3 things we learned from Cards Against Humanity in 2015

The 'party game for horrible people' has a lot to teach us about taking risks and throwing out the rule book

A quick look at what irreverent party card game manufacturer Cards Against Humanity has been up to in the past year suggests that it is a startup with nothing to lose. However, a closer examination shows that their marketing approach is carefully crafted, making it one of the most disruptive brands today.

At a time when digital games continue to make analog games obsolete, Cards Against Humanity grows in its popularity. This growth results from a unique product, but also from how the company has been communicating who they are to the public. Their unconventional marketing approach reveals lessons for other brands struggling to break through.

The first lesson is, take nothing for granted.  From inventive pricing ($25 to purchase, or a ‘free’ but labor-intensive download) to irreverent FAQs ("Your Dumb Questions") to a minimalistic e-mail program that people actually enjoy reading, the company tears up the rulebook. While some may dismiss this as bravado, there is something more calculated underscoring all of it.

After all, pricing and CRM take time and resources, particularly when approached imaginatively. Even their blog reads less like a thinly veiled sales pitch (as is the case with many other brands, even great ones) and more like entertainment content. What others may consider good hygiene are presented as opportunities to connect and surprise, and these details add up to a strong point of view, which is what most marketers labor to achieve, often with mixed results.

The second lesson is about putting your consumers first. Not just paying lip service to it through empty taglines or mission statements, but actually letting people influence the product. Cards Against Humanity allows its fans to remix the game for free under Creative Commons, thereby sharing stewardship of the brand with the very people that have helped them build it. Their lab enables people to make the game better by answering simulated questions. Despite taking on a funny and often sarcastic tone, these co-creation efforts seem genuine and transparent, not to mention create a lot of earned attention.

The third lesson is that going all the way may be the only way in a fragmented media landscape. This company really knows their current and potential audiences and what they need and want. Everyone else can walk away, and that seems to be just fine. With their recent Black Friday activity (essentially selling "nothing" for money), they took a calculated risk that people would come along for the ride.

And indeed they did! Companies that had not built themselves on participative behaviors probably would not have been able to do this. A few weeks later, they showed us their benevolent side by indicating that they used a portion of the profits from their holiday promotion to give their Chinese factory workers a paid vacation. These two very different activities indicate that they are not ruled by an inflexible "code," but instead by the people who work there and the culture they are trying to create (and export).

Out of everything there is one major characteristic that separates Cards Against Humanity from the pack: risk-taking. The most carefully orchestrated marketing plans can fall down or perform less effectively than expected. Cards Against Humanity has opted for bullets rather than cannonballs to make an impact. Some will miss, but most will hit. The culture of the company seems to encourage, and indeed celebrate, reactive and decisive marketing activities. Sure, there will be failures, but if their recent successes have taught us anything, they will transform any future failures into new opportunities to connect with people.

People are not the only ones who have appreciated the popularity of this game and its original voice. Other companies are emerging as potential competitors. UK-based Bucket of Doom is a card game that centers on getting out of sticky situations ("You’re a Zombie. A bio-hazard team has got you cornered") using equally kooky tools like a "Barry Manilow CD" or a "turkey baster." Bucket of Doom fans are also able to create their own versions of the game and get credit. Though not yet the size of Cards Against Humanity, games like Bucket of Doom are creating their own fan base, and it’s likely others will follow suit. In the meantime, Cards Against Humanity will no doubt continue to remind us that building a brand is as much art as it is science.

Dipti Bramhandkar is Head of Strategic Planning with Iris Worldwide.

Subscribe today for just $116 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to campaignlive.com , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber


The latest work, news, advice, comment and analysis, sent to you every day

register free