Brand growth

It’s always something: Branding lessons from SNL

Saturday Night Live advertisement with art illustrating branding lessons
Saturday Night Live is a useful case study for growing brands. Photo by Asit Khanda on Unsplash

Whether you’re a creaky-jointed boomer or a fresh-faced millennial, it’s safe to say that Saturday Night Live has probably made an impression on you.

The long-running sketch comedy show has spawned countless careers, franchises, and water-cooler conversations. It runs the gamut of comedy styles, from topical and observational humor to musical satire and prop gags, and it paired iconic performers such as Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin, Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo, Chris Farley and Adam Sandler, and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

The show has had its ups and downs over the years, but its continued relevance is based on two factors: its ability to bounce back from weak seasons, and its ability to recognize and nurture young talent.

These are the most important branding lessons from SNL. Here are a few others.

Keep it real

Adrien Brody was banned from SNL in 2003 after delivering an improvised performance that was widely panned as racially insensitive. Executive producer Lorne Michaels is on record as anti-improv (and improv departs from SNL’s format anyways).

The following year, musical artist Ashlee Simpson danced a nervous jig after a technology mistake revealed she was lip-synching during her performance.

What can we take away from these errors?

  1. Pay attention to cultural cues (on multiple levels).
  2. Make sure your team has your back – and that you have theirs.
  3. Be honest. Acknowledge your errors and commit to doing better.

Keep them coming back for more

Steve Martin has hosted SNL more than a dozen times. So have John Goodman and Alec Baldwin. Why? They probably enjoy it. Their talent and familiarity with the show and its people help line up some easy wins for writers and performers. And audiences clearly respond to them.

It’s the same with recurring sketches. “Celebrity Jeopardy” originated in 1996 and has appeared intermittently ever since. Why? Because it’s damn hilarious, blending familiar puns and sight gags with fresh fodder based on the celebrity flavor of the week.

Great comedy hinges on misdirection: Setting up an expectation for the punchline and then performing a 180. SNL expertly blends misdirection with familiarity-slash-nostalgia in a way that keeps people coming back for more. Brands can harness this superpower, too.

The double-edged sword of imitation

Is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery? Probably not, in today’s enlightened age. However, satire and impressions are key ingredients in SNL sketches, for better and for worse. A few branding lessons from those we loved (and hated):

Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford: It was one-note, but that note was perfectly in tune. This early SNL impression used Ford’s clumsiness to get cheap laughs without being unnecessarily cruel.

Phil Hartman as Frank Sinatra: Who would dare to take on Ol’ Blue Eyes? Phil Hartman’s impression painted a portrait of Sinatra as a cranky mobster whose singing was almost an afterthought. This portrayal encouraged us to look at an American institution from a funny and fresh perspective.

Tina Fey as Sarah Palin: In 2008, Fey’s impression stoked heated debate over whether sketch comedy could influence public opinion in an election year. Fey stood her ground: She said, then and years later, that comedy is simply a reflection of what people already believe. Creativity doesn’t spark in a vacuum. Audiences are part of the collaboration.

Ana Gasteyer as Martha Stewart: This isn’t so much a bad impression as it is a badly aging impression. Around the turn of the 21st century, Stewart had yet to reinvent herself as a hip, self-effacing, Snoop Dogg-loving reality TV star.

Comedians, like brands, must choose their targets carefully – or be keenly aware that today’s punchline might be tomorrow’s turkey.

Ashton Kutcher as Mel Gibson: The branding lessons here? Stick to what you know – in this case, features and reality TV.

Mistakes are OK – just don’t repeat them

Fluffed lines. Wardrobe snafus. Breaking character. These mistakes and many others happen to nearly everyone on air. They’re hazards of the trade. Live TV’s “the show must go on” mentality is bested only by the most kamikaze of performance arts: live theater.

Similarly, brands are compelled to be nimble and adaptable as they juggle numerous other challenges in order to compete in a fast-changing digital landscape. Perfection and precision often fall by the wayside.

Professionals in fast-paced industries such as journalism have long known that audiences don’t easily forgive and forget mistakes. Brands, like journalists, must move fast, strive to produce the highest-quality work possible, and move on.

Know when it’s time to reinvent

Lorne Michaels’ departure from SNL in 1980 heralded what is generally seen as the most tumultuous season in the show’s often-tumultuous history. Cast turnover was 100% percent. Imagine how devastating that would be for any brand, much less a famous young brand like SNL.

The sketches that season were terrible, and ratings plunged. Fortunately, a writer’s strike cut the season short. The show’s reinvention had failed.

A combination of talent, business smarts, and luck enabled the show to go on. Michaels returned in 1985, and under his leadership, SNL has remained one of the highest-rated late night TV shows in history.

Is there a right time to reinvent? Certainly. But 1980 was not the right time for a bold, ambitious show that had amassed a huge following in a relatively short period of time. The lesson here? Pay attention to what works and why before making big changes.

At Consummate Prose, we love branding lessons based on pop culture phenomena. Contact us today to begin your brand journey.

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