You see, I live a hop, skip, and a jump from Chicago (where I also happen to spend half my time), and not only do I know some folks who work for Groupon, but I also tried not once, but twice to land a gig there. Of course, that didn't happen, but I learned a few things about their culture and philosophy in the process, so I thought I'd share.
A little over a year ago I was contacted by Groupon about a resume I had sent in a few months prior. They were looking for writers and thought I might be a good fit. I had recently lost my job and thought this would be a great opportunity, so I immediately got in touch and began the audition process.
I was given the task of writing a mock deal of a real restaurant in another state. They laid out the rules, gave examples, and allowed me access to their style guide. So I got down to work.
I had not (and still haven't, actually) ever used a Groupon before, but I understood the concept: if a certain number of people purchase the Deal, the Deal is on and people save half off or so of some good or service.
But instead of wanting to be a run-of-the-mill, straight to the point, tell it like it is, standard marketing voice company, Groupon likes to add their own unique, sometimes comedic, sometimes snarky voice to everything they do. From their website to their deal descriptions and everything in between.
In other words, they want to distinguish themselves. They want to be fun. They want their subscribers to feel a personality and not just a plain, cold, coupon. They want to maybe elicit a laugh or a smile, or at the very least, some reaction that leaves people with the understanding that Groupon is a brand, not just a nameless, personality-free, money saver.
And having gone through the audition process, they're very adamant about that voice and their writing style. Some humor, some absurdity, metaphors, similes, and also amusing alliterations applied appropriately as needed---all of which must adhere to specific criteria set forth by the Groupon copywriting team and their marketing and style goals.
And it is most definitely specific. Without getting into too much detail, the short of it is: they've worked to create a voice they feel works for them, and if you want to work for them, then you need to be successful at writing in that voice.
And I tried. I really did, but unfortunately, I was unable to please the editor with my attempts and was ultimately told:
Thanks again for turning this around.
While the selling points are well developed, I'm afraid the humor injections are just not quite what we're looking for. We have a very particular sense of humor, and I wanted to give you a shot at it because I appreciate your writing skills, but it's not quite the level of absurdity that we need."
To which I responded:
"Thanks. Sorry I couldn't quite get it. :) But again, a great lesson....
(Either that, or I've just come to realize that perhaps I shouldn't have gotten that degree in writing after all...)"
To which they responded:
We've turned down lots of great writers...when I say we're very particular I mean it less like we have high standards and more like we'll only eat one kind of sandwich and it has peanut butter and onions on it—not necessarily a good thing."
Now, I'm not bitter, or upset, or angry that my writing didn't mesh with their style. As a business and a brand, they are absolutely allowed to choose writers with a style they feel will work for them. And as a writer, I totally get that. Was I bummed at first? Sure. Who wouldn't be? But I understood and I moved on---and I only licked my wounds for about a week...tops.
To be honest, I didn't really enjoy trying to write in their voice. For me, it felt a little forced and unnatural. Especially considering the amount of deals that need to be written on a daily basis. And I imagine that after a few months, if I would have landed that gig, I would have gotten frustrated. Not necessarily because the voice is annoying or ineffective, but because it's just not my personal style.
I have always thought the more effective route would be to hire writers with differing humor styles to vary up the deals a little bit, expand the voice and add more flavors to the pot, if you will.
And once when talking to a friend about this very story, when I said, "Yeah, I just wasn't funny enough for their style." She replied, "Wait? They're supposed to be funny? I mean, I never really read the deals. I just scan and try to get to the details. I just want to know what the heck I'm getting."
So what's my point in telling you this? To gain some pity for my loss? To kick a horse when it's already down by saying their style isn't that important to their subscribers? To make them come across as some sort of self-righteous, funnier-than-thou, jerks?
No. Well, not entirely. You see...
...I think what really happened with that Super Bowl ad had less to do with being offensive and tasteless, and more to do with the fact that they were reaching out to a large segment of the population that wasn't quite as familiar with their distinct voice, style, and sense of humor.
Let me give you an example.
It would be like if the new guy at work showed up his first day, and instead of walking in and politely introducing himself, just letting people get to know and eventually like him, he ran screaming into the middle of the office, blurted out a dick joke, and then jump-kicked the air to emphasize an explosive fart. *Fist pump!*
Because to his friends, that's what he's known for doing, and they totally love that about him.
But it just doesn't work that way.
If you already knew Groupon's philanthropic history and their sense of humor, seeing the Tibet commercial (although, really guys...Tibet? That was pushing it just a bit, don't you think?) probably didn't offend *quite* as much as it did to those who were meeting Groupon for the first time. And when you air a commercial during the Super Bowl, guess what? You're about to introduce yourself a pretty large group of strangers.
And you also have to think, that new guy at the office? He probably has a few friends who adore him, but don't really get his sense of humor all the time (especially that farting thing...I mean what is that?!) But in general he's a good guy, so they let it slide. Until it crosses a line for them.
Ultimately, I think this is what happened with Groupon. They were that new guy at the office. They weren't trying to be jerks. They meant well. It's just, they failed to give any information in their execution.
Strangers thought they were just plain cold-hearted.
Friends who don't always get their humor felt they crossed a line.
And the folks who know and love them understood exactly what they were going for in their ad.
Unfortunately for Groupon, it seems the vast majority were in the first two categories.
Groupon and their die-hards were the only ones really in on the joke.
Groupon and their die-hards were the only ones really in on the joke.
And without some sort of slow-build to the Tibet ad, or some writing that made their support for the cause known, they ended up screaming and flailing into the offices of millions of people and making a scene without much context or credibility to their character...yet.
To make matters worse, instead of biting the bullet and just apologizing for the faux pas, CEO Andrew Mason decided it best to argue why Groupon chose their approach in a recent blog post about the incident.
He writes:"Our ads highlight the often trivial nature of stuff on Groupon when juxtaposed against bigger world issues, making fun of Groupon. Why make fun of ourselves? Because it’s different – ads are traditionally about shameless self promotion, and we’ve always strived to have a more honest and respectful conversation with our customers. We would never have run these ads if we thought they trivialized the causes – even if we didn’t take them as seriously as we do, what type of company would go out of their way to be so antagonistic?"
But if you don't know Groupon, how are you supposed to know that's what they were going for? (Answer: You most likely wouldn't.)
He also talks about how other Super Bowl ads dealt with such atrocities as antisocial behaviors and objectification of women. And it's true. Those Go Daddy ads were absolutely God-awful and in poor taste ("Look! Big ta-tas. I most definitely need a website!" Hrumph.) But his argument plays out a little like a kid caught taking a Sharpie to the living room wall, calling out his little brother for giving a haircut to the family cat in order to divert the attention...and the consequences.
As a mother, I can attest, this doesn't work either. Just apologize, admit there might have been a poor judgment call made---or at the very least some poor execution. Then by all means, explain your case. And don't worry, I'll attend to your little brother in a minute. (Also, you're both grounded, and now the cat is covered in ink from constantly running into the wall. Great.)
So what is there left to say? Should we all boycott Groupon? Lay on the hate? Charge the castle with pitchforks and torches, and break down the door with a log?
I don't necessarily think so. They are trying to do good by contributing to the very causes they used in their ads. But that's really a personal choice, I suppose. In any case, if you are so driven, you should help out the causes Groupon highlighted in their spots. Be positive and proactive about the whole thing.
I think the lesson for Groupon here is this: creating a voice and a personality for your brand is a great thing. But before you unleash it at full force, you'd better make sure that's the real reason people like you so much. And you'd probably better make sure it's what you're known for. Because if it really is only about the $30 worth of fish curry for $15, you might want to rethink your approach.
You also might want to change your introduction to something a little more like, "Hey. We're Groupon. Some folks think we're pretty fun with a great sense of humor. We save you money on some pretty awesome stuff. We also help out some really noble causes. It's nice to meet you."
Once that's established, maybe then it'd be okay to unleash the jump-kick farts...in moderation, of course.