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Exploding Kittens LLC: a story of card fraud, awkward airport conversations and an all-seeing goat wizard

A blog post for people who are into kittens and explosions, and laser beams (and sometimes goats). Oh… and listening to our CMO talk marketing.

You should never create something that can be easily taken out of context. It’s one of the many ground rules you are told to play by in marketing. Some pretty big brands have fallen victim to this commandment. I’ve included one of my favourites below:

But what if your brand is so out-there and bizarre that taking it out of context becomes its unique selling point (USP)? How cool would that be? Is it even possible?

I bought a new card game on Valentines Day. It’s called You’ve Got Crabs. No, it isn’t some kind of sexy card game you play with your significant other (unless you have a fetish for crustaceans). It’s based on a card game you can play with a standard poker deck known as ‘Kemps’, but with better game mechanics. The creators have also given it crabs.

It arrived with this lovely delivery note, just lovely. Haunting, but with the right balance of personal:

I played it for the first time at the weekend with my future in-laws. My future mother in-law said to me “I love the game but I don’t like telling my son he’s got crabs!” Classic, harmless nautical fun.

The backstory

You’ve Got Crabs is the third card game designed by Elan LeeMatthew Inman and Shane Small. If you’re in your 20s or 30s, chances are you’ll recognise the memorable comic stylings from The Oatmeal comics.

On January 20, 2015, the trio (and the team that supports them) launched a Kickstarter for their first game: Exploding Kittens. The original crowdfunding goal was exceeded in eight minutes. It had more than 219,000 backers and set the record for the most backers in Kickstarter history. At the time, it was the fourth most funded campaign on the crowdfunding website.

How did this happen? Creating a brand that is so nonsensical that taking it out of context becomes its USP.

Buying the new game from Exploding Kittens became essen-shell

So Exploding Kittens LLC has become the steel rod that holds up Bears vs Babies, You’ve Got Crabs and all future card games from The Oatmeal. I’ve boiled down the nonsensical-nautical-ness that made me purchase from

  • The game was released on Valentine’s Day after a countdown timer had long been promoted across social media. I can think of no better day to launch a game relying on sexual innuendo to catch the eye of its target audience…


  • The landing page had hidden nautical pun-filled sound clips in the code. That classic sped-up hamster voice gets me every time
  • Social media buzz and the pun-laden tweets of Mr Matthew Inman (@oatmeal) to maintain interest in the launch
  • The iconic drawing style of The Oatmeal that I love so (I’ve dreamed of sending the save the dates for my wedding out with your artwork on. I’m serious, I’ve had dreams.)

When it came to a purchase decision, there wasn’t one. You’d nailed the marketing I expected to see and the buy-in was so strong based on your previous products.

It’s important to know where your limits are

With a nonsensical product, it can be difficult to define the point at which you overstep the mark. The secret here is to go back to basics. Like never tweeting #youvegotcrabs because, well, do I need to explain how insensitive that is? Let alone if you actually tried to NAME your company You’ve Got Crabs. It’d take the fish.

Show that you understand your target audience with absolute clarity, but also use what you know to boost your reach. You’ve Got Crabs needs a minimum of four players, for instance. You want as many people as possible to play the game — as many times and possible and with as many different friends and family as possible — so it doesn’t seem nonsensical to make the first question of your FAQ one that will sell you more copies:

A human, relatable, quick-witted and friendly tone works. It’s high time more brands removed the corporate-laden jargon from their repertoires and put in more crab jokes.

(I bet SEO and PPC have been a nightmare though!)

I did get a bit crabby along the way…

So you come up with a great brand name, the artwork screams “buy me” and you have a marketing campaign that has spread like wildfire.

But what about those things you didn’t see coming? Well boy have I got some stories for you. The Oatmeal, take note:

Banker: Thanks for confirming some recent transaction types, now — did you try to purchase something from somewhere called Exploding Kittens on Valentine’s Day?

My fiance bought You’ve Got Crabs on his credit card, or tried to, but it was blocked and eventually, after trying another card the transaction went through.

When a brand called Exploding Kittens appears in your credit card purchase history, turns out that’s a bit of a problem for banks. One awkward conversation later and his card was unblocked. I wonder how many other customers this happened to?

Customs officer: I’m going to have to take that off you.

Sister in-law: Well this is awkward, it’s just a card game…

Last year, my sister in-law was stopped by customs for having Exploding Kittens in her hand luggage. It was briefly confiscated by a very serious customs officer. After asking for a supervisor, it was thankfully returned. Much to her delight she’d now have something to do on a very long flight. I mean, who would want to lose their first edition of Exploding Kittens?

But it’s all o-cray (fish)

No matter how much planning you do, sometimes things can slip through the crabs — I mean cracks.

With any product marketing strategy, it’s important to always expect the unexpected. Remember: the strategy doesn’t just stop when a product is released. You have retrospectives — plural. You listen to real customer feedback and plough all this new knowledge back into your product marketing. Keep selling and keep learning.

I’ve always loved playing devil’s advocate when working out a marketing strategy. At The Means, we work with clients to make sure there are no surprises.

If your current agency is fishy, why not talk to octopUS? We swim against the tide and know how to write effective messages in bottles., you know where we are.

P.S. Sorry for the fishy puns. I’ll see myself out. Here’s a picture of the goat I promised to make it better.