Gelotology solves companies’ problems with a smile

Summary

A “service lab” set up by two Flemish entrepreneurs is using humour to help business and non-profits improve their services

Serious about service

“Is this a joke?” It’s a common reaction when Raoul Maris and Hans Kerkhoff present their ideas. But although their goal is to put a smile on people’s faces, their enterprise, Gelotology, is no laughing matter.

Through a light-hearted but technological approach, the pair are helping to improve the services of companies and non-profit organisations. That Gelotology is a serious enterprise can be deduced from its name, which refers to the scientific study of laughter.

“We see ourselves as a service laboratory,” says Maris (pictured right), “developing innovative ways to enhance the way our clients work.”

The founders have a lot of experience in advertising and communications campaigns, most notably at the agencies Duval Guillaume and Boondoggle. But with their own company, they help businesses and organisations provide services through the combined power of technology, design and humour.

Spreading good cheer

“It’s generally known that people who are in a good mood work better,” says Maris. “In the same way, it helps to convince potential clients if you can make them laugh.” He adds that Gelotology also wants to spread optimism throughout society, to battle negativity in everyday life.

The Meeting Motivator helps people concentrate on what their colleagues are saying

- Raoul Maris

To make their approach tangible for clients, Maris and Kerkhoff designed prototypes of several innovative products. Their Brompot, for instance, is a flower pot equipped with a humidity and movement sensor that makes it grumble when the plant needs water and someone is around. “Do I look like a cactus or what?” it says in Dutch, in the voice of Flemish actor Bruno Vanden Broecke.

While the Brompot is not yet for sale, another Gelotology product, the Meeting Motivator will be soon. This is a box with 10 slots in which people put their smartphones at the start of a meeting; when they do so, they’re rewarded with a one-liner.

“The Meeting Motivator coaches staff to concentrate fully on what their colleagues are saying,” says Maris. “It helps to create a positive atmosphere at the office.” It costs €499 and will be on sale from the end of February.

The device is currently only available in Dutch, but Maris says they plan to launch an English-speaking version; their ambition is to get British comedy icon John Cleese as its voice. 

Interactive fun

However, Gelotology’s core business is to provide customised services for companies. In 2014 at the Plopsaland theme park in De Panne, Maris and Kerkhoff carried out their first project in this sense. They approached Plopsaland with their model of an interactive queue.

“Not everything in a theme park is fun,” says Maris, “like waiting in line with children. So we designed a concept that turns queues into big gaming zones.” Gelotology installed interactive poles with buttons that could light up at the queue for the Forest of Plop attraction – Plop being a well-known Flemish children’s TV character. 

We want to change children’s behaviour in a positive way

- Raoul Maris

Children were encouraged to catch moles in this “forest” by pushing the button on a pole at the moment it lit up. “Instead of getting bored in the queue, the children and their parents were entertained by the different games,” explains Maris. Despite its success, Plopsaland did not install it permanently because of budget issues.

Gelotology has attracted the interest of tour operator Thomas Cook, however, with which it has set up a project to deal with customer problems. “Travelling is more than enjoying a holiday,” says Maris. “You have to examine options, book and get to your destination. Problems can also pop up after you arrive.”

The pair are currently identifying customers’ biggest problems through analysing their feedback. Gelotology will then develop witty strategies to improve the way Thomas Cook deals with these issues.

Maris and Kerkhoff are also working with a team from the Centre for Children’s Care and Family Support, not-for-profit organisation Emmaüs and the University of Leuven on a project to encourage children to wash their hands after going to the toilet. The project is supported by IWT, the Flemish government’s agency for innovation through science and technology.

“Instead of putting up posters with bacteria showing how a lack of hygiene can cause diseases, we want to change children’s behaviour in a positive way,” explains Maris. “We want to make the habit of washing your hands seem fun, instead of instilling fear.”

To come up with their ideas, Maris and Kerkhoff brainstorm at two offices. They work at the former Stella Artois brewery De Hoorn in Leuven in the company of creative enterprises like Boondoggle and the Creative Minds incubator. Their headquarters, with a workshop where they develop prototypes, is in Roeselare.

“In Roeselare, we decorated a wall with references to TV comedy series, which are a huge inspiration,” says Maris. “I assure you, we laugh a great deal during our brainstorming sessions.”