Every brand tries to convey a certain personality or persona to its consumers, and the biggest and best have decades of experience instilling in shoppers positive and heartwarming feelings at the drop of a hat. Just look at Coca-Cola’s feel-good polar bear-centric marketing around the holidays, as well as the innumerable jewelry companies that try to conflate precious stones with loving, tender moments.
However, what should brands do when their implied persona doesn’t inspire the warm fuzzies but is instead targeted at younger, irreverent and, at times, playfully insensitive customers?
For Cards Against Humanity, the answer was simple: embrace the hate.
Cards Against Humanity isn’t your grandmother’s party game. Players attempt to match cards that range from the politically incorrect to the intentionally offensive in order to create a phrase, concept or action that another player finds disturbingly hilarious enough to choose as the winner. In line with this irreverent brand persona, Cards Against Humanity took a 180-degree turn from other retailers that pampered and coddled customers on Black Friday in the hopes of attracting sales. Instead, Re/code explained that the company simply put up a webpage asking their customers to give them $5 for nothing – absolutely nothing – in return.
It wasn’t a sale, and it wasn’t some funding campaign to raise new capital for another game. In fact, Cards Against Humanity closed their online store for the entirety of Black Friday. The only thing customers could do was enter their credit card information and watch $5 go down the drain. It was simply a brand staying true to its messaging, whether that’s “consumer friendly” or not.
It’s easy to be irreverent, though. What’s not easy is turning a veneer of friendly disdain for customers into actual dollars and sense. However, shortly after the clock struck midnight on Black Friday, Cards Against Humanity explained in a blog post that they’d done just that – with more than 13,000 individual “purchases,” 1,200 of which were for more than $5, the company totaled the final tally at $71,145.
$71,145 for absolutely nothing in return. Even Amazon would be salivating over that cost-to-profit ratio.
Most brands would consider this a windfall success at this point, but in a sense, the game Cards Against Humanity had been playing with its consumers took a turn toward the complex when the cash actually started rolling in. Despite the fact that the retailer was very transparent about the fact that each $5 “purchase” would entitle shoppers to nothing in return, it’s not hard to imagine some public backlash against the company were they to grossly misuse their newfound wealth.
Not one to fall behind the eight ball with their customers, several of the games’ creators explained in the blog post that they were proud of their long history of charitable donations. They outlined a cumulative $4 million given since 2012 to places like the Sunlight Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Worldbuilders.
Then, they said this.
“There’s been a lot of speculation about how we would spend the money from Black Friday, and we’re happy to announce that this time, we kept it all,” the game’s co-founders explained. “Here’s what we bought.”
What followed was an itemized list of what Cards Against Humanity’s 18 employees spent their collective $71,145 on, including a sizable list of charitable donations which was also dotted with expenses like iPads, a down payment on a new car, airfare from Chicago to Finland, a share of student loan debt, LASIK eye surgery and divorce attorney fees.
To think of other brands trying to pull a stunt like this boggles the mind – household names like Amazon, Walmart and Target would be excoriated and burned at the stake for spending money like this, even if shoppers voluntarily gave it away. So just what makes Cards Against Humanity think they can play with customers like this? And since there’s been no measurable public backlash against the company nearly a week removed from Black Friday, what allows them to turn it all into a PR success?
The answer might draw from two categories: consistency and transparency. Re/code explained that this isn’t the first Black Friday stunt Cards Against Humanity has pulled. In 2014, the company offered customers the ability to buy $6 boxes filled with literal bull feces (read between the lines) and ship them to “enemies” anywhere across the country. In 2013, AdWeek noted that they raised prices on all products in their online store by $5, calling it a “once-in-a-lifetime deal!” Customers have come to expect a healthy dose of sarcasm and irreverence – sometimes at their literal expense – from the brand, and when they’re told by Cards Against Humanity to fork over $5 for nothing in return, it’s yet another inside joke customers get to join in on.
However, this sardonicism has its limits, and in most cases where Cards Against Humanity has ribbed its loyal consumers, they’ve been upfront and transparent about what they choose to do with the money. While this doesn’t give any degree of control back to consumers, it does give them a perspective into the usual behind-closed-doors policies of internal company financials. Of course, when your company of under 20 employees has simple tastes like fine alcohol and new cars that the average consumer can relate to – instead of, say, the diamond-encrusted yachts of retail billionaires – opening up the vault isn’t as scary of a proposition as it could be.
Could other brands borrow Cards Against Humanity’s take-no-prisoners attitude toward Black Friday sales? Absolutely – if it’s done correctly.
Should they? Unless they’re prepared to walk the thin line between profitable sarcasm and PR nightmare-inducing arrogance, it’s probably a safer bet to stick with the doorbusters.