I discovered recently that the official slogan of the British Olympic team (or ‘Team GB’) is ‘Better never stops’. It’s a strange slogan. Partly because, in the context of the Olympics, ‘better’ isn’t a very satisfactory aspiration – why not go for ‘best’? But mainly because it’s another example of the fashion for abstract nominalisation in brand lines.
I call it abstract nominalisation because I can’t find a better term for it.* It’s the practice of taking an adjective or adverb (‘better’) and turning it into a noun denoting an abstract, intangible quality. Other examples include Sky’s ‘Believe in better’, BUPA’s ‘Helping you find healthy’ and Adidas’ ‘Impossible is nothing’.
According to this post by Nancy Friedman, there are plenty of examples on the other side of the Atlantic, including the bizarre ‘The Do Inside’ by Lenovo and ‘Enjoy the Go’ by Charmin. In those cases, it’s verbs that are being turned into nouns, but the effect is similar.
Inevitably, the word ‘brand’ has come in for the same treatment – I notice Wolff Olins has long been talking about ‘brand’ as an abstract concept. This is a slightly different case, as ‘brand’ is commonly used as a noun. But it’s usually with a definite or indefinite article to refer to a particular brand, rather than Brand as an abstract entity.
While looking into this, I came across a post by copywriter Tom Albrighton talking about the disruptive effect of this type of usage. It’s deliberately intended to trip you up and make you take notice. If BUPA’s line read ‘Helping you be healthy’, it would mean the same thing, but wash straight over you. ‘Helping you find healthy’ strikes you as odd, which is at least a reaction. As Tom suggests, it’s debatable whether being deliberately obtuse is a good brand strategy in the long term, but it’s a strategy of sorts.
However, there are many ways to ‘disrupt’ language in order to get attention. What interests me is why many brands are choosing to be disruptive in this particular way – by turning an adjective into an abstract noun. My theory is that it’s the inevitable linguistic outcome of two competing urges among brand strategists.
The first is what copywriter Mike Reed describes as a ‘portentous straining for a big idea/essence’. A common gambit in any branding brainstorm is to elevate a product offering to the most abstract possible level. If you make chocolate, then you’re making something people enjoy. And if they’re enjoying it, that means they’re happier. So the more chocolate you make, the happier people are. So you’re not really making chocolate, you’re making joy. So Cadbury is no longer about chocolate, it’s about joy.
You can go through the same thought process with any brand. Sky may be a broadcaster, but is that all they are? Isn’t it about broadcasting in a better way? Making people’s lives better? Continually improving things? So they’re not specialists in broadcasting, they’re specialists in ‘Better’.
There is some merit to this way of thinking. It’s a more sophisticated form of the old sales maxim about selling the sizzle, not the sausage. Every brand should be aware of the ultimate emotional benefit it offers and its bigger purpose in the scheme of things. But the obvious danger is that, whatever the nuts and bolts of a particular brand, once you start that process of abstraction, you’re always going to end up at something impossibly big and generic – ‘better’, ‘healthy’, ‘happy’ and so on.
Having arrived at that big, generic territory, you’re then faced with the problem of turning it into a positioning line that sounds differentiated and tangible. Which is where the two competing urges come in. How can you be simultaneously generic and differentiated, abstract and tangible? The answer is to turn an adjective into a noun. It’s a verbal trick that allows you to couch a generic thought in language that, even while it remains generic, at least has the feel of something more distinctive. And it sort of works. When you hear new language, your subconscious instinct is to feel there must be a new thought behind it.
I don’t think the people behind these lines are doing it quite that consciously or cynically – it’s more that this particular strain of brand thinking inevitably leads you to that logical impasse where something has to give. It’s like two tectonic plates rubbing up against each other, and eventually rupturing the language to form a new usage.
That’s my theory anyway. I’m sharing it because of a conversation on Twitter involving @reedwords, @acejet170, @hollybrocks, @davidthedesigna, @gray, @bull, @daninfragments, @neilbaker, @tomcopy, @linguabrand, @lateofnewmills and others, which ended with me promising to write at more length about it.
I hope you’ve enjoyed it, because this blog is ultimately about making people feel more informed and content – hence our new strapline: Blogging You To HappyTM.
* Linguists’ corner footnote
Enquiries on Twitter have led to a number of suggestions. ‘Nominalisation’ is the practice of turning a verb or adjective into a noun, so certainly applies here. ‘Nouning’ or ‘nounification’ are more conversational versions of the same thing.
However, those terms don’t quite seem to cover what’s happening in ‘Better never stops’ and ‘Believe in better’. Nominalisation of adjectives happens all the time in language – we talk about supporting ‘the reds’, for example. But this is an unconventional type of nominalisation that feels like it needs an extra or alternative descriptor. There's something about the fact that it involves an abstract usage – not just 'the better' of two options, but 'Better' as an entity. The closest parallel is the way we talk about believing in 'good' and 'evil', which are nominalised adjectives, but so common that they don't strike us as odd any more.
Others have suggested ‘modifying adjective for an elliptical noun’ and ‘hanging comparative’ – in other words, ‘better’ is essentially still acting as an adjective for a missing noun that isn’t explicitly there, but which we read in anyway. For example, when we say ‘Of the two runners, the faster won’, ‘faster’ is still acting as an adjective for a missing 'runner’ that we read in anyway. So, with ‘Believe in better’ it’s really ‘Believe in better [things]’. But I’m not sure about this – especially when it comes to ‘Better never stops’ – what would be the notional missing noun there? It seems to me what it really means is ‘Better [as a state of mind in which one permanently strives to improve] never stops [by its nature].’
There are also the terms ‘reification’ and ‘hypostatisation’, which refer to the practice of treating an abstract concept as though it were real – which is certainly the case with ‘Helping you find healthy’. Maybe we’re dealing with a hypostatised abstract nominalisation.
I haven't fully understood what I'm writing for at least the last four paragraphs.
It got covered on the Guardian and Telegraph sports blogs and in Sabotage Times, and even spread as far as the Yorkshire Fishing community messageboard – the premier angling website in Yorkshire. But to no avail. Back with a new version in 2014, if we qualify.
My last post about the judging process at D&AD ended with a promise to write more about the winning work. It turns out there’s no need, as the other judges have already done a fine job of summarising it. If you haven’t read them already, here are the links:
For me, the biggest talking point to arise from Writing for Design this year is to do with the category itself. I’ve wondered before whether it might be broadened into ‘Writing for Branding’ or ‘Brand writing’ to cover interesting forms of writing that don't involve a collaboration with design. There have also been murmurings about merging it with Writing for Advertising to create one overarching writing category, which could command a bigger profile. (John Weich makes that argument in his post.)
My understanding of the history is that D&AD has recognised copywriting for many years, since at least the late 1960s (not sure if it was there at the beginning in 1962). But it's always been advertising copywriting – radio, posters and the classic long-copy press ads. Writing for Design only came along in 1999, reflecting the way language was being used as a brand-building tool in areas that went beyond traditional advertising media – packaging, corporate literature, websites and so on. This coincided with the rise of tone-of-voice guidelines and a general heightening of awareness of writing as part of the branding process (although plenty of good people had been aware of it before that).
I’m not sure how the entry numbers have varied over the years, but I believe Writing for Design averages around 70-80 entries, and Writing for Advertising gets roughly twice that. So Writing for Design remains the smaller category.
Writing for Design
As a counterpart to Writing for Advertising, Writing for Design seems a logical enough category title. It’s always been slightly problematic, in that it implies a subordinate role for writing. Writing with Design would be more accurate, but it has the air of political correctness about it. There's also been an enduring confusion about exactly what's being awarded – is it just the writing, or does the design have to be good as well? But that confusion has probably faded over the years – people generally get that it’s about recognising the craft of writing, albeit in the context of a good, well-designed piece. Design Week has recently added a Writing for Design category to its awards, which is a sign that the term has become more widely accepted. Maybe now would be the wrong time to drop it.
Writing for Branding
That said, there’s an argument that Writing for Design has become too restrictive as a category title. Lots of interesting commercial writing now happens in various corners of social media, without involving a collaboration with a designer. Twitter accounts like @WStonesOxfordSt and @betfairpoker are high-profile examples of effective brand writing that is demonstrably popular with a wider public. Is it wrong for them to be ineligible for awards, while a direct mail piece can get recognised?
The idea of expanding the category comes with some practical problems – how do you judge a year’s worth of tweets? – but there could be ways to manage this. The trickier issue is whether you’re losing something important by cutting out the ‘design’ word from the category. The advantage of ‘Writing for Design’ is that it recognises the writing is taking place as part of a bigger creative process. Although the award is primarily a recognition of the craft of writing, that craft is being applied as part of a collaborative effort – the idea and the design have to be good too. When all those things come together into one great piece of work, it’s arguably a greater achievement than a writer working in isolation on a stream of amusing tweets or a snappy email. Can you evaluate the two alongside each other?
Writing, full stop
There’s also the argument that, if you expand Writing for Design into Writing for Branding, you might as well go the whole way and include advertising too – after all, isn’t it all just brand writing these days? An all-inclusive category would reflect the reality of a world in which plenty of design companies now work on advertising projects, and plenty of advertising companies work on big rebrands. There would still be scope for separate subdivisions within the category – design, advertising, branding, direct mail and so on. But they would be judged by a single jury made up of writers from all backgrounds – advertising as well as design.
This would be an interesting development and could shake things up a bit, but it would bring some risks. Advertising and design writing remain distinct worlds, with not much professional overlap. Many advertising writers cheerfully admit to a lack of interest in writing as such – they are essentially ideas people who work in headlines and concepts. Equally, design writers usually come from a more literary mindset and aren't necessarily the best judges of conceptual, short-copy work. (Plenty of exceptions to this on both sides.)
As the junior partner in terms of entry numbers, there is also the risk that design writing might get overshadowed by advertising writing, in the way it was before Writing for Design came along. (On a slight tangent, it’s interesting that the recently updated and re-released D&AD Copy Book overlooks design writing completely – the book as a whole feels like a celebration of the dying art of long copy advertising, but it might have felt different had they included a few Innocent packs to show how long copy has found a new home. But that’s another blog post.)
Does it matter?
Of course, it’s possible to get too hung up on categorisation. If someone were to enter a brilliant Twitter account under the current writing categories, the chances are the judges would find a way to recognise it. But categories do matter in terms of the signals they send out. The introduction of Writing for Design in D&AD has been a contributing factor in the rising appreciation of writing as part of the branding process. Is it best not to fiddle and let the category mature naturally? Should it be broadened into brand writing? Should it be merged into one Writing category with a single jury, albeit with advertising and design as distinct subcategories? I’d be interested to hear what anyone else thinks.
(Image taken from D&AD Flickr archive)
We are badge-kissingly proud to present this poem and downloadable mini-poster for the Euro 2012 championship, which kicks off this evening.
The poem is an update of a version I wrote two years ago for the World Cup, which was itself inspired by Ian Dury’s Bus Driver’s Prayer.
Working on something like this adds an extra frisson to news reports about squad selection and injuries. The surprise call-up of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain posed what looked like an insuperable problem. Ledley King is also much missed from the previous version. That said, I was glad to see Leighton Baines in the squad and have been praying he avoids a last-minute injury. Sports-related poetry is a stressful business.
The poem proved remarkably ineffective last time, but who knows, this year could be different. We can but hope. And pray.