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November 2011

Reflections on the cat's eye


I've just contributed to a Design Week voxpop about the design stories behind everyday objects. My choice was the cat's eye.

I'm far from the first to point out what a remarkable piece of design it is, but the story can't be told often enough. Its inventor was a Yorkshireman called Percy Shaw. Different sources tell different versions of the story, but the romantic version has it that Percy Shaw was driving down a dark stretch of road, from which the tramlines had recently been removed. This was a problem, as people generally relied on the reflections from the tramlines to find their way at night. As he approached a blind bend, his headlights caught the eyes of cat sitting on a fence, which alerted him to slow down – without that cat (the story goes) he'd have overshot the bend and met a messy end.

Whether or not the story is true, "cat's eye" was certainly an ingenious brand name, and beautifully carried through in the poster above.

As I mention in the voxpop, Percy Shaw was a bit of a character. If you're not familiar with it already, it's well worth reading more about his life and strange TV viewing habits.


Design Week voxpop
Life of Percy Shaw
More on the cat's eye

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.