ideas faster than concept testing. That doesn’t mean research has no place in innovation development; the key is to use it to understand, not to evaluate.
A comedian doesn’t ask the audience what the next joke should be about, he has the skill to tell them. Great comedians are tremendously astute observers of human beings. They know how people think, what experiences we have in common, and how to direct (or misdirect) our attention. They have to be ahead of their audience, but not so far ahead that they baffle us instead of amusing us. Similarly, the best market research is aimed at understanding how customers interact with a given product category, not asking them what should come next.
2. Data Does Not Replace Insight
Don’t just collect data about your audience, study them. Data doesn’t tell you what to do, insight does, and insight is the responsibility of the innovator, not the audience. It’s the lifeblood of both comedy and great design. It can be sweet, crude, or startling, but it is always brutally honest.
Why did it take so long for Heinz and its competitors to introduce the “upside down” ketchup bottle? We all knew that getting the last third out of the bottle was a huge pain, yet it took decades for bottle design to acknowledge this universally held understanding. The data was always there, it just needed to be recognized. The head-slapping “of course!” moment of seeing this bottle is much like hearing the punch line of a joke—it’s as surprising as it is familiar.
The operative skill is in seeing the basic truth that has been ignored, forgotten, or actively denied by the audience, and then revealing that truth in a new and unexpected way. When successful, it lets the audience see the most familiar things—especially themselves and how they interact with the world—in a fresh, but relatable way. That instantaneous discovery of the knowing self-recognition, is what makes us laugh and what makes us buy.
3. Keep It Fresh
Comedians can’t rely on the same routine for very long, no matter how successful it is. The same can be said for successful brands. As long as the approach and the tone are identifiable and consistent, the brand itself can and should change and evolve over time.
George Carlin kept his same scrutiny of language and hypocrisy consistent over a 40-year career, even though the material changed constantly. He was a relevant and vibrant comedian well into his seventies.
Radio Shack changed its name and logo to The Shack, but visit the store, and it’s like the last 30 years never happened. The mix of merchandise and limited store format is the equivalent of still telling the same joke from the 1970s. Meanwhile, Amazon has evolved to sell streaming television episodes and digital storage space, as well as the latest hardcover novel, all of which still fit within the brand’s point of view of broad reach and efficient delivery.
4. Develop Your Own Point of View
Late-night television talk show hosts all have the same daily news to work with, yet they each put their own spin on it. Leno takes a safer angle, which is why he tends to appeal to the broadest audience. Letterman will be more crass and juvenile, which might explain why he has greater appeal among men than women. Conan will be more cerebral, perhaps even surreal. Jon Stewart will simply let politicians provide all the necessary absurdity on their own. The content changes constantly, yet the various points of view stay consistent night after night.
Apple has the same access to components and contract manufacturers as its competitors, but Apple makes more interesting stuff out of it. It’s not that Apple has better or more data; in fact, they studiously avoid traditional market research. Instead, they consider not what people say they want, but what they are ready for. Then, they design the product according to their own point of view, not that of the audience. David Pogue of the The New York Times called Apple’s “secret sauce” a mix of “simplicity, intelligence, and whimsy.” The results, from the iMac to the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, are unmistakably theirs, as iconic as Letterman’s Top 10 list.
5. Create a Story Around the Material
Think of the story leading up to the punch line. Few comedians during the past 50 years have survived by merely telling a series of jokes. Instead, most are excellent storytellers. Good comedians and designers constantly play with the expectations that are built into the patterns of storytelling.
Some comedians are such good performers, they can transcend what would otherwise be quite ordinary material. Likewise, a Michael Graves toaster may not toast bread any better than a plain GE model, but through such products, Target changes the storyline for what everyday products are expected to deliver. That story serves to differentiate Target from WalMart and provides a rationale for paying a little more for functionally identical merchandise.
6. Even Friendly Audiences Need to Be Won Over
Getting people to laugh is probably even harder than getting them to buy. Buck Henry put it very well when he said “to make someone laugh is to disarm them.” Deciding to buy is as much a release of tension as laughing, especially when people aren’t buying on the basis of need alone.
People may watch a comedian expecting to laugh, but they still need to be disarmed and won over. It’s a competitive environment, just like business. What does a comedian say after he leaves the stage with the audience cheering? “I killed ‘em out there.” What does a great salesman say after a fantastic quarter? “I made a killing in the market.”
Brands have to do more than just meet expectations, they have to penetrate the built-in resistance to commit. That energy and insight has to be supplied by the performer, not the audience.
7. Don't Expect Everyone to Get It
Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Andy Kaufman were not for everyone, so their appeal was not as broad as Milton Berle, Jay Leno, or Jerry Seinfeld. Switch the core audiences between these groups of comedians and, from the response, you might conclude they were all lousy comics. Similarly, the audiences for a Toyota Prius and a Cadillac Escalade are not all that different demographically, but they don’t “get” cars the same way.
Good branding and design, like good comedy, is often the art of sacrifice. You are defined by who and what you’re not for, thus freeing you to excel within the audience that gets you.
8. You Can't Test Your Way to a Decision
Comedians know what they think is funny, but they can’t test their routines in a vacuum. They might try out new material in smaller clubs, after hours, before making it a part of their main act. Even so, there’s no guarantee that what works in one club will work in front of a larger audience in a different city.
Similarly, research predicted that New Coke and the new Tropicana packaging were sure-fire hits. Meanwhile, both Herman Miller’s Aeron chair and the Seinfeld pilot bombed in research.
The problem is not that respondents lie or that the researchers are stupid. The biggest mistake is in the willingness to cede control of creative decisions to the consumer. Research is an aid to judgment, not a replacement for it. It still comes down to a judgment call, and that judgment should be based on understanding the consumer, not in asking their permission to proceed.
No, but seriously, folks...
Innovation, like comedy, is a messy, often counter-intuitive business. It’s an iterative loop of creation, feedback, revision, rejection, and creation again. Used correctly, research fuels the understanding that leads to real breakthroughs. In the wrong hands, it all but assures the death of originality.
So, I killed some frogs here, but if one more good idea sees the light of day, perhaps they did not die in vain.