Slaves to the slogan


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.

Conversation my arse


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:

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 16.20.43

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.

Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 17.45.23

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.

Rough notes on 2014


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.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 19.07.14

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:

Best speech

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

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 16.05.16

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

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 17.05.17Pop 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.

Weirdest strapline


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


This story about trademarks registered by Donald Trump is gold from start to finish (via @design_week)

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


Will award this to The Sun for nicking our Nation’s Prayer and filming themselves reading it in Brazil. Happily, they eventually made a donation to Street League.

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

Read me writing about Read Me

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). 

An appreciation of the 45-day tweet

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 13.43.56

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.

with friends
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.

(How generous!)
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 and the fourth wall

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.

Chivas_David Abbott

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

Text sells

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 09.52.56

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.

Read the full article here.

The grand old man of brand

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 

Brands and The Psychopath Test


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. 

Starbucks13. 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


14. Impulsivity           
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.           


15. Irresponsibility           
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.     


20. Criminal Versatility           
A diversity of types of criminal offenses, regardless if the person has been arrested or convicted for them; taking great pride at getting away with crimes.Hillsborough



Broderick’s bars
Treacle Moon – via @bravenewmalden
Starbuck’s Mission Statement
Yahoo 30 logos in 30 days
Hall’s – via @adamhess1
Pinterest – via @underwoodsimon
American Apparel
Virgin Media
Passion – various Google images results
Ella’s Kitchen
BMW Mini Cooper
First Direct – via @totalcontent
Irn Bru
Gap logo withdrawn
Newsworks 'Hillsborough/hacking' campaign


The strange story of story


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.

The brand story of Little Red Riding Hood

The brand story of Peter Rabbit

The brand story of the Three Little Pigs

Toy Brand Story

The brand story of Chicken Licken

30 tones of voice in 30 days


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:

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.”

Long copy isn't back

Screen Shot 2013-07-01 at 10.29.38

I saw this tweet yesterday from DesignTaxi about Apple adopting a long-copy approach in its new ad campaign. 

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.


You can enlarge the image to see the copy, but here it is in full:

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. 
You think. 

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.)




Finally, there are the line breaks.  It’s become a worrying trend in long copy ads to lay them out like poetry. Tesco did the same thing with its recent (pre-George Osborne) apology ad:Tesco

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. 

DesignTaxi post here.

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.

Arguably Dylan or Crisp

Picture 4

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.


Problem: how to win a book


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:

Best blog
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
Danny Boyle

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 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.

Those we have lost
The Waterstones apostrophe, which inevitably got its own Twitter account.

Much more comprehensive Johnson Banks review here.

Stop writing self-absorbed packaging copy and use the space as a platform for interesting creative writing instead.

Milk-cartonThis 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.

Image by kashley with thanks to @huntaround

Abstract nominalisation never stops


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, fasteris 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.

LOCOG unveils new (brief for a) slogan

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.

Late Victorian crowdsourcing


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.

Apostrophcalypse now

Waterstonesalllogos_0Waterstone’s decision to drop its apostrophe and become Waterstones has caused a predictable media firestorm, as well as leading to some welcome publicity for the Apostrophe Protection Society (and its impressively old-school website).

I’ve recently been working with an educational college who are in the process of rebranding. They were considering dropping the apostrophe from their name and asked what I thought. I advised keeping it, not because I’m an apostrophe hardliner, but because they’re a school and it would inevitably have led to bad PR. For the same reason, Waterstones should probably have kept theirs. As a bookshop, there’s an extra burden of expectation on you to uphold what are perceived as correct linguistic standards.

But I do have great sympathy for them. For all that people are pouncing on it as an embarrassing error, the issue is more complex than that. It clearly wasn't a mistake. They spent time thinking about it and decided to do it anyway. And there are good arguments for doing so.

First of all, look at the first two words in this blog post: Waterstone’s decision. If their brand name is Waterstone’s, then shouldn't I be writing Waterstone’s’s decision? After all, Waterstone’s decision leads to potential confusion – is it the decision of Waterstone’s the company, or Waterstone, the founder?

Secondly, the passing of time can give the lie to once honest brand names. Waterstone’s was Waterstone’s because it belonged to Tim Waterstone. But it hasn’t done for years, so why pretend otherwise? Isn’t it misleading to call it Waterstone’s when it isn’t? Doesn't there come a point where a possessive shop name eventually cuts loose from its founder and rises to the status of a self-contained brand name?

Thirdly, apostrophes have always been awkward buggers when it comes to designing logos and shop signage. The arrival of domain names and Twitter accounts makes the situation worse. If the correct brand name is Waterstone’s, then you are forced into an annoying grammatical error every time you type or @waterstones.

So why not just drop the apostrophe and have done with it? It may involve weathering a brief storm from the nation's pedants, but then you can move forward into a blissful, apostrophe-free future.

For all that, they should probably still have kept it. Partly for the pragmatic reason that they’re a bookshop and it looks bad. But also because it's in keeping with the logo, which has returned to the traditional serif font. It sends out mixed signals to return to your core heritage graphically, but abandon it lexically.

I also admit to feeling a twinge of sadness every time a brand loses its connection with its founder like this. The apostrophe is a nice mark of respect to your brand's history, as well as a useful humanising touch – a reminder that you weren't always a big, faceless corporation.

Either way, Waterstones aren’t the first to face this dilemma and won’t be the last. Apostrophes have always had a troubled relationship with brand names. Boots, Selfridges, Harrods and Clarks have all dropped their possessive apostrophes over the years, while Sainsbury's and McDonald's have kept theirs. (Even these stories are complex – there is an argument that Boots never needed one as it refers to several members of the Boot family. And the McDonald family played a miniscule role in the McDonald's story – it was Ray Kroc who got the business going. You can't help feeling they retain the apostrophe because of the connection with that annoying clown.) Then there are the brand names to which we habitually add an ‘s’ even though one doesn’t exist. We often talk about going to Tesco’s, even though it should always be Tesco. What’s going on there?

Place names are hopelessly inconsistent as well. Is it King’s Cross or Kings Cross? St Andrew’s or St Andrews? Fair play to the US and Australia, who took the pragmatic decision to drop apostrophes from place names altogether (with a handful of exceptions). Rather that than the unsatisfactory mess we have in the UK.

Maybe apostrophes are best avoided altogether when it comes to brand names. A previous post on this blog talks about punctuation in brand names and the inevitably messy results (Yahoo! being the most obvious example). The king of the punctuated brand name is aa”lto u!niversit?y:

Picture 2
Wonder what the Daily Mail would make of that.

Top image from Creative Review, bottom image from Brand New.

11 from 11

In the predictable rush to cover natural disasters, political upheaval and the fall of empires, many reviews of 2011 will no doubt fail to note our blogging exploits – so we've been forced to write our own.

Here are eleven posts from 2011:


1. The year began on a sad note with Mr Blog’s Valedictory Awards Show.


2. The valedictory mood continued with reflections on Rob McElwee’s disappearance from our daily lives.


3 & 4. February was poetry month – one about Asda launching a dating service, and one about the birth of a new Asbury (the defining moment of our year in a big and increasingly noisy way).


5. April saw ill-informed copywriters defacing a blind man’s sign.

6. May was all about the Creative Amnesty, a joint venture with Creative Review, which saw the great and good of the creative world sharing their worst ideas.


7. June was the month of 1,000 words.


8. July was The One With The Really Good Friends Advert.


9. September saw a rare venture into long-form blogging, with some reflections on wackaging and the trouble with copywriting.


10. October saw the unwrapping of WrapperRhymes.


11. And finally there was a salute to the greatest brand name of all time: Rotavator.


If you have been, thank you – and happy Christmas.

In praise of the Rotavator


There's a lot of talk about palindromes today, with it being 11.11.11.

Although it gets tiresome after a while*, there is something peculiarly satisfying about a good palindrome. ‘Madam, I'm Adam’ may have been the first words ever spoken. ‘Dogma: I am god.’ may have been the second. ‘A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!’ is probably the best.

I was wondering how many brands have tapped into the power of the palindrome. From what I can tell, there are only a handful, and more by accident than design. Oxo. Axa. Elle. Civic. Aviva. TNT. M&M. Other brand names lend themselves to palindromic play without being palindromes themselves – ‘A Toyota’s a Toyota’.

However, there is one brand name that really stands out, and that’s Rotavator. It was an engineer called Arthur Clifford Howard (pictured above) who trademarked the name in 1922. Since then, it has become the generic term for the product, although it’s often spelt (less satisfyingly) as ‘Rotovator’.

But what a great brand name. A contraction of 'rotating' and 'cultivator', the word revolves perfectly on itself, just like the mechanism it describes. It was a new coinage in its time and therefore completely ownable, and yet you understand what it does just from the sound it makes.

If anyone ever asks me for my favourite brand name, I now have an answer. A retrospective D&AD Pencil for Arthur Clifford Howard is surely in order.


* I'm thinking of you, ‘Sit on a potato pan, Otis’.

Every little probably does exactly what it says on the tin of beanz and Pop!


Creative Review is in the process of working out the 20 best slogans ever created. They've invited some people to send in their personal top fives. This is what I went for: 

1. Every little helps

I put this ahead of the others because it’s not just an advertising endline – it’s also a proper brand positioning. This is the comment I left on the original Creative Review post:

For me, the best strapline ever is also arguably the most evil: Tesco’s ‘Every little helps’.

It’s clever because it’s rooted in folk wisdom – a saying that has been passed down through generations. Exactly the kind of thing your grandma used to say. So it carries the everyday authority of a proverb.

It’s tonally appropriate – conversational and impossible to misunderstand (unlike John Lewis’s mind-bending ‘Never knowingly undersold’).

It’s strategically spot-on, because it taps into the customer’s mindset, and also works as a brilliant internal motivator. It’s about the tiny things that add up to a big difference – the penny cheaper on the baked beans, or the penny off the price you get from a supplier. Multiply tiny differences by something as big as Tesco and you have world domination.

And that’s the evil bit. The line is a classic example of verbal misdirection. ‘Little’ ought to be the last word you associate with Tesco. You should think of them as a multinational giant crushing everything in its path. But instead they plant that word in your head, with all the folksy charm it implies.

I don’t like it, but I admire it very much.

2. Beanz Meanz Heinz

The classic brief – associate our name with the generic product. The prosaic answer would be ‘Think beans. Think Heinz.’ This is the poetic answer – a brilliant piece of wordplay rooted in the brand name.

3. Does exactly what it says on the tin

Created a new idiom that will probably survive in the language long after Ronseal has gone. It’s a kind of anti-strapline – no wordplay, no clever twist, and a message so obvious it shouldn’t need saying – why wouldn’t it do what it says on the tin? But the hyper-clarity is perfect for the bewildering world of DIY.

4. Snap! Crackle! Pop!

The definitive example of a strapline driving an entire brand. Like many great lines, it wasn’t conceived as a strapline – it was part of a radio ad that got picked up and developed into a series of characters that are still used today. Interestingly, the product makes a different sound in other countries: Pif! Paf! Puf! (Denmark), Cric! Crac! Croc! (France), Knisper! Knasper! Knusper! (Germany), Pim! Pum! Pam! (Mexico).

5. Probably the best lager in the world

A classic example of a brand taking ownership of a word. Look up ‘Probably’ in a dictionary and you half-expect a TM to appear next to it. It’s even better because Orson Welles voiced the original TV ads – the greatest voice reading one of the greatest lines. They don’t make them like that any more. (They make ‘That calls for a Carlsberg.’)

Other contenders included ‘Yes we can’ (reinventing the political slogan), ‘Made in Scotland from girders’ (the surreal approach), Wasssup (dated now, but fresh in its time), and for sheer longevity: ‘Say it with flowers’ (Interflora). But I could probably have picked several more.

You can see all the other top fives here.


UPDATE: I've just remembered another personal favourite slogan, for Boost. "It's slightly rippled with a flat underside." Voiced by Vic Reeves. A nice deconstruction of the strapline.

Another successful consultation

You may remember I blogged a while back about a Brent Council online survey regarding the branding and messaging for its new recycling initiative. The one that led me to reflect that, in many instances, "consultation is a hollow, life-sapping, time-wasting distraction for people who are too lazy, lily-livered and feckless to make even the smallest decision for themselves." The full post is here.

Well, you'll be pleased to know the consultation exercise is now complete and the new initiative has been launched. After much consideration, they've gone with 'recycle more' in a friendly lower-case font, against a green background (interesting innovation there), along with a picture of an ethnically-balanced group standing cheerfully beside some bins.

Picture 5

Good work, Brent. I'm glad we were able to help.

Wackaging and the trouble with copywriting

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

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

Picture 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possibly, but that sounds like wishful thinking.

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

An appealing argument, and possibly valid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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