Building A Successful Event Brand

Robert StrandSeptember 11, 20237 min

Do people line up for LEGO events for blocks? Would a ‘World Origami Championship’ be aired on Paperview? I’ll speak to that below, and as a spectator and ‘puntestant’ (my stage name is Kenny Dewitt – ‘Can-He-Do-It’) I can tell you Punderdome is amazing and a shining example of a successful event brand. Since 2011 what started out in a basement bar has evolved into the Punderdome card game (licensed to Penguin Random House), and the NYC based event that packs well over 300 people multiple times per year that is a staple in New York’s comedy landscape.

Jo and Fred Firestone, a daughter-father duo, are the creators and hosts of Punderdome®, NYC’s Most Puntastic Competition—and while this successful event-based card game is for ages 12 and up, the physical event held at the Littlefield Theater in Brooklyn is for ‘groan-ups’ 21-and-over. After receiving an undergraduate degree in special education followed by a law degree, Fred Firestone built his career by offering business seminars to global companies, helping to create value for their customers. Fred is a keynote speaker and workshop facilitator, who specializes in customer/client satisfaction, branding, and ethical selling, for corporations across the country. His clients include AT&T, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and Hewlett-Packard. He enjoys impersonating Rodney Dangerfield.

Throughout his years of consulting, he managed to find ways to blend his love of speaking and connecting with people, with his inclination for humor. “I created a game show set for one of the companies,” Fred remembers. “I always looked to ensure that the message was fun, based on a foundation of integrity and value.”  That game show set was like sign language; it came in handy when Fred’s Comedian-Writer-Actor daughter Jo Firestone called asking for help in creating this event.

While Punderdome is inspired by the O. Henry Pun-Off that’s been held for 45 years in Austin (slogan: “Jest for a wordy cause!”), and the name a parody of an event by the name ‘Thunderdome 3000’, Punderdome less formal – and not surprisingly based on a foundation of integrity and value. Contestants sign up and pick their nom de pun, including Do Pun to Others, Edible Punties, Well He Quipped and Black Punther; mine is Kenny Dewitt (Can-He-Do-It).  Five or six contestants at a time compete in heats. The hosts drop a category (say “Soup Ingredients,” “Junk Food and Candy” or “Feminist Theory”) and contestants get 90 seconds to think of puns, which can be as simple as rapid-fire word association or as elaborate as a sonnet.

Here are some of the event’s reviews:

  • NYC’s hilarious cult-favorite pun competition … both an endearingly homemade and impressively high-caliber show during which astute wordsmiths spin clever and very funny puns to a packed house.” –The New York Times
  • GQ Magazine shouted the Punderdome® as one of the “5 Funniest Nights in America,” and quoted comedian Chris Gethard on why it’s great: “The crowd. You’d think you were at the Roman Colosseum. They’re passionate to a level that feels dangerous. And to reiterate, this is a pun competition.”
  • The New Yorker’s “Battle of Wits: A Report from the Punderdome”: “Can you imagine a more potent cure for the weekday blues? Here was concentrated, unabashed silliness that I longed to bottle and smuggle out in my purse.”
  • Swing American: “The intellect on display is stunning. Hardly a pun is repeated throughout the entire night. What Punderdome ends up achieving is the transformation of the delivery of the lowly pun to one of the greatest displays of human ingenuity contemporary New York has to offer.”

What Is A Pun?

A pun is a type of word play that creates a secondary meaning to a phrase by using words that sound or look alike, or have multiple meanings. There are many different types of puns, including homographic, homophonic, and the Tom Swifty:

  • The homographic pun plays on words that have more than one meaning, despite being spelled identically…like the LEGO blocks above.
  • Homophonic puns can be easier to construct, since they rely on words that simply sound alike, rather than a single word with multiple meanings…ergo an origami event being televised on “paperview / pay-per-view”.
  • A Tom Swifty is a type of pun that plays on the relationship of adverbs to verbs. For example: When he gave her a bouquet of flowers, she said…lackadaisically, “It feels like something is missing.”

How Does An Event Brand Differ From A Corporate Brand?

Scope and purpose are what differentiate the two. Corporate branding aims for consistency and a recognizable image for a company to use in selling its products or services. Event branding creates an experience for each event, and executed correctly a competitive advantage.

Marketers often talk about competitive advantage as if it is one thing. At The Blake Project, we believe there are a number of ways you can achieve a lead in a market.

1. An Emotional Advantage: How your customers feel about your brand that they don’t feel about other brands.
2. A Distinctive Advantage: How you do things that are uniquely compelling to those most important to your future.
3. A Connective Advantage: How you create meaningful connections in ways that is different from what others do.

Each of these ways of standing apart from others can be used on its own or in combination with either or both of the other two to forge deeper resonance.

Applying each, here is a look at what makes the Punderdome event-brand work so well:

Its Emotional Advantage: Unity, and passion without an ounce of hate: “Nobody gets hurt.  We have a no hate policy, and I don’t suffer fools lightly,” said Fred Firestone.

Its Distinctive Advantage: Punderdome stands apart from the industry standard in that the event is co-created – for the Puntestant’s (who have stage names) it’s predominantly unscripted as they learn the topic-of-competition from Firestone on-stage; the audience determines the outcome.

  • These days the event is hosted by Fred Firestone with past Punderdome Champs Lingo Star, Daft Pun, Lexi Kahn, Words Nightmare, Toby Continued, Boogie Momster, Insta Grammar & more!
  • In 2016 a regular ‘Domer who worked at Penguin asked Firestone to collaborate and put together a pitch to Penguin Random House which created the licensed game; with the game, one can host Punishing events in the comfort of their own home.

Its Connective Advantage: How does Punderdome connect with people that is different from what others do?  The ‘Dome is a spectator sport, and the audience is linked with the outcome – they are a piece of the dome – the noise is the heart and soul of the event.  Pun-masters will be determined by the calibrated “Human Clap-O-Meter” who “accurately and scientifically” (insert eyeroll because that’s how eye roll) assesses levels of audience applause…it gets loud and hearing protection gear is recommended!

Brand Protection. In March of 2012, Firestone made the case to register Punderdome® as without protection it is too easy for people to take it – and as procedure the US Patent and Trademark Office published it for opposition; like thumbs, it was opposed.  However, like a banana he had appeal and Firestone was finally granted registration January 2013 and just renewed the mark in 2022.

  • Firestone uses alert services to police the mark, and kindly put a stop to infringement.

Here are the components of The Punderdome® – NYC’s LIVE Comedy Pun Compuntition

Main Event – the All-Star Tournament Of Pun Champions, where punsters deliver two-minute pun-stand-up routines, after only two minutes of preparation! Punderdome® Champs and others will pun it out for ’Dome bragging rights and “As Seen on TV”-type prizes!

“Can You Beat A ’Dome Champ?” where a Challenger takes on a Punderdome® Champ in a one-on-one 2-minute Pun-Off.

  • Challenger can opt to get topic 24 hours in advance and use any human and non-human resources (including AI) in preparation; ‘Dome Champ gets no advance notice AND learns what topic is when the PUN-OFF begins! Winner Get Up to $100!
  • Note at the December 7, 2022, Punderdome, Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Eisen challenged a Punderdome Champ in “Can You Beat a ’Dome Champ?” and prepared by digesting four-hours of ChatGPT research. He went down in defeat but did survive to write about it on the front page of the WSJ: “I Entered a Pun Competition. My Jokes Were Written by an AI Chatbot”

Pun Battle Royale: Six individuals who sign-up at the bar (doors open at 7:00) will have a chance to punticipate in the Pun Battle Royale.

  • There will be PPPPs (Previously Prepared Punderdome® Parodies and Puntifications) to entertain the crowd whilst Punticiapants take their 2-minutes to prepare their on-the-spot set on the given topic.

September 20, 2023, will mark the 124th live show (there were 16 virtual during the pandemic) at which I will be taking on last month’s champion Faith Yusko (aka Hot Cross Puns) in the “Can You Beat A ‘Dome Champ” as Kenny Dewitt.

The success of the event’s litmus test – the objective is to ensure decimal of laughter up as loud as possible. With the built up noms-des-puns and wins, there is a sense of ownership with the crowd and an event brand from which to take cues.

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