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Witty & Frank: 5 Successful Examples of Self-Referential Marketing Campaigns

Tara Parachuck
Tara Parachuck
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Little is more captivating to people than themselves. On social media, people spend up to 80% more time talking about and referencing themselves than any other subject. This makes sense when you consider that neurologists are discovering that our brains code information differently when it focuses on the self.

This is what self-referential marketing is all about: the individual.

Through using self-reference, brands can influence consumers to develop stronger, more emotional connections to products and services. This results in more impactful customer engagement, lead nurturing, higher ROI, and a much wider pool of loyal customers to draw from.

The Self-Reference Effect

Over the past few years, personalization has been a huge point of interest for marketing teams across the board. A vast number of studies have found that people respond more to ads and ad content that focuses on the customer’s individual interests, experiences, and even physical image.

When we absorb information that focuses on ourselves as the main subject, our ability to recall, remember, and learn from that information becomes enhanced.

Creating a direct link between big corporations and the intimate day-to-day lives of consumers has proven to be a strategy that perfectly merges with society’s high demand for personalized content.

Companies that tap into that human proclivity for self-relevance have shown significantly increased ROI, engagement, and a stronger relationship with customers that makes long-term loyalty much easier to maintain. The self-reference effect claims that a person’s ability to retain information improves when it is relevant to them.

If you’re a marketer looking to deepen customer connection, self-reference and personalization should be your right-hand weapons. These five companies are examples of just how successful self-referential marketing can be.

1. Iberia Airlines

This Spanish airline company made waves way back in 2016 with their campaign that asked the question, “if you could go anywhere, where would you go and who would you go with?”

Wrapped up in an email newsletter, Iberia asked its customers to answer these questions by supplying the name and email address of their dream travel buddy by use of approved cookies. This would trigger a dispatch of web banners on the friend’s browser that would say things like, “it’s not too late to make Linda’s travel dreams come true. Do it with a trip to the Seychelles.”

The idea of traveling abroad with the person you love most is something few people would find unappealing. Iberia used the power of consumer-approved cookies and the wistfulness of holiday travel with a loved one to inspire connection and revenue.

2. Snapchat’s Bitmoji

Personalized, customizable avatars have become popular on social media sites like Facebook and its new parent, Meta. But Snapchat was the first major instigator of this clever self-referential marketing tactic.

As an add-on to its other features, Snapchat debuted an app called Bitmoji in 2016. This allowed users to create their own characters based on how they look (or wish to look) in real life. These cartoon-style avatars could then get used as their profile photo or as a marker of their position on the Snap Map.

To take things a step further, Snapchat then released Bitmoji Stories, which places users’ avatars in comic-style scenarios that range from humorous to emotional. This aspect of Bitmoji invites users to place themselves into storylines that pertain to their own unique lives and experiences. 

With 70% of Snapchat users still using Bitmoji six years later, this marketing team did an excellent job putting their pennies where the personalization is.

3. Munster Donuts

This donut shop from Munster, Indiana, has taken an interesting spin on self-referential marketing, which pertains more to local identity, history, and humor as opposed to the individual.

The campaign was released in 2021 at an Indiana football game with the simple slogan, “Please Don’t Crash Into Us.” This line seems pretty arbitrary to anyone outside of Indiana. But for locals, it packs a seriously witty and self-referential punch.

Munster, Indiana, has an abnormally high number of car crashes. To such an extent that it’s now labeled “the Bermuda Triangle of car crashes” because of how absurd it is for such a small little town to see such a high number of road accidents.

This slogan is a great example of using the self (in this case, the “self” of the town as a whole) to reference an inside joke that only locals will understand. Those that get the joke may find social identity, humor, and even cultural relevance through this cleverly targeted ad campaign. 

4. Spotify’s Discover Weekly

Spotify has received a lot of positive attention for its astutely personalized playlists and end-of-year Wrapped feature. The music streaming site uses algorithms to understand users’ needs and preferences in real-time, adapting to whatever an individual deems personally relevant as their tastes evolve.

In Spotify’s Discover Weekly feature, users are provided with an individually curated playlist based on the “taste profile” algorithms have amassed over time. It features songs that match the user’s listening behavior but have not yet been played by that particular user.

This weekly gift allows users to cultivate a music identity that grows and evolves alongside them, adding to their sense of self and enhancing their ability to connect with the app overall.

5. Amazon

Amazon’s self-referential marketing strategies aren’t exactly new. But they’re well worth taking a look at if you want to know more about the art of personalization in advertising.

The algorithms used by Amazon to draw customers in have attracted loads of attention over the years.  Both for their consistency and accuracy, encouraging customers to develop a sense of trust in the company.

The recommendations list found on every user’s homepage will take its leads not just from their online shopping behavior, but from their streaming habits too. This allows the company to compile lists of goods and services that appeal to the individual’s intimate lifestyle patterns.

Getting It Right

As effectively as self-referential marketing can work, there are ways to do it that don’t abuse a customer’s desire for personalization. It can be helpful to consider your own boundaries as a consumer, and use them as a guide for drawing the line between cute versus creepy. It’s also a good idea to stay on top of trends that change as the world does. You don’t want to upset or offend anyone or come across as tone-deaf.

When it comes down to it, what you want is to show your customers that you’re paying attention to their needs, and what they want from you is truly being taken to heart.

Tara Parachuck

Tara Parachuck

Tara is a creative and passionate communications manager at Voices.com. With her positive "can do" attitude, she brings a fresh approach to her projects.