I've written a post for Creative Review about the new Coca-Cola Taste the Feeling campaign.
(Top image: 1939. Bottom image: 2016)
I've written a post for Creative Review about the new Coca-Cola Taste the Feeling campaign.
(Top image: 1939. Bottom image: 2016)
‘Review of the year’ is a grand title for what is mainly a review of things I’ve tweeted / favourited (now ‘liked’) over the last year. I’ve also been less active than usual online, so this will miss out a lot of things. But apart from that, here is my comprehensive and authoritative review of the year.
Best brand conversation
Brands having conversations are like people pretending to be on the phone. You chat away, nodding and chuckling at imagined jokes – but then the phone rings and everyone laughs and points at you. For a brand, there’s nothing more disconcerting than when a real person answers back. Tesco wins the best brand conversation award for the Twitter exchange above, closely followed by this one:
Worst brand conversation
This was the year that Andrex launched a five-step guide to wiping your backside and asked us all to have a conversation about it. I wrote about it here: Conversation my arse
Brands doing feminism and getting it wrong. Sometimes it’s obvious and almost endearingly cack-handed, like Bic Pens celebrating International Women’s Day, or the recent IBM #hackahairdryer campaign. Other stuff gets celebrated widely, but is arguably worse. This Mindy Kaling article (last few paras) should be required reading for the Always and Dove marketing teams, who confidently tell the rest of the world how to do feminism, with the passion of a recent convert.
Non-trend, because it’s not something that happens much or gets shouted about. But there are examples of brands doing serious social good, without making a song and dance about it. This Ricoh Save The Memory project is a painstaking, years-long, open-source effort to rescue thousands of photographs lost and damaged in the Japanese tsunami of 2011. It’s properly useful, but it’s hard work.
This probably has to be emojis. I don’t actually mind emojis – they’re fun. What grates is the media consensus that any project or press release that contains the word ‘emoji’ is now automatically and hilariously innovative and ‘now’. (Before this, it was ‘selfie’, which still retains some of its talismanic power, although it’s starting to wear off.)
So Domino’s wins accolades for ordering a pizza by emoji. Dove solves everything by releasing curly-haired emojis. McDonald’s upsets copywriters everywhere with an emoji-only ad (above – the last emoji was added by a member of the public).
And the newspaper USA Today even included emojis to signal the tone of its stories – an experiment that has predictably been shelved.
All of this leads to horrified predictions of an illiterate, wordless future, but it’s mainly effective for its novelty value. Once someone has done an emoji-only ad, you really don’t need to do another.
Worst client of the year
The one brand that hasn’t done emojis is the Tokyo Olympics, where they would be quite appropriate. Instead, they win Worst Client of the Year for hanging their designer out to dry following pretty thin allegations of plagiarism, before launching another competition.
Fun project of the year
To prove that sports and branding can work together, this Logo Gym project by Studio Dunbar is pretty invigorating.
Punctuation of the year
The mood of the UK election night was captured in the transition from the first edition of the Daily Mirror to the second, the last lingering hope deleted with the question mark.
Packaging copy of the year
Always spoilt for choice with packaging copy. The prize has to go to Waitrose Cooks’ Ingredients. As @aljwhite pointed out, they are now starting to sound like Nicholas Witchell reporting on the Queen.
Mentions also for the most annoying bread in the world:
Washed down with some rugged wine (via @rhodri), which should have been called Man with a Vin.
And finally some cheese (via @betarish). I feel like I spent 11 months of this year making my way though the last line of this poem:
UI copywriting of the year
It’s not just packaging any more. One of the new frontiers for tone of voice is user interface copy. There is no error message or sign-up form that can’t be jazzed up with some chatty tone, like this error message:
Or this sign-up box:
This stuff extends to support services too. @howells tweeted this horror:
And there was a news story about Barclays threatening to give names and personalities to its new ATMs, including Sally and Jake. I’m not sure what Barclays’ demands are, but the nation will surely do anything to stop this from happening.
Worst naming project of the year
If it does happen, ATM Jake will have to compete with Storm Jake, one of a new front of branded storms that have been unleashed on the UK, following a competition by the Met Office to get the public to suggest names. To be fair, this stuff seems to be effective in raising ‘awareness’ of specific storms, which may have some public safety benefits. But you suspect it’s also about improving the Met Office’s social media metrics – metrics which it absolutely doesn’t need to have. Anyway, just like the US, we’ve gone with naming storms after people, which is simultaneously infantilising and sinister. It’s distressing enough for your house to be flooded, without it being by a storm called Phil. (Mind you, it’s better than a storm being sponsored by BMW and going on to take many lives.)
Worrying TOV development of the year
Speaking of UI copywriting, tone of voice has made its way onto road signs this year, in an experiment designed to increase public safety and reduce examples of road rage. I started and never finished a long blog post about this. The short version is I think it will briefly decrease and then steadily increase road rage.
Interesting TOV development of the year
This was also the year in which tone of voice guidelines went viral. The weird thing about the Warwick University backlash was that it’s not that extreme an example of the genre. But it doesn’t take much to produce a backlash these days.
Smart design move of the year
This was a smart way to reframe a two-star review from The Guardian.
Technology of the year
I like this story about how the humble whiteboard proved critical to negotiations with Iran.
Stupid job title of the year
Director of Modernise, Southwark Council.
Brand Darwin Awards Inaugural Winner
I wonder if there should be a Brand Darwin Awards, for brands that shoot themselves in the foot, and then the head. This year’s goes to Paypal for telling kids everywhere there’s no Santa (wrongly, because there is a Santa).
Brand psychopath of the year
I’ve argued before that brands are like psychopaths, ticking most of the boxes on the Hare PCL-R checklist. Even psychopaths deserve awards, so here goes:
The first of three winners is UBS for its grim ‘good father’ campaign (via @zarashirwan). See ‘Conning and Manipulativeness’ and ‘Shallow Affect’.
HSBC (the alleged money-laundering bank now threatening to leave the UK) ticks 'Lack of Remorse or Guilt' for advising us all to eat leftovers:
And AirBnB goes heavy on ‘Grandiose Self-Worth’ for its misjudged (and later withdrawn) hotel tax campaign, whose tone of faux-innocent entitlement is typical of too many brands today:
Two great design projects
Many more where these came from, but two that spring to mind are these ‘nostalgia for the future’ NASA posters:
And there was a particularly fine D&AD Annual cover this year by David Pearson et al.
Long copy of the year
An entire novel on a double page spread.
Short copy of the year
This obituary. You learn a lot about Doug from these two words. No nonsense, enjoyed a joke, everyone knew him. Short copy can say a lot.
Creative project of year
One of them anyway. I loved the Partick Thistle mascot by David Shrigley. A collaboration between the art world and football could have been patronising or gimmicky, but this was done in the right spirit – the mascot (Kingsley) captures the cheerful angst of watching your local team. The media tried to create a ‘backlash’ story against it, full of quotes from aghast tweeters, but most were actually joining in on the joke.
Image of the year
The most powerful image of the year was the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy washed up on a beach in Kos, which doesn’t need to be posted again here.
On a more surreal note, this was a real thing that happened in the UK:
Line of the year
It’s already become over-familiar after being quoted by Cameron and others, but in a year bookended by Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan, ‘You ain’t no Muslim bruv’ was a concise and humane rebuttal of a whole narrative.
To end on a happier note:
Festive greetings to one and all. (This is a pic from last year, from Sale Appliances in Southend. Henry is one of the great underestimated brands.)
Thanks to anyone involved in all the tweets and links above – I’ve tried to cite sources where I can.
NB: If you liked 2015, you might like the prequel: Rough notes on 2014
Branding companies across the UK reacted with a mixture of scorn and disbelief to the recent launch of ‘British storm names’ by the British public, a project undertaken in association with the Met Office.
After a months-long project awarded exclusively to the British public, the names chosen to brand future British storms and hurricanes were: Abigail, Barney, Clodagh, Desmond, Eva, Frank, Gertrude, Henry, Imogen, Jake, Katie, Lawrence, Mary, Nigel, Orla, Phil, Rhonda, Steve, Tegan, Vernon and Wendy.
“What an amazing waste of time” commented one branding insider.
“Unbelievable – my kid could have thought of these” said another.
More branding experts took to Twitter to slam the campaign. Atticus from Shoreditch tweeted: “Whoever thought of Jake needs to take a look at themselves. These people call themselves the ‘Great’ British Public?”
Leonora, an ideation consultant from Clerkenwell, posted: “This campaign blows harder than Hurricane Tegan.”
Branding experts were quick to point out similarities to a previous names-based campaign for US storms. “The US smashed it out of the park with Katrina – and now suddenly we’re going with Katie. Coincidence?” said one.
The British public has thus far refused to comment. It is believed they won the project in an unpaid pitch and took on the work pro bono.
One insider told us off the record: “In the grand scheme of things, this reaction doesn’t really bother us. If it’s getting a reaction from branding experts, that can only be a good thing.”
Rocked by the backlash, the Met Office is rumoured to be considering dropping the new names and appointing an entirely different public – possibly the French.
NB: This is my audition for The Onion, and is therapeutic to write given the public backlash that comes with any branding launch these days.
Photo by cbower2366 on Instagram
Photo by wittynoggin on Instagram
As part of my talk, I revived the rearranging-corporate-copy idea of Corpoetics to write a poem based on Go Welsh’s profile copy.
Photo by @themodernchris on Twitter
I also took the chance to talk about a few interesting pieces of writing spotted over the last year or so.
Photo by thatgreenalien on Instagram
And it was my first opportunity to talk about a new version of this book, which will be coming out early next year.
The best part was being able to hear from six other speakers, all from different disciplines. To give an idea of the range:
Oskar Zieta talked about his studio’s mind-boggling technique for inflating steel with high-pressured air to create strong but lightweight forms, for use in everything from furniture to space stations.
Alisa Wolfson gave an insight into design as part of a big ad agency – she heads the Department of Design at Leo Burnett in Chicago. Recipeace is the award-winning D&AD White Pencil project, but I also liked this single-minded branding work for McDonald’s.
When Snøhetta turned its attention briefly from architecture to graphics, it immediately created one of the stand-out projects of the last decade. These Norwegian banknotes won a competition a while back and are coming into circulation next year.
Thanks to Craig Welsh and everyone who provided such gracious hospitality.
NB: I’ve written this as a list as I don’t have time to write a continuous, well-considered blog post.
1. Interesting to see a brand founded on numbers (Googol) now planting its flag in words.
2. Which, as the accompanying announcement explains, are the real currency in which Google operates (“the core of how we index with Google search”).
3. Nice to see an announcement that conveys a genuine, geeky interest in what the name and brand should be. You get the impression Larry Page and Sergey Brin were personally invested in the naming process.
4. And it’s nice that one of the Google and Alphabet founders is called Page.
5. People will always like a pun. Alphabet is a pun on ‘betting on alpha’, investor-speak for a return above benchmark.
6. But good puns are there for a reason, to encode a rationale that makes sense of the name and gives it an extra backstory.
7. Pun aside, the larger rationale is that Alphabet means “a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity's most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search!”
8. Exclamation marks used to make me wince, but I’ve grown to like them – in the right context, they can convey a nice, winning sincerity.
9. It’s a great name with a strong rationale.
10. But it’s easier than a lot of naming projects, as most start-ups would have to say ‘yes, but we can’t own Alphabet – there are too many companies out there already’.
11. That’s not a problem if you’re Google. Some brands have the weight and presence to go for the big, primal metaphors and own them.
12. Which is fair enough – Google has earned that weight and presence by doing great things.
13. I still remember that first encounter with the clean, white search page and the internet suddenly making sense.
14. It’s only on digging out that image that I realise Google has always liked exclamation marks.
15. I wonder if they dropped it because of Yahoo!
16. The exclamation mark in that last sentence is part of the brand name – it’s not meant to suggest me wondering in a particularly lively or emphatic way.
17. A lot of start-ups would also dismiss ‘Alphabet’ because it would be hard to get a decent url.
18. But the url is one of the nice parts of the Alphabet identity: abc.xyz
19. I wonder if there will be a rush for .xyz domain names.
20. Going back to the alphabet metaphor, it’s a good one for Google, but...
21. You could argue Amazon already owns it, with its a-z identity:
22. But obviously nobody owns a metaphor, really.
23. None of this matters hugely as Alphabet will not be a big, public-facing identity.
24. But writers may take heart from the whole thing, as it’s an example of verbal thinking (with an appropriately understated logotype) solving a high-stakes branding challenge.
25. All explained in a nicely written announcement that comes straight from the top.
26. I have nothing else to say but need a 26th point.
I have written a prestigious article about luxury branding for Creative Review. It’s in the May issue of the magazine and also available to read on their blog (with some good comments – the Stella story is interesting).
In other writing-for-the-design-press news, I have contributed some views to this Design Week piece on political branding, where I’ve focused mainly on the words the parties use.
Following last week’s news that the North Korean government has launched 310 new slogans, I wrote a comment piece for The Guardian on what makes an effective slogan, including my top five best and worst examples – both political and commercial. I could easily have picked different lists on any given day. You can read the whole piece here.
Andrex, the toilet paper manufacturer, has recently updated its packaging and branding to incorporate its new, trademarked ‘Andrex Clean Routine’: a five-step guide for doing the one thing in life for which we all previously hoped we didn’t need a five-step guide.
On the plus side, this marks a step away from the ‘Scrunch or Fold’ campaign that saw Andrex attempting to start a national conversation around the vexed question of whether you are a ‘scruncher’ or a ‘folder’ when it comes to the one activity in life that we all previously hoped would never become the subject of a national conversation.
It’s still hard to believe the Scrunch or Fold campaign really happened, but it did. This was one of the TV ads.
It even inspired the first and only Asbury & Asbury Vine: an art house creation that I think showed promise.
Andrex has become a great case study in modern marketing, because it represents the logical outcome of two dominant trends: the mission escalation trend and the conversation trend. Both are waves of brand thinking that have swept all before them in recent years, and it’s not exactly Andrex’s fault that they have been caught up in it. It’s just that the nature of their business means stretching both trends to breaking point.
First, there’s the mission escalation trend. This is the homeopathy of marketing. It involves taking the functional purpose of any given product, diluting it to a slightly more abstract level, then diluting it again and repeating the process until you reach a level of abstraction so remote that any sense of specific purpose has been lost entirely. So if your product is a bar of chocolate, it’s not about giving people something chocolatey to eat, it’s about giving them a tasty treat. And it’s not about giving them a tasty treat, it’s about giving them a treat in a wider sense. And it’s not about the treat as such, but the enjoyment you get from that treat. And it’s not about the physical enjoyment, but the emotional enjoyment. And it’s not about the emotional enjoyment, but joy itself. And it’s not about experiencing joy, it’s about believing in joy. And now your brand purpose is more closely aligned to Buddhism than it is to chocolate.
There’s an obvious appeal in this for marketers and creatives, because it gives everyone a bigger field to play on. With a rationale like that, Cadbury’s can move away from talking about milk and cocoa and show drumming gorillas instead, because it’s all about joy. But that was a decade ago and the trend has had diminishing returns ever since. It’s the reason Burger King has ended up with ‘Be Your Way’ as a strapline: an idea so abstract that language itself no longer makes sense.
In the case of Andrex, you can see they have consciously gone through the same process – we’re not about toilet paper, we’re about Clean. We are answering one of the fundamental needs of human existence. Our mission should be to own ‘Clean’ in the same way that Google owns ‘Search’. (I’ve been in meetings like this and Google always comes up.)
That’s what leads to this on Andrex’s website:
As an incidental point, I really wish they hadn’t put ‘bottoms’ and ‘openly’ so closely together in a sentence.
But the key part of that sentence is the word ‘so’ and what comes after it. Having established this higher purpose, we are now going to have a conversation about it.
The word ‘so’ implies some kind of causal link, but there’s no real connection. We’re going to have a conversation because that’s what brands do. Alongside mission escalation, the second big trend is Conversation.
Brands have been talking about having conversations for years, mainly since social media came along and made such a two-way exchange theoretically possible. No longer would marketing be about shouting to the masses through 48-sheets and big TV spots. Now it would be about hosting a conversation, with everyone passionately acting as your brand advocate through the simple process of joining and sharing the conversation.
Of course, nowhere on the planet has this happened. For a taste of true brand conversations, look at the Twitter feed of any major service brand – a never-ending stream of apologetic answers to customer complaints, punctuated by the odd, hopeful brand message from central marketing.
But it doesn’t stop brands trying to start a conversation, and this has clearly been the thinking at Andrex. At some point early on, someone must have said “Look, I know it’s all about conversations these days, but do we really want to have a conversation about, you know… what we do?” And after a while came the reply: “Absolutely! It’s time to do away with the embarrassment around this subject and tackle it head on! So what if it’s a bit icky? All the more reason to have the conversation! This is an opportunity not a problem!”
Except it really isn’t, for two reasons. First of all, even if you’re going to talk about it, it’s a seriously limited conversation topic. OK, it’s important to wipe properly and be clean. That’s a single message at best, not a conversation. The most gifted conversationalists of all time would struggle to make an evening out of it. Peter Ustinov would get to 30 seconds before gently steering things towards the weather.
But even if there was more to be said, it really doesn’t have to be said. Every human instinct tells us this is an unenjoyable subject to discuss. The original marketers of Andrex took this as a self-evident truth. Andrex didn’t build itself into the biggest toilet paper brand in the UK by initiating a conversation about wiping brown stains from between your cheeks. (I’m really sorry about this post.) It showed us puppies. It told charming stories that emphasised the product benefits of softness, strength and length. There was no need to go into the details of why strength was important, because we all know why strength matters in toilet tissue. No need to spell it out. Look at the nice puppy.
It’s that kind of proper, big, traditional advertising that built Andrex to the point where its marketing people can afford to sit around in meeting rooms talking about starting conversations. Strangely, you could even argue that the traditional advertising approach sparked something much closer to a genuine conversation. People still talk about the puppy today, whereas no one is having a conversation about scrunching or folding. That campaign has been and gone, remembered only in the way you can’t shake off a bad dream.
But this post isn’t really meant to be criticising Andrex. As I said earlier, they’re just following the same trends that have swept up countless other brands in recent years. Mission escalation and conversation. (You could add a third, which is infantilisation, given the way the campaign encourages us all to be more child-like in discussing these delicate matters, and adopts the voice of a boring parent trying to engage us in an awkward conversation while we wince and edge away.)
The real point of this post is that, in following these trends, Andrex usefully takes them to their logical conclusion and shows up their inherent absurdities. When a certain way of thinking about brands leads you inexorably towards Scrunch or Fold or a five-step arse-wiping programme, there is something wrong with that way of thinking about brands.
It’s a great case study in modern marketing, and one worth having a conversation about.
This isn’t exactly a comprehensive review of the year, more a trawl back through things I’ve tweeted or favourited over the past 12 months – Twitter can be a useful mental archive that way (when it’s not being used for retrieving lost property, as in my most shared tweet of the year).
One of the common themes is mortality (please keep reading). This was the year we lost great advertising writers including David Abbott (The Economist, JR Hartley and countless others) and Julian Koenig (Volkswagen ‘Think small’), and stars of design including Wally Olins, Massimo Vignelli and more recently Rodney Fitch. I wrote about David Abbott here and reviewed Wally Olins' last book for Creative Review (subs only). Also recommend New York Times on Julian Koenig and Michael Johnson on Wally Olins.
One writer happily bucking the trend is Clive James, who recently admitted to being “in the slightly embarrassing position where I say I’m going to die and then don’t.” His ‘Japanese Maple’ won widespread praise this year and he continues to write lucidly and arguably better than ever as he approaches the end.
Death has a way of leading to great writing. In the bleak aftermath of the MH17 flight, these notices in Schiphol Airport (via @jessbrammar) were a civilised, secular piece of corporate writing.
More recently, the sudden death of cricketer Phillip Hughes saw collective grief expressed through a powerful symbol. Hard not to be moved by #putoutyourbats
Such genuine expressions of grief put into severe perspective the trend for ‘sadvertising’ that has been noted by a few commentators this year – referencing ads that aim to make us cry rather than laugh.
For example, there’s Dove challenging mothers and their daughters to confront their inherited ideas of body image (quite moving to watch, but always in the uncomfortable knowledge that you’re being sold a brand positioning).
Then there’s the camera rising from the trenches of the First World War and that big Sainsbury’s logo appearing in the sky (in the Christmas ad that at least moved the conversation on from John Lewis). Whatever you think of it, it’s hard for brands to associate themselves with issues so real and emotionally charged without at least a whiff of self-interest surrounding the whole thing. (At the other end of the life cycle, this was also the year that a detergent brand live-tweeted the birth of a new baby.)
Then again, for all that we feel uncomfortable with brands intruding on the serious issues of life and death, sometimes life and death intrude on brands. This Costa coffin (in which a woman who was a great fan of the coffee chain requested to be buried) has a jarring and, let’s face it, blackly humorous effect. But there’s something moving about the way people form such an affection for brands – albeit not the kind of connection Costa can place at the centre of its next ad campaign.
Even more affectingly, there was this story of a son keeping his dead father’s memory alive by racing against his digital ‘ghost’ on Xbox (worth reading the whole thing here). Again, not something Xbox can easily turn into an advert (although it’s not out of the question).
Before leaving the subject of life and death, I was pleased this year to come up with a line for this bench plaque, dedicated to the very-much-alive Ben Terrett – backstory here.
So, on to lighter things. Packaging copy continues to entertain and amuse, usually not intentionally.
This was the year of tomatoes with the unmistakable aroma of, erm, tomatoes. (via @whatsamadder).
Leading edge chocolates for chocolate eaters who mean business.
And the most middle-class copy ever for Waitrose (via @will_jkm)
There was also some good stuff, like this Cultivating Thought project for Chipotle, which uses packaging as a platform for interesting writing – would love to see more brands doing this, rather than chatting away about a product you’ve already bought.
Now the quickfire round:
Bob Hoffmann hailing the Golden Age of Bullshit at Advertising Week Europe. Uncomfortable applause all round.
Best TV ad
Not strictly TV, but a 6-hour pre-roll on YouTube for Virgin America (created by Eleven in San Francisco), imagining a deathly boring competitor called BLAH Airlines. A well-worn strawman strategy, but brilliantly done: advertising as high commercial art.
Best press ad
This Unlaunch ad for the VW Bus (actually 2013 I think).
And this Nothing happened ad for Ecotricity.
Worst print ad
This Cobra campaign, which is apparently based on the fact that Cobra is an anagram of BraCo, so let’s imagine a company that makes bras and... and... sorry, I resign. (How that brainstorm should have ended.)
Best exhibition graphics
Enjoyed these simple, writing-led graphics that completely make sense of the Design of the Year exhibition (by Ok-RM).
Most heroic filler copy of the year
This description of curtains is one of the most stoically professional pieces of writing ever crafted, taken from the IKEA website.
Best non-commercial writing project
Pop Sonnets: reimagining pop songs as traditional sonnets. Lovely idea, skilfully written.
Best national slogan
Only one contender: this wonderfully evocative Ivory Coast team slogan for the World Cup. I wrote an analysis of all 32 slogans for Creative Review, including Brazil’s ‘Brace Yourselves, the 6th is coming’, which proved painfully prescient when they got hammered 7-0.
Burger King’s new strapline was another milestone on the continuing journey into pure abstract thought that is currently being undertaken by all global brands. By 2019, all brands will have replaced their straplines with a steady, mantra-like hum.
Brand extension of the year
Protest branding of the year
The $urreal: a mock banknote and social media campaign protesting against rising inflation in Brazil and the increasingly ‘surreal’ prices of everyday goods.
Protest song of the year
Bit obscure, but in a year of continued austerity while the rich get richer, I liked this 64-year-old singing a 17-year-old’s song.
Plagiarism of the year
Image of the year
Has to be the one at the top of this post, from Ferguson. Sadly, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot’ and ‘I can’t breathe’ are also the most memorable slogans of the year.
There ends this incomplete and impressionistic review of 2014, which nevertheless took ages to write.
If only there was an efficient way of keeping track of an entire year in diary form.
I’ve written a review of Read Me: 10 Lessons for Writing Great Copy in this month’s Creative Review. You can read it here if you’re a subscriber or buy a print copy.
The book is by Roger Horberry and Gyles Lingwood and is a smart overview of writing for advertising and design (which, as the authors argue, could be better described as ‘brandwriting’). For anyone starting out, I think it’s the best practical primer out there. And for anyone more established, it’s worth buying for the many examples it includes – indeed, it would be nice to see an extended version consisting purely of examples and lots more of them. Even in the days of blogs and online archives, it’s useful to have a physical book that you can dip into for inspiration and reference.
The book is available from, among other places, Best Little Bookshop (a UK-based alternative to Amazon).
A tweet by cheese brand Président has caused a stir on Twitter following a report that it took 45 days to prepare, including the involvement of a copywriter, designer, between 10-20 strategists, at least two social media managers, more senior writers and designers in the approval process, and then presumably various layers of management within the client company. Unsurprisingly, the result hasn’t been taken entirely seriously, but it's worth noting that it is actually quite a strong tweet.
Here’s my word-by-word appreciation.
Implants a subliminal message into the first word of the tweet, enticing readers into an RT- and fave-friendly social state of mind.
Note the modestly generic ‘a’ not ‘our’ – a brave move that theoretically means this tweet promotes competitor Camembert brands. But the right decision. ‘a’ is less controlling and more confident – and there is a massive picture of PRESIDENT CAMEMBERT below.
Important to get this into the first three words of the tweet.
More social triggering. Interesting exclusion of ‘family’ here – was this a sticking point in discussions?
Good to open with a question, immediately creating a sense of involvement and dialogue.
At this point, the tweet is only seven words, but has impressively set up a dynamic tension between the opening question and the cheerful and socially flattering aside. The use of parentheses is key here – worth the deployment of two extra characters.
Note the graceful move from interrogative (opening sentence) to exclamatory (parentheses) and now into the imperative, gutturally Anglo-Saxon ‘get’. This switch of mood is a sign we are getting to the ‘meat’ of the tweet (or the cheese).
the best flavor
That mildly winded sensation you’re experiencing is the Benefit hitting home. Despite its deceptive opening, this tweet isn’t just here to make conversation – it has a clear product-related message. (Was there a discussion about the Americanised ‘flavor’ as opposed to the the UK-friendly ‘flavour’? Of course there was.)
by serving at room temperature.
The tweet is working hard now, delivering pure information at high speed. The slip into more formal language isn’t accidental, but creates a reassuring sense of quasi-scientific authority.
This is where the tweet steps up several levels from incidental disruption into pure Idea. The reader is being invited to consider all that has gone before not merely as good advice in its own right, but as one part of a bigger vision to appreciate and champion the ‘art’ of cheese. Think of the possibilities deftly captured in that 12-character device. The perfect cheddar-bread ratio for cheese on toast. The best cheese to pair with a Ritz cracker. How cottage cheese got its name. And is the subtle echo of 1980s synthpop experimentalists ‘Art of Noise’ coincidental? Nothing is coincidental in this tweet – it’s a smart trigger for the mum/dad demographic.
This appreciation is primarily concerned with the wording of the tweet, rather than the styling of the accompanying picture (which deserves an appreciation of its own), but note the enormity of the brand name – a no-nonsense contrast to the subtlety of the preceding tweet.
One final note: the entire tweet leaves three characters of its 140 to spare. At first sight, this is troubling – that’s three characters of valuable social media real estate unused. Were there discussions about this? Could there have been more exclamation marks after ‘generous’? Could ‘flavor’ have been depicted as ‘flavo(u)r’ to embrace the UK English market? Perhaps it’s nice that we’re being left to wonder what else might have been. This tweet has worked hard, but there is always the possibility of better to come.
Take your time, Président Cheese, we’re prepared to wait.
It should be noted that the agency involved has challenged the ‘45-day’ version of events, although the journalist has stood by the reporting. I think the agency might be better off embracing the humour and mounting a forensic defence of the tweet – they are welcome to use any or all of the above.
David Abbott, one of the great advertising copywriters, has died at the age of 75. The campaign he created for The Economist will mean he’s remembered for as long as copywriting exists – it’s hard to imagine a time where it will stop being a reference point – but it was only one piece of work in a prolific career.
This post isn’t meant as a comprehensive tribute – follow the links at the end for some excellent articles. But it’s interesting to analyse the detail of how a great writer works and, looking through David Abbott’s entry in The Copy Book, I was struck by one trick that he uses repeatedly and feels notably fresh even though the ads in question are decades old.
The first example is this Chivas Regal Father’s Day ad (1980). It’s a mass market advert for a big brand, but it’s written from a personal perspective – a direct message from the copywriter to his father which, by being personal, manages to be universal. (David Abbott acknowledges it might strike some people as sentimental, but it makes sense in the context.)
Then there’s this one for Volvo (1983), where the copywriter steps out of the accepted fiction that an ad is a ‘brand’ talking to its customers and instead puts himself directly into the frame (literally – he’s the one beneath the car).
Finally, there’s this recruitment ad (1967) for agency account managers (‘men’ in those days), where the copywriter speaks directly to the people with whom he will soon be working.
In all three cases, the same trick is taking place. The writer is playing with the convention that adverts are a ‘brand’ talking to its audience, and explicitly drawing attention to the fact that there is a copywriter – a real person – being paid to write this stuff. In theatre, you would call it breaking the fourth wall – momentarily stepping out of character to address the audience directly, effectively to say ‘Look at me, I’m an actor’. It’s a technique that plays with expectations and has a postmodern edge to it – a sign that David Abbott could have fitted comfortably into the age of Twitter and meta-jokes.
In the writing tips that appear alongside his work in The Copy Book, David Abbott advises copywriters to ‘Put yourself into your work’, where he’s no doubt nodding towards this trick. But I think what he’s doing in these ads is more specific than this general advice implies. He’s not putting himself into the writing in the conventional writing-workshop sense of ‘drawing on your own personal experience’. He’s shifting the conceptual framework entirely to place the writer in the foreground. In a world where the babble of disembodied brands with annoyingly ‘personal’ voices is getting ever louder, there’s something appealing about this honest acknowledgement that a copywriter is involved in the process. It’s not a trick you can play every time but, when you do, it has a nicely humanising effect.
It’s also done with a commercial purpose. Like many of the great copywriting tricks, it’s rooted in the tradition of door-to-door sales, where a common trick is for the salesman to step out of character – ‘Between you and me, it’s my job to sell this stuff, but I’ve actually got one of these vacuum cleaners at home and it works a treat.’
I wonder what David Abbott made of the more recent trend for chatty, informal copy that has become the norm on packaging in particular. While the people behind that hyper-personalised approach might protest that they’re simply ‘putting themselves into the writing’, I suspect he would have been sceptical. The difference is that, when Abbott talks about putting himself into the writing, he’s not simply gesturing towards it tonally – nor, crucially, is he equating himself with the brand. The power of the approach comes from the way he’s separating himself from the brand and highlighting the fact that he’s a copywriter doing a job. It’s a structural idea, not a writing style.
By his own admission, David Abbott was never that interested in style (or tone of voice as it might be termed now): ‘I am not interested in words. I don’t own a Thesaurus, I don’t do crosswords and my dictionary has pictures in it. Words, for me, are the servants of the argument and on the whole I like them to be plain, simple and familiar. I believe that I’m paid to be an advocate…’
Whether it’s in a press ad or on the side of a juice carton, I imagine David Abbott would maintain that copywriting is primarily about advocacy rather than self-expression – building an argument rather than projecting a personality. If drawing attention to yourself as a writer is an effective device for bolstering the argument, then it’s worth doing.
All this is a long analysis of a simple creative trick. But I find it interesting how a lot of the best writers, designers and creative thinkers have a bag of tricks which they draw on and reinterpret over the course of a career. This ‘fourth wall’ device was one of Abbott’s best. It’s instructive to see how he returns to it in pieces of work that are years apart.
Looking through the rest of The Copy Book, there are sections where the work starts to feel dated and the claims made for it seem overblown. But the entirety of the Abbott section is timelessly and disarmingly great, because the work is rooted in great thinking. It’s appropriate that he of all people should use this device of drawing attention to himself as a copywriter – when you’re David Abbott, why wouldn’t you?
Creative Review on David Abbott
Ben Kay on Abbott’s best work
Mike Dempsey on David Abbott: Man of letters
David Abbott’s leaving speech
Excerpt from The Copy Book
Dave Trott on the roots of the Economist campaign
It’s nice to have played a small part in the return of design title Grafik, now in online rather than print form.
The new site is interestingly text-led for a design site and the same approach has been carried through into its advertising. Rather than garish banners fighting for attention, Grafik is running text-only ads that are consistent with the editorial style, while still being clearly marked as ads.
I’ve helped write some house ads explaining the new approach, and written an essay about the continuing power of good writing in advertising and design.
The March 2014 edition of Creative Review includes my review of Brand New: The Shape of Brands To Come, by Wally Olins. If you’re a subscriber, you can read the article online.
The book is released on 7 April and available to order.
For anyone interested, the article references a number of sources:
Adrian Shaughnessy – Why designers should give branding back its soul
Michael Johnson – Mind the gap
Terry Eagleton – Reading On Brand
I recently read Jon Ronson's book The Psychopath Test, in which he explores the prevalence of psychopathic tendencies among some of the most successful people in society. He writes in detail about the Hare PCL-R checklist, which lists 20 traits associated with psychopathy and has been the basis for most diagnoses over the years. While studying the list, I couldn't help wondering how most brands would score.
I don't mean this in a glib '20 ways brands are like xxxxxx' way. I mean that brands arguably make more sense when you think of them as psychopaths and respond to them accordingly.
That's not an aspersion against anyone connected with the creation of specific brands, but a comment on the peculiar status of brands in general. Brands exist as separate legal entities from the rest of us and possess a life of their own. They could be considered a superior life form, in the sense that Coca Cola will be around long after the rest of us have gone. By their nature, brands display a lot of superficially positive human characteristics, including charm, slickness and facility with words. But they are also necessarily incapable of empathy and remorse, and especially prone to an inflated sense of self-worth.
Here's a verbatim list of the 20 psychopathic traits (underlinings are mine), with some illustrative examples. There could be countless examples for points one and two in particular.
1. Glib and Superficial Charm
The tendency to be smooth, engaging, charming, slick, and verbally facile. Psychopathic charm is not in the least shy, self-conscious, or afraid to say anything. A psychopath never gets tongue-tied. They have freed themselves from the social conventions about taking turns in talking, for example.
2. Grandiose Self-Worth
A grossly inflated view of one's abilities and self-worth, self-assured, opinionated, cocky, a braggart. Psychopaths are arrogant people who believe they are superior human beings.
3. Need for Stimulation or Proneness to Boredom
An excessive need for novel, thrilling, and exciting stimulation; taking chances and doing things that are risky. Psychopaths often have a low self-discipline in carrying tasks through to completion because they get bored easily. They fail to work at the same job for any length of time, for example, or to finish tasks that they consider dull or routine.
4. Pathological Lying
Can be moderate or high; in moderate form, they will be shrewd, crafty, cunning, sly, and clever; in extreme form, they will be deceptive, deceitful, underhanded, unscrupulous, manipulative, and dishonest.
5. Conning and Manipulativeness
The use of deceit and deception to cheat, con, or defraud others for personal gain; distinguished from Item #4 in the degree to which exploitation and callous ruthlessness is present, as reflected in a lack of concern for the feelings and suffering of one's victims.
6. Lack of Remorse or Guilt
A lack of feelings or concern for the losses, pain, and suffering of victims; a tendency to be unconcerned, dispassionate, coldhearted, and unempathic. This item is usually demonstrated by a disdain for one's victims.
7. Shallow Affect
Emotional poverty or a limited range or depth of feelings; interpersonal coldness in spite of signs of open gregariousness.
8. Callousness and Lack of Empathy
A lack of feelings toward people in general; cold, contemptuous, inconsiderate, and tactless.
9. Parasitic Lifestyle
An intentional, manipulative, selfish, and exploitative financial dependence on others as reflected in a lack of motivation, low self-discipline, and inability to begin or complete responsibilities.
10. Poor Behavioral Controls
Expressions of irritability, annoyance, impatience, threats, aggression, and verbal abuse; inadequate control of anger and temper; acting hastily.
11. Promiscuous Sexual Behavior
A variety of brief, superficial relations, numerous affairs, and an indiscriminate selection of sexual partners; the maintenance of several relationships at the same time; a history of attempts to sexually coerce others into sexual activity or taking great pride at discussing sexual exploits or conquests.
12. Early Behavior Problems
A variety of behaviors prior to age 13, including lying, theft, cheating, vandalism, bullying, sexual activity, fire-setting, glue-sniffing, alcohol use, and running away from home.
13. Lack of Realistic, Long-Term Goals
An inability or persistent failure to develop and execute long-term plans and goals; a nomadic existence, aimless, lacking direction in life.
The occurrence of behaviors that are unpremeditated and lack reflection or planning; inability to resist temptation, frustrations, and urges; a lack of deliberation without considering the consequences; foolhardy, rash, unpredictable, erratic, and reckless.
Repeated failure to fulfill or honor obligations and commitments; such as not paying bills, defaulting on loans, performing sloppy work, being absent or late to work, failing to honor contractual agreements.
16. Failure to Accept Responsibility for Own Actions
A failure to accept responsibility for one's actions reflected in low conscientiousness, an absence of dutifulness, antagonistic manipulation, denial of responsibility, and an effort to manipulate others through this denial.
17. Many Short-Term Marital Relationships
A lack of commitment to a long-term relationship reflected in inconsistent, undependable, and unreliable commitments in life, including marital.
18. Juvenile Delinquency
Behavior problems between the ages of 13-18; mostly behaviors that are crimes or clearly involve aspects of antagonism, exploitation, aggression, manipulation, or a callous, ruthless tough-mindedness.
19. Revocation of Condition Release
A revocation of probation or other conditional release due to technical violations, such as carelessness, low deliberation, or failing to appear.
Treacle Moon – via @bravenewmalden
Starbuck’s Mission Statement
Yahoo 30 logos in 30 days
Hall’s – via @adamhess1
Pinterest – via @underwoodsimon
Passion – various Google images results
BMW Mini Cooper
First Direct – via @totalcontent
Gap logo withdrawn
Newsworks 'Hillsborough/hacking' campaign
This isn’t exactly a new observation, but something weird has happened to the word ‘story’ in the last few years. Watching the recent TSB: The Story ad brought it home to me.
First, some background.
I’m not sure what triggered the trend, but at some point in the last decade, storytelling was adopted by brands as a technique for connecting with people and communicating a message – understandably, because stories are one of the most ancient tools we have for transmitting values encoded in a memorable form.
As inevitably happens, a valid insight quickly turned into a bandwagon, and the definition of ‘story’ has subsequently become so broad as to become meaningless.
Increasingly, it doesn’t matter if something is a story or not, as long as you can call it a story and signal that you’re in tune with that particular trend. Mention ‘story’ in a pitch or presentation and people will generally nod approvingly. (I’m not averse to using it myself – I can think of two projects I’ve worked on in the last four years that feature the word ‘story’ prominently, although I’d argue it’s a justified use in each case.)
TSB: The Story is the latest example. None of what follows is a criticism of the ad, which is beautifully made. It’s also well written from a commercial point of view – it tells a sanitised version of the TSB story, but that’s what you’d expect from an ad.
What I find interesting is the strange new sub-genre of ‘stories’ that this trend is creating. Here’s a transcript of the ad:
In 1810 the Reverend Henry Duncan, a man who believed deeply in the dignity of ordinary working people, wanted to do something of real and lasting value to help those struggling to overcome poverty.
And so he did something revolutionary.
He built a bank whose sole purpose was to help hard-working local people.
He believed industry could be encouraged and a sense of pride and independence fostered only when a bank served the community with the people's interests at its heart.
The groundwork had been laid for ordinary people to thrive along with their neighbours, to build communities together secure in the knowledge that their money was safe and working for the benefit of all.
And then a storm came.
In the turbulent times that followed, it was easy to think the ideals that Henry Duncan held so dear had been lost forever.
But they hadn’t gone.
They’d always been here, just waiting to be found.
Imagine presenting that story in a non-advertising context – maybe in a creative writing workshop. After an awkward silence, the response would surely be, ‘Tell me more about the storm’.
It’s not that the ad isn’t a story – it gestures toward a recognisable story-telling arc, opening with the set-up (hero establishes a bank), then the challenge (the storm), then the resolution (rediscovering hero’s values).
But look how heavily it’s weighted towards introducing the hero, before skipping through the storm to arrive at the resolution. It’s all set-up and resolution, with only the briefest moment of action in between. In any normal form of story-telling, it’s the in-between bit that matters. The storm is the story. The turbulent times are the story.
It would be interesting to apply the same approach to other narratives. Die Hard would presumably open with an hour-long backstory setting up John McClane as a nice guy, before a 30-second montage hinting at some vague trouble in a high-rise, followed by half an hour of McClane with his feet up drinking a beer. It’s story-telling hollowed out to a bizarre level.
Of course, there are good commercial reasons for the TSB approach. The ad uses the storm as a way of fast-forwarding over a century of complicated history.
Henry Duncan did indeed form the first trustee savings bank, before lots of other people did the same. Those banks gradually almagamated before floating on the Stock Exchange in 1986 (all sense of localness now notional at best). The TSB Group then merged with Lloyds in 1995, before hitting the bordering-on-criminal mess of 2008 and the subsequent government bail-out. Now it’s become a stand-alone brand after LloydsTSB was ordered by the European Commission to sell off 600 branches.
All of that would be essential information in any standard ‘story’ of TSB, but it’s compressed here into a vague storm metaphor. (And a questionable one, because storms are external events over which people have no control – the victims are by definition innocent. Many would say it’s not the most accurate comparison with LloydsTSB.)
The result makes for a good commercial but a bad story. And that seems to be the problem with so many brand stories – the commercial imperative to gloss over negatives and promote carefully defined ‘values’ inevitably trumps the narrative imperative to tell a good story. Real stories require tension, conflict and, most of all, an ending. Brand stories understandably shy away from all three, existing in a permanent state of riding heroically into the sunset.
TSB is far from the most extreme example – at least it shows some signs of being a story. Many brand stories are just a weird series of disembodied values statements, with only the dimmest sense of a beginning, middle and end – and usually characterised by a strange insistence on how ‘simple’ the whole thing is.
I’ve had some fun with this (this post had to be going somewhere), rewriting various fairy tales as ‘brand stories’. I’m not sure any of them are an improvement on the originals, but they certainly have a better chance of being signed off.
Yahoo! have recently been releasing a logo a day for 30 days, in the run-up to the launch of their rebrand on 5 September.
It could have been an interesting idea if it had been handled as a genuine exploration of the brand – enlightening the public about the thinking behind it and involving them in the process.
Unfortunately, it’s been executed on such a bizarrely simplistic level that it comes across as a parody, no doubt reinforcing everyone’s worst preconception about branding – namely, that it’s just a matter of superficial visual decoration, like picking out a new set of curtains. (That’s the standard analogy anyway – do people still pick out sets of curtains? I suppose they do.)
Ben Terrett writes about it well over here (branding not curtains).
Anyway, the whole exercise was crying out for a copywriting treatment, so I had a go at writing 30 tones of voice in 30 days. It’s not entirely serious, although anyone reading from Yahoo! is welcome to use this as a starting point. I have a feeling we may see a bit of ‘Defensive’ in the next few days.
You can read the whole thing here: checkthis.com/yahootone
UPDATE (5 Sept)
Yahoo! has now unveiled its new tone of voice. Judging by the quotes from CMO Kathy Savitt, they have gone with Surreal Defensive.
On the logo:
“You’ll notice a chisel to our logo that’s very architectural. What we’re saying is our logo is the foundation upon which our brand and products and user experience will continue to be built.”
On the animations:
“It might be an exclamation riding on a Segway, or riding on a pogo stick or swinging on a Tarzan vine.”
I admit to feeling a sense of anticipation when I saw it. Something told me this was going to be great. For one thing, long copy is due a proper return. It has occasionally reared its head over the years, but it always felt like it would take a major brand like Apple to do something on a par with the greats of the past. Not just a retro imitation, but a proper reinvention that works on its own terms.
And there’s something especially intriguing about Apple doing it. They’re such a minimal brand – all white space and understated cool. What a change in direction it would be to see lots of words coming from them. Especially when they’ve got so much to say.
The timing is also interesting. Right now, it feels like more and more people are questioning Apple’s claim to superiority. Maybe this was Apple about to come out and tell a few home truths. Remind us exactly how great their products are and why. Make us fall in love with them again. I clicked on the link.
This is it.
This is what matters.
The experience of a product.
How it makes someone feel.
When you start by imagining
What that might be like,
You step back.
Who will this help?
Will it make life better?
Does this deserve to exist?
If you are busy making everything,
How can you perfect anything?
We don't believe in coincidence.
Or dumb luck.
There are a thousand "no's"
For every "yes."
We spend a lot of time
On a few great things.
Until every idea we touch
Enhances each life it touches.
We're engineers and artists.
Craftsmen and inventors.
We sign our work.
You may rarely look at it.
But you'll always feel it.
This is our signature.
And it means everything.
Designed by Apple in California
This isn’t intended to be one of those ranty blog posts (although it’s going to be anyway), but this copy is woeful. Vacuous, boring, self-regarding and counter-productive. It starts with a glimmer of promise – the point about designing things with the user in mind – but then goes precisely nowhere with it.
Arguably the worst thing is that it’s entirely free of information. The point is too obvious to need labouring, but look briefly at one of the old classics:
Put aside the clever headline, sharp tone and expertly crafted momentum that carries you to the end – and look at the actual information being conveyed. 32 miles to the gallon. Five pints of oil. No need for anti-freeze. 40,000 miles per set of tyres. Smaller parking spots. Lower insurance. Cheaper repairs.
The same goes for one of the other old classics.
This one has dated in terms of social attitudes, and maybe the ‘warpath’ ending is a bit formulaic. But again, look how hard the copy is working. You learn all about the details of how the shoes are made. Not just the inspiration for the design and the philosophy behind it, but the nerdy details of how the design has been subtly improved over the years. And the details are interesting. Strip away the jokes and the rhetorical tricks and the tone of voice and you’re left with a pile of solid, irreducible facts.
With the Apple ad, you get nothing. You search in vain for a single detail or piece of evidence. Something that demonstrates how they design from the point of view of the user. Any small detail that signals artistry, craft and invention without simply proclaiming it.
Of course, there’s one difference that Apple could use to defend itself. Unlike Think Small or Timberland, this isn’t a product ad. It’s a brand ad. It’s not about explaining the details of a particular product to you, but giving a more general sense of Apple and its values and philosophy. We’re not in the era of hard sell any more; it’s more sophisticated these days.
It’s at this point I begin to lose the power of rational argument and feel like throwing things at hard surfaces. First of all, I can’t think of a better ‘brand ad’ for VW or Timberland than the ones above. Each of them leaves me with a pretty good impression of the brand, its philosophy and its values. Secondly, I can’t think of a worse brand ad for Apple than this one. Has no one ever told them that you don’t convince people you’re cool by going on about how cool you are? They start the ad by saying they think about everything from the user’s point of view, then spend the rest talking relentlessly about themselves. The final lines are a veritable orgasm of self-regard. You put your logo on your product? That is a massively uninteresting thing to tell me. (It might conceivably be interesting if Apple didn’t put their logo on their products, but relied on people working it out for themselves because they’re so brilliantly designed – that would at least be a story to tell in a long copy ad.)
Life is too short to analyse all the other vacuities and non-sequiturs, but it gets particularly acute in the second-to-third ‘stanzas’.
If you are busy making everything,
How can you perfect anything?
We don't believe in coincidence.
Or dumb luck.
There are a thousand "no's"
For every "yes."
What are you talking about? Why did you just jump from perfecting things to coincidences? What’s dumb about luck? Don't luck and serendipity play a part in the design process? I get that you’re talking about being perfectionists and thinking about things, but give me an example. Anything. This reads like a succession of those vaguely New Age quotes that people stick on Facebook with a picture of a sunset.
Possibly the most excruciating thing about the advert is that it contains its own damning critique, right here:
Who will this help?
Will it make life better?
Does this deserve to exist?
Did anyone ask the same questions about this copy or this campaign? (Campaign may be stretching it – there are four executions, each featuring a different image but exactly the same copy.)
It’s tangentially interesting that both Tesco and Apple make use of the phrase This is it in their copy. The similarity is telling – it’s one of those emphatic phrases that is pure tone and no meaning. The kind of thing you say to convince yourself something is happening when it isn’t. If you find yourself including it in a piece of copy, you know something has gone wrong.
The line break trend is annoying to anyone who likes poetry, where line breaks are intrinsic to the meaning and not just a decorative feature (at least in any half-decent poetry). But there’s something particularly annoying about it in the context of these brand ads. It’s being done for a reason – to elevate the tone and lend an air of preciousness and high-brow appeal. If it looks clean and vaguely classy, maybe it will give the copy an aura of intelligence it otherwise lacks. Maybe you won’t notice it’s saying nothing if you’re too busy admiring how it looks.
So what’s the positive alternative I'm advocating? Well, it could be one of two things. You could do a faithful return to the traditional long-copy ad – why not? If Timberland can talk at length about what makes its latest shoe so great, surely Apple has plenty to say about its latest product? I’m sure there’s mileage in writing a brilliant ad packed full of product details that demonstrate Apple’s philosophy and ‘values’.
But equally, I don’t think you have to return slavishly to the old USP-driven model. You could write a more high-level brand ad, but one that says something. Being a brand ad doesn’t let you off the hook. You still need a message. Every word has to earn its place. And it’s not like there’s nothing to say. You’re talking about one of the most interesting and impressive companies in the world. Whatever angle you choose to take, you should have trouble fitting it into a full-page ad. This one is padding from the first line.
I suspect there will be a few people hailing the return of long copy when they see this ad, but it’s a hollow and lifeless return. Like watching a hologram of David Ogilvy. This is long copy drained of all the things that make long copy worth doing. Static and soulless and empty. The written equivalent of a mood board.
Long copy remains officially deceased. Long, ranty blog posts are evidently alive and well.
PS: I've only just realised they also turned this into a film, but I can’t write any more.
Update: A slightly extended (if you can believe that) version of this post has since appeared on Creative Review.
Walkers Crisps have reportedly relaunched their core crisp flavours with new packaging featuring noticeably wordy product descriptions. Each begins with an adverb, followed by the flavour descriptor, then s0me extra detail giving a sense of 'provenance'.
The device is no doubt intended to add a little verbal garnish, in the style of self-consciously aspirational restaurant menus. However, for me, it's immediately redolent of mid-sixties Bob Dylan song titles.
Hence, in a follow-up to our not-that-popular Dodge or Fall game, we are pleased to introduce... Arguably Dylan or Crisp.
See if you can tell the difference.
Arguably Dylan or Crisp
1. Classically Ready Salted with Salt from Cheshire
2. Distinctively Salt & Vinegar with Real British Vinegar
3. Positively 4th Street
4. Unmistakably Cheese and Onion with Cheddar from Somerset
5. Absolutely Sweet Marie
6. Simply Roast Chicken with Free Range Chicken from Devon
7. Queen Jane Approximately
8. Tantalisingly Tomato Ketchup with Vale of Evesham Tomatoes
9. Obviously Five Believers
10. Only a Prawn in Their Cocktail
To view the answers, either stand on your head or turn your screen upside-down.
A post to point you towards the Johnson Banks Review of the Year 2012, which has become something of an industry institution. I sent in some contributions that made their way into the mix and won me a copy of the new edition of Problem Solved in return. A good way to start the year.
If you haven’t already moved on from 2012 retrospectives, the full list of contributions I emailed went like this:
Mike Dempsey’s six-part story of CDT. Lovely balance of personal and professional insight.
Over-hyped thing you’d like to see the back of (and that Creative Review should probably stop covering)
Pantone colour of the year. A tired but frustratingly effective PR ruse.
Best ad of the year
Channel 4 ‘Meet the Superhumans’ Paralympics promo. Still electrifying to watch.
Worst ad of the year
Colgate ‘focus group’ – possibly the most excruciating thing ever committed to film.
Second worst ad of the year
Facebook is a bit like a chair, sort of, if you think about it.
Writing project of the year
Ma’amite. Single word, but pretty good.
Best creative project of year
Olympic opening ceremony, obviously.
Worst creative project of the year
Olympic closing ceremony. Conceived by "a hugely powerful establishment creative director who is not actually creative."
Best creative of year
Design of the year
The Heatherwick cauldron is the obvious and deserving choice, but the gold postboxes were a lovely touch.
Influential design project of the year
gov.uk by Government Digital Service. Still an epic work in progress but on course to be a major design and writing achievement.
Design story of year
The Comedy Carpet not getting in-book at D&AD. An indictment of the design judging culture that ought to be a tipping point, but probably won’t be.
Unfortunate book of the year
The Snowman’s Journey – the book of the John Lewis ad.
Brand refresh of the year
Ecce Homo restoration.
Worst brand use of Twitter
This ‘topical’ tweet from @YahooNews:
Last week a Moscow judge sentenced a band to two years in prison. What musical act would you send to lockup and why?
Website of year
Quote of the year
“Hard work and grafting.” Mo Farah after winning second gold.
Worst brand campaign
Mini Cooper sponsoring what turned out to be a deadly weather front.
This is a thought I’ve had for a while – not an original one, but something that I don’t see any brands pursuing in a big way. I’ve always hoped to build a relationship with a suitable client who might be interested. But I’ve recently decided the best thing is to blog about it, throw it out into the world, and see if anyone else thinks the same and/or wants to follow it up.
The premise doesn’t need much explaining. Packaging copy annoys a lot of people. It’s frequently overly familiar, infantilising and navel-gazing. I’ve written before about the rise of ‘wackaging’ and plenty more people have noticed and documented the same trend.
The problem is, from the point of view of the client, packaging copy is hard to get right. The safest approach is to give straightforward, concise information about your product, but it feels like an opportunity missed. But try injecting any form of personality, and it can quickly ring false, or fall into the same over-familiarity trap as every other brand. In the end, you're trying to give personality to something that is by its nature impersonal and mass-produced. There are a few exceptions, but generally it’s a losing battle.
This is frustrating, because packaging ought to be a great platform for writing. You have a blank canvas on which to write in a more relaxed, discursive way than conventional advertising allows. You often have a captive audience in a receptive state of mind, idly reading the cornflakes packet over breakfast, or the crisp packet over lunch, or glancing at the copy on the toothpaste tube while brushing their teeth. With such a great chance to engage and entertain audiences, why do brands end up annoying them so much?
The argument of this post is that brands are missing a trick by thinking too narrowly about the possibilities. Packaging is indeed a great platform for writing, but there’s no rule that says the writing has to be about the product that the packaging contains. Rather than writing at length about the simplicity of your ingredients or the lovely folk who work for your company, why not use the space as a platform for writing that people really want to read? A short story, a poem, or a thought piece by a great writer? It may not relate directly to your brand, but if people enjoy it, they’ll make the emotional connection.
In 1986, the American writer Judith Chernaik approached Transport for London with the idea of putting poetry on spare advertising space on tube trains, and Poems on the Underground was born. It’s been massively successful and introduced millions of people to great poetry. What’s to stop a Kraft Foods or Unilever from launching a Poems on Your Packaging range, spanning everything from breakfast cereals to shampoo? What about a specially commissioned Carol Ann Duffy poem with your cornflakes, or Michael Rosen with your Cheerios? A thought for the day from Alain de Botton on your loaf of bread, a traditional haiku on your toothpaste tube, or a leisurely Clive James essay on your smoothie? It could be a great way to introduce people to interesting writing, and would spare us all the chummy copy about how simple-and-not-at-all-mass-produced your product is.
This isn’t a new idea. Plenty of children’s brands feature jokes and puzzles to turn the packaging into entertainment, albeit of the heavily branded kind. The original and best example is the jokes you used to get on ice lolly sticks: no overt brand message, just a nice joke because there was space on the stick to write one.
But as far as I’m aware, the principle has never been applied on a bigger scale, or for a more grown-up audience. I’d love to see the big brands commissioning new work from our best poets, novelists, journalists, philosophers and comedians – and it feels like an open goal in the current climate. There are obvious upsides – you’ll be seen to support the arts; you can encourage literacy in kids and families; you can pitch it at a populist or higher brow level; you can turn the packaging into collectable items; you can run serialised stories to encourage brand loyalty; and you’ll be able to claim this whole territory as your own, before anyone else does.
So there you go. Stop writing self-absorbed packaging copy and use the space as a platform for interesting creative writing instead. It’s easier to have these ideas than to make them happen, but it would be nice to see some version of it one day.
PS: If anyone knows of brands that have done this, I’d be interested to hear about them. Another example that comes to mind are the missing persons ads you get on milk cartons in some countries, which aren’t an example of creative writing, but do use the canvas for a socially useful purpose. I’m sure I’ve seen a project that involved printing news stories onto milk cartons as well, but can’t remember where.
PPS: Some readers may know I run a project called WrapperRhymes, which features poems handwritten onto food packaging. This is a different idea, but maybe there’s a connection in spirit – the idea of packaging as a vehicle for unexpected creativity.
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: Blog Yourself 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.
Some thoughts on the London Olympic slogan, which has been ‘unveiled’ by LOCOG today. (Not sure how you unveil a slogan). The chosen slogan is ‘Inspire A Generation’, which most commentators agree is pretty uninspiring.
As I said on Twitter, it reads more like the brief than the answer.
Slogans are tricky things to generate – many of the best ones arose by accident, conceived as part of an ad campaign, often without a long-term future in mind, but growing naturally to take on the status of a brand line. As soon as you begin a formal process to generate a slogan, you’re facing an uphill struggle.
This is partly because even the best slogans can never tick every box in the brief. They’re not rational animals. If Nike had drawn up a detailed brief for a new slogan, ‘Just do it’ would probably have been rejected. The brief would have asked for something warmer, more engaging, less confrontational. As it was, ‘Just do it’ was a last-minute line conceived for a single campaign, which then grew in status after it received a positive response. It’s hard to re-create a process like that.
That said, LOCOG could have done a better job. ‘Inspire A Generation’ is a reasonable sentiment and ties in with the overall bid theme, which is a focus on young people and the legacy that the games will leave. But the best way to inspire a generation is to have a more inspiring brand message.
At this point, it would be nice if I could supply a brilliant answer myself. Given the brief, my first reaction would have been to question whether they needed a slogan at all. Is it really worth trying to hang everything on one phrase that will probably get slated by the media in any case? I’d also have warned them not to expect a single slogan to answer all their expectations. I’d have supported the idea of an open competition, but also encouraged them to get a panel of copywriters to cast an expert eye over them and suggest other answers. And I’d have sent them the recent Creative Review slogans issue, which shows how haphazardly a great slogan comes into being.
But some first ideas? I wondered about something trendy like #GBPB – the idea being that everyone in Great Britain this year should be aiming to achieve their PB in whatever they do. (PB = personal best – we’ll hear the abbreviation a lot this summer.). It’s a message that appeals to everyone and is cast in the language ‘the kids’ speak. Maybe #worldpb is less jingoistic. Either way, the media would probably hate it.
A more grown-up version of the same sentiment might be ‘Excel yourself’, in the sense of urging people not simply to spectate, but to get involved in the Olympic spirit – do whatever you do better than you’ve done it before. It’s a hard one to say ‘meh’ too on Twitter without sounding like a lazy oaf.
I’d like to think I’d arrive at a better answer than either of those, but they’re there to demonstrate the point that, if ‘Inspire A Generation’ is the brief, there are many potential creative expressions of the same thought.
But ‘Inspire A Generation’ will do its job to an extent – it gives the media something to talk about for a few days. It’s a three-word slogan that you can stick on all the merchandise. And it won’t scare the horses – no one could really object to such a safe sentiment.
Doubt it will make the next slogans issue of Creative Review though.
NB: I was going to use the 2012 logo to illustrate this post, but decided to use Daniel Eatock's alternative logo instead.
Today’s Guardian carries a story about Kraft Foods, who have set up a new company to handle their snack food products. As is often the case these days, rather than getting the professionals in to come up with a name, they launched a crowdsourcing-style competition. The result is Mondelez, where the ‘monde’ suggests ‘world’ and ‘delez’ supposedly suggests 'delicious'.
It doesn’t immediately strike you as a great name. The pronunciation is ambiguous and it sounds slightly like a French xxx-rated site.
The tone of the Guardian article is certainly wry and the comments so far suggest the name will draw mockery, not just on its intrinsic merit or lack of it, but also for the fact that it was crowdsourced – the winning suggestion came from two employees.
But it’s worth noting that, when it comes to naming, crowdsourcing is nothing new.
As long ago as 1890, a Macclesfield breadmaker called Richard ‘Stoney’ Smith launched a national competition to find a name for his new flour and breadmaking business. The winning entry came from a student called Herbert Grimes. And it was Hovis.
Like Mondelez, it comes from a contraction of two foreign-language words. In this case, it’s the Latin hominis vis, meaning ‘strength of man’.
It’s a great name, for which Herbert Grimes won £25. Not bad money in those days, although he may have negotiated more had he known it would still be around in 120 years.
The story is proof that crowdsourcing is far from the newfangled practice it’s made out to be. In many cases, it's really a fancy name for a competition.
There’s another interesting footnote on Hovis. The runner-up in the naming competition was ‘Yum yum’, which would have set a very different tone for the brand. It suggests that a tendency for slightly grating, infantilising brand language was also alive and well in 1890.
The picture at the top of this post (sourced here) shows the gravestone of Richard 'Stoney' Smith in Highgate Cemetery. It's a fascinating irregular shape and there is something satisfying about a Stoney stone, especially as it commemorates a man whose stock in trade was ground flour.
UPDATE: This article has subsequently appeared in a revised form on the Creative Review blog. Commenter Ben Millar notes that £25 would equate to £2,400 in today's money. Not to be sniffed at.