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September 2011

Wackaging and the trouble with copywriting

It’s not exactly new for people to moan about brands and the way they talk to us, but there seems to be a gathering storm right now when it comes to packaging copy in particular. In the last few days, I’ve come across a few notable instances.

Firstly, there’s Wackaging, a new tumblr dedicated to examples of 'wacky' packaging copy. It’s run by Guardian journalist Rebecca Nicholson. Ella’s Kitchen (the children's food brand) comes in for a particular battering.

Picture 1

The tumblr has inspired this cheerfully-titled coverage in The Times...

Wackywackaging

...as well as getting a mention in this article by Eva Wiseman in the Observer, about the weird form of baby-talk that has become the default position on our supermarket shelves. Here’s an extract:

At some point brands stopped wanting to make us sexier and richer, and instead just wanted to be our friends. It's as though they all decided to babyproof their packaging, sanding down the corners and hard consonants, replacing "complicated" photography with crayon illustrations, including little jokes to break up the monotony of reading their calorific intake info. "A big hello from Jonty and Nick and all the fryers at Burts," said a crisp packet to me recently, possibly in a regional accent. "Do you like our new packs? We love them! They were inspired by the beautiful shoes of our friend Kate Cordle!" Our fwend's shoes. Carry on. "But why animal prints? We wanted to highlight the awful business that is palm-oil cultivation in Borneo and the harm it is doing to orangutans." The awful thing about this one is that it makes me want to harm orangutans.

Finally, there’s this article by Lucy Sweet in Sabotage Times. Charmingly titled “F—k you, talking smoothies” it lays into Innocent, Boden, Pret A Manger and Dorset Cereals with a ferocity apparently born of years of pent-up frustration.

As I say, none of this is new. I remember Simon Hoggart writing years ago about the ‘infantilisation’ of modern culture, using the example of coffee cups that cheerfully tell you ‘I’m hot’. The arguments about Innocent are also well-rehearsed – they continue to take a lot of the flak that should really be aimed at their imitators.

But all of the above sightings come clustered in the space of a few days. You have to wonder if there is a tipping point coming.

Anglianwater Historians may one day explore the link between this mailing and the recent riots. (Spotted via this blog post by Oliver Wingate.)

I think there are three possible interpretations for what's happening. Defenders of brand writing might suggest it’s just Guardian writers being typically knowing and cynical, and that most people out there love this stuff.

Possibly, but that sounds like wishful thinking.

You could also argue that these are aberrations – over-enthusiastic copywriters going too far. There's nothing wrong with the basic principle that brands should aim to be friendly, human and informal with language – it’s just a tricky thing to get right. All the more reason to pay good writers to help out.

An appealing argument, and possibly valid.

The third possibility is that the basic philosophy we espouse as copywriters is problematic in some way. The kind of chummy, childish copy that infuriates people isn't an aberration, but the inevitable outcome of the principles we advocate to our clients every day. Ditch the formality, talk like human beings, write as though you're talking to your mum or best friend. You're not a business talking to a mass audience, you're a person chatting to another person.

All of which sounds fine, but is it really? Isn't it overlooking the fact that business and brand communication is a very particular kind of discourse? Yes, there’s a writer at one end and an individual customer at the other, but both are working in a special context. The writer is representing a brand and business – both abstract concepts that are hard to pin down – and the individual customer is just one part of a mass audience that varies so greatly that no single member can be taken as representative of the whole. Writing in that context is a subtle and shifting discipline.

I suspect there is also a thesis to be written about the wider loss of respect for 'business' and a rise in the status of the individual in recent decades. What matters, these days, is 'you'. Personal expression takes precedence over everything else. Business doesn't sit well with that – it requires you to subsume your personality into a greater whole. The only way for business to respond is to pretend it's not about business at all – hey, we're a bunch of people, just like you.

But there is a more old-fashioned, romantic notion of business – one that finds a certain nobility in impersonality and collective enterprise. Yes, a business involves a collection of people, but it also has a separate existence beyond that – it's a representation of an idea. Its interactions take place at a more formal, abstract level than everyday human interactions, and that is how it should be.

It certainly seems that the more we tell businesses to talk like people, the more people are objecting. And it may be no coincidence that these dissenting voices are getting louder at a time when tone of voice guidelines have never been more prevalent.

The first step to changing things might be to acknowledge the obvious – that businesses aren't people. They occupy a different place in the world. For a brand to position itself as our best friend is a straightforward category error. That doesn’t mean a return to staid formality in business language, but it could involve a more rounded recognition of a business’s place in society – in particular the fact that not everyone encountering your brand is a cheerful co-enthusiast. So don't write like you're talking to your mum – write like you're a representative of a brand talking to your customers. And if you can't do that in a charming and interesting way, pay someone who can.

This was meant to be a really brief post to tell you about Wackaging.

In brief

In_brief

Hat-trick Design is one of the great British design companies – their work is consistently ideas-led, witty and beautifully crafted. Now in their tenth year, they’ve produced a book to celebrate every project, and I helped by writing the words.

We decided not to go in for the lengthy project descriptions that you get in a lot of design books. Partly because there's a lot of work to show. Also we’re not sure anyone actually reads them. But mainly because great ideas should explain themselves – you just look at the work and get it.

So the book opens with a quote by Elmore Leonard:

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Then there’s a four-word foreword:

Briefs aren’t. Ideas are.

Then the reasoning behind the book is explained in the introduction:

The thing about briefs is they usually aren’t. Brief, that is.

Briefs involve audiences, aims, context, competitors, back-story, budgets, personalities, politics, mandatories, guidelines and messages.

Briefs are complicated.

The right answer to a brief is different. It really is brief. It cuts through the clutter and hits you with a simple message. You don’t need 500 words of explanation to tell you why it’s the right answer. That’s how you know it’s the right answer.

This book includes ten years of work for over 150 clients. But it doesn’t contain many words. We’ve included just enough to explain each project and give a clue to the thinking behind it.

The rest of the book is made up of 150 projects, all with a project description of no more than two or three words. Enough to anchor the idea and let you know what you’re looking at.

Do you fancy a quick read?

The book is a work of art in itself – small, but heavyweight, just like Hat-trick.

There are 1,000 copies available for £25 each (slightly more if you're outside the UK). I seriously suggest buying a copy – there are inspirational projects on every page.

Blogging for Britain

End2endroutemap

For the past three weeks, Alistair Hall of We Made This has been cycling his way from one end of Britain to the other. Before he left, he invited 20 guest bloggers to man the blog in his absence. The results have been seriously interesting – all very different, all very good.

Nick Hornby on cover design
Catherine Dixon on José Luiz Benicio da Fonseca
Mike Reed on Milward & Sons
Joe Dunthorne on Le Gun
Clare Skeats on Foundation
David Pearson on phillumeny
Mike Dempsey on visual culture
Andrew Diprose on the best bike in the world
Michael Johnson on the future of the Design Council
Angharad Lewis on reading
Joe McLaren on Whizzer and Chips
Paul Finn on George Perec
Ace Jet 170 on pigeons, planes, and asterisks in the sky
Phil Baines on remembering, the French way
Caroline Roberts on the Elephant and Castle
Max Fraser on freedom
Eleanor Crow on variations on a theme
... and a poem from Laura Dockrill

Morecake

My contribution was about the designer behind Tunnock's.

The point of the whole exercise is to raise money towards a very good cause, so click on a few of the links above and then donate a few quid in exchange for some high-quality blogging.

Web originals

Twitter

I was reading Jason Kottke's blog last week and came across this post about the original Twitt(e)r branding. The post mentioned a few other early versions of famous websites, which I decided to seek out and collect in one place. You can see the full collection here.

Appropriately enough, I tweeted about the collection and watched as it 'went viral' – with over 100 retweets and 6,200-odd views of the page so far.

I think it's because people like stories of origins and unlikely beginnings. It's fascinating how so many great brands didn't get where they are because of great branding. Google started out like this!

Google

And this was their first ever Google Doodle!

Doodle

It's notable how Google subsequently dropped its exclamation mark, but Yahoo only gained it later:

Yahoo

Amazon was another early fan of the exclamation mark!

Amazon

It's a salutary lesson for brand people everywhere that neither the logo nor the strapline (Earth's biggest bookstore) played the slightest role in Amazon's subsequent success – both were dropped long ago.

You can see some more here, including the BBC, Tumblr, Myspace, Linkedin and thefacebook.