By Kati Suomi and Mervi Luonila

Ironic humor can be a powerful technique for attracting attention in the field of arts. It can be influential as well, but using it is a tricky business. The risk of misunderstanding is real and may carry serious implications. However, the artful use of ironic humor can steer stakeholders to share and co-create the brand identity of arts productions, such as festivals. In our article Suomi, Luonila & Tähtinen (2020) “Ironic festival brand co-creation” we attempted to find out: “how can ironic humor be used with and by stakeholders to co-create brand identity?”

The philosophy of uniqueness – a competitive edge in the risky festival business

As project-based art festivals are often arranged with scarce and fragmented intangible and tangible resources, innovative managerial practices are needed. A one-week-long festival must offer novel and unique artistic lineups, experimental services, and essential facilities every year, whereas the annual planning reaches its climax in the one-time-only delivery. Furthermore, optimally, the festival’s attendees will remember the festival throughout the other 51 weeks of the year. In addition to attendees, sponsors and other stakeholders should be convinced to participate again in forthcoming years. Thus, in a demanding business with intangible capital, unique means of branding are required to foster the competitive edge of a particular festival (see also Luonila et al., 2016)—such as ironic humor (see Stern, 1990).

Eisend (2009) proposed that, regarding hedonic products, such as festivals (see Morgan, 2008), the positive influence of humor on consumers’ brand attitudes toward festivals is even higher than on those toward functional products. Irony, the influencing technique that we are interested in, represents one sub-type of humor (e.g., Buijzen & Valkenburg, 2004; Kelly & Solomon, 1975). Berger (1976) regarded irony as, “Saying one thing and meaning something else or exactly the opposite of what you’re saying.” Indeed, irony is implicit and intellectually oriented, and to understand it, a receiver must solve some kind of puzzle (Stern, 1990).

Although there are risks involved in using irony, we found a prominent example of strategic and consistent use of ironic humor in festival branding. This example—the Porispere music festival, arranged annually since 2011—is the focal case of our study. This festival captured our attention, as it has seemingly employed ironic humor in its branding for years without facing problems, and we were curious to figure out how that was feasible.

Porispere is a rock and pop music festival held in the city of Pori, Finland, which has around 83,000 inhabitants. Within a Finnish context, Pori is well-known for being a festival city as a result of hosting the iconic Pori Jazz festival for over 50 years. However, the idea behind Porispere originated from the irritation caused by the transfer of the Sonisphere festival (produced by the supranational Live Nation Corporation) from Pori to the capital of Finland, Helsinki. This was partly due to complaints made by local people in several opinion pieces on the leading local newspaper. The citizens of Pori were annoyed about disruptive aspects of the festival, including littering, noise, traffic, violence, and the use of alcohol, for instance. Surprisingly, however, when Sonisphere was transferred from Pori, the inhabitants of the city were not happy either, as they seemed to feel that something had been taken from them and their city.

As a result, a group of local event producers launched Porispere as a “counteraction” with a “do-it-yourself spirit.” One important part of its brand identity is the event’s name, Porispere, which implies that it is equal to or better than Sonisphere but created by the proud citizens of Pori. 

Branding is literally co-creation

Stakeholders may take part in branding in multiple ways; for instance, they may be involved in creating positive electronic word-of-mouth, generating publicity in media, as well as designing and communicating the brand, in other words, co-promoting it (Mäläskä et al., 2011). Thus, in developing brand identity, it is crucial to make sure that the brand identity speaks to the brand’s target group (Kennedy & Guzmán, 2016). This can be aided by engaging consumers in the co-creation of brand meaning (Coupland et al., 2005; Kennedy & Guzmán, 2016).

According to da Silveira, Lages, and Simões (2013, p. 35), brand identity is “a dynamic process developing over time through mutually influencing inputs from brand managers and other social constituents (e.g., consumers).” This definition is suitable for our research context, as networked festival productions comprise manifold stakeholder relationships (e.g., Luonila & Johansson, 2016), and festival brands cannot be fully managed by the festival managers but instead are co-created with and by the festival visitors and other stakeholders (Mossberg & Getz, 2006).

Ironic humor as a hook in a unique festival branding

The branding of Porispere has been intertwined from the start to the way the citizens of Pori speak and behave in general, illustrated as “unique in Finland…they [people of Pori] have their own way of thinking…‘Poriness’ as a platform for marketing communication is an almost never-ending [Festival Manager 2].” The sarcastic or ironic humor of the city can be exemplified as an attitude of “that’s no good!”. This attitude was the cornerstone of the festival’s brand identity at the time of its launch. In addition, although most attendees are locals, the festival also attracts visitors from other cities, and Porispere’s social media platforms reach other Finns, as well. However, to inhabitants from other cities, the ironic humor used in Pori may sound quite impolite.

In our case, Porispere’s own manner of talk, distinguishes the festival and its brand identity from its rivals. The festival has chosen to use ironic humor, which appears to attract both the festival’s target groups as well as local and national media. We found that the ironic humor might be seen as a kind of puzzle: if people can solve and comprehend it as ironic humor, such usage enhances consumers’ engagement and positively influences their co-creation of the festival brand. In our study, based on the target of the humor, we found three main categories of Porispere’s ironic humor in brand co-creation with and by its brand community. They were titled: Ironic humor at one’s own expense, ironic humor at the expense of one’s competitors, and ironic humor at society’s expense.

According to our findings, when ironic humor is made intrinsic to a festival’s brand identity, and the target group appreciates it, it can augment stakeholders’ attention to and awareness of the festival and garner positive attention in the media. Thus, the use of ironic humor in festival branding can be a useful means of promoting the festival among internal and external stakeholders. In this vein, the strategic use of ironic humor can be a truly valuable way of branding for project-based festival productions.

It should be remembered, however, that the use of ironic humor is tricky because the posts and resulting hype are, according to our findings, strongly intertwined with the festival’s cultural context. Therefore, festival managers planning to use ironic humor in branding should be acquainted with the target group’s cultural characteristics, as the meaning and idea of the message might not even be understandable or obvious to all participants within the festival brand community. As the audience is not one homogenous group, some of the attendees may perceive ironic humor as a brilliant way to influence the community and encourage its participants to support other locals, while some may consider rude humor as inappropriate.

Therefore, it should be emphasized that the art of successful ironic branding appears to be a balance between daringness and appropriateness. In finding the balance, close interaction with the festival’s community is necessary from the early stage of the festival’s lifecycle. However, if the ironic humor becomes blunt and loses its tension, it will be less appealing and engaging among audiences.

Suomi, K., Luonila, M. & Tähtinen, J. (2020). Ironic festival brand co-creation. Journal of Business Research, 106, 211-220.

About the authors:

Kati Suomi is a Lecturer in Marketing, Doctor of Science (Econ. & Bus. Adm.) at the Pori Unit of the Turku School of Economics, University of Turku.

Mervi Luonila is a Senior Researcher, DMus in Arts Management, at the Center for Cultural Policy Research Cupore.


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