Blog in 09 2011.
In our workshops people often tell us there are words and phrases they use because it’s what their customers and colleagues expect, and want. We’re going to find out if that’s true.
So here’s a super-quick survey about words at work.
There are only five questions, and it should take you just three minutes to fill in. Promise. (We’ve timed it.)
Thanks so much. We’ll get back to you with the results (and remember, you’re doing a good thing for the world).
In this week’s Observer, Eva Wiseman let rip at nauseatingly cute food packaging. ‘We’re all being babysat by the stuff we buy. Lullabied with the padded language of packaging – packaging that, in recent years, has begun to talk to us. Talk to us like we’re children...’
It’s at least the fifth time I’ve read a variation on this column. (Heck, we even wrote our own version two years ago – ‘the end of fluff’ – in the annual Superbrands round-up.) Here’s what I think every time:
1. It really ain’t new any more
Innocent started it all. They showed the world what you could do just by taking the time to think about all the little details, and they did it brilliantly. But they’ve been around for thirteen years. Thirteen years. Jesus. Copying Innocent was never exactly original, but back in the day it at least showed you wanted to be part of a different tribe. But if after practically a generation your brand is still going for an Innocent-like chatty faux-naive tone, then you’re really, really not thinking hard enough.
2. And it ain’t all bad
It’s easy to lump all ‘chatty’ brands together. But there are plenty getting it right: Puccino’s coffee bars do it with swagger and knowingness (see the ads they put out for new franchises, which started ‘Hi, I’m Luigi, the fictional head of Puccino’s coffee bars...’); Peppersmith chewing gum does it with a very English intelligence and wit; and Waitrose’s ‘a pinch of...’ products do it with a nice, under-stated naturalness. Clue: they’ve all gone beyond a vague ‘chatty’ tone and worked out what’s right for them.
3. And right now, it ain’t that surprising
In her article, Wiseman wonders whether this is all a ‘consequence of sex-sells branding... If you feed in a lorryload of thighs and innuendo at the start of a decade, does it excrete cupcakes and baby voices at the end?’ Perhaps. I reckon it’s more likely that it’s a reaction to the uncertain times we live in. The verbal equivalent of nursery food and a comfort blanket. Just like the rash of nostalgic TV ads at the moment, retreating into the sepia-tinted certainty of the past. But that’s for another blog...
Anya and I have been over in New York for the last few weeks, running a kind of pop-up Writer. We’ve been doing workshops for our US clients, speaking at events, sweltering on muggy avenues, learning to ask for the ‘check’, tipping people way more than we’re used to, and of course, trying to make friends with people in nicely located offices (hello, Bill).
And naturally, we’ve been attempting to forensically examine the language of American brands in the process. So what have we learnt (or should that be learned)?
1. The MBA still holds sway
There’s just as much of a battle as at home to wrestle business language into human. But it’s a slightly different battle; while British business writing tends to the stiff and bureaucratic, the US strain groans under the weight of business school verbiage. Just as in the UK, pretty much everyone recognises it gets in the way of decent communication, but that getting rid of it means changing the habits of a lifetime.
2. They’ve got a bit of cheek
While you’ll find most British brands on a spectrum from businessy and dull to friendly and informal, the voices of American brands are much more polarised. It seems once you break free of the MBAspeak, you might as well go the whole darn way. We loved the café whose poster proclaimed their food was Prepared under the direction of an executive chef (not slapped together by a kid in a hairnet).
3. They’re ready to take a stand
Some brands are being really bold about what they believe in, even when it’s got nothing to do with their product. We saw it in American Apparel’s windows, and a huge great poster saying If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get gay married. This on an advert for Manhattan Mini Storage. Forget PowerPoint slides about values; say what you think and slap it on the side of a bloody great building.
4. Don’t get Texans to have a go at rewriting a bit of business writing in the style of Barack Obama
It opens a right old can of worms.
5. You can be shameless without shame
In the UK, if I mention I’ve written a book (or three), it’s met at best with grudging respect. I only get away with a plug if I’m apologetically self-deprecating at the same time. Americans, by contrast, positively congratulated me for writing it (even, and in fact especially, the ones with their own books to flog). They treat you like you’ve really achieved something. They left me feeling like, well yeah, maybe I have. Rest assured that I will be swiftly disabused of that fleetingly satisfying sentiment as soon as I make it back into the UK office. We had a blast. So, America, will you have us back soon? (Maybe when it’s cooler.)
On Friday we held our monthly creative team meeting at The Scoop, an ampitheatre next to City Hall in London.
On a damp, grey, overcast day we tried our hand at a spot of poetry.
We took inspiration from the American poet Frank O'Hara, specifically his poem called Poem – a list of observations he wrote down while walking to a poetry competition. To show how you can take inspiration from seemingly mundane situations, we all wandered off for ten minutes, and just scrawled what we saw.
Here's what we came up with:
Relax, refresh, talk, enjoy, fuel.
How, when you can’t get in?
The grey, swooping Scoop.
It’s not Roman, it’s London.
It’s not Greek, it’s bleak.
There’s no yoga here this morning.
There’s scaffolding, high viz, hard hats, glass, grey and steel.
And those little metal things they use on stone to stop skateboarders.
Why won’t they let them skate?
Maybe it’s only More London for those who relax, refresh, talk, enjoy, fuel.
They’ve finished painting Tower Bridge Bright blue against September grey
A Sightseeing Tour of London crosses, five tourists taunting the laden sky
The Mayor’s Darth Vader helmet looks out towards the rising Dalek
Let’s pray there’s no extermination
On this, the eve of 10 years later
This looks like it’s been written by a five year old
Metal map, men in yellow jackets.
A boat called the Lady Thames II
(I wonder what happened to I?).
White vans on Tower Bridge, The Ray Linge Marquee company.
Squashed by a Japanese man taking pictures,
Midgies in my face.
Joggers jogging, boat sponsored by NatWest.
Now I’m in the Japanese man’s picture.
Wet piece of paper, pen running out.
We’re cleaning the river together
We’re cleaning the river together.
Every empty can of Foster’s. Every rainbow trout that’s floating,
upside down on top of the murky grey.
Seven seagulls stand on the Thames. Not the river. The rusty boat in the shadow of Belfast that seems to have the same colour as the sky. And the water.
Ionia passes by, pushing sand. Two piles of it. And behind it comes the next in a never ending line of City Cruises.
The origin of the Foster’s.
And probably the inverted trout too.
Take it to the Bridge
I want it. God I want it. And I’m going to have it
Not sure where I’m going to put it
But I want it all the same
Don’t care what it costs
Actually no. Play it cool.
Try to knock them down. Oh just get it
The one with the towers?
Yes, the one in London London Bridge
If they want to sell it, just goes to show
Everyone has his price
Money speaks all languages
Even Limeys know that
The deal’s done, you say
That was quick
And they’re moving it for us too
Too kind. Jolly good. Silly fools
On the bank of the river
Education is happening
And loos are for schoolchildren only
This art has been specially created
Like the bridge, specially built
And the Queen’s Walk with no Queen
And the smell of grass and autumn
Does the man in the mac and briefcase smell it?
Do the men in the high vis jackets smell it?
It’s a festival of metal hitting metal.
Many moons ago I embarked on an exciting career as a place name scholar. I had my brown suede jacket, my thick-rimmed spectacles, my library card, and a curiously niche specialism: the names of the city of London.
During my research I came across such gems as Shitebourne Lane, which was later sanitised to Sherbourne Lane. And (brace yourself) Gropecunte Street, which I think has been mentioned on QI, and which means exactly what you think it means.
Place names are wonderfully organic. The oldest ones weren’t thought up by a committee in a featureless room with not enough windows. They were just the way people referred to a place. So they give us a glimpse into the most natural kind of name.
There are too many place names to generalise, but it’s fair to say a good chunk of them describe things that are concrete. In London, that means buildings (Spitalfields is named for St Mary Spital, a twelfth century hospital). Or the stuff that gets sold locally (Poultry). Or a natural feature (Appletree Yard).
You don’t see Synergy Square. Or Dynamic Avenue. Those are abstract concepts people can’t quite grasp, and as a result, tend not to remember.
But it’s a different picture entirely if you look at product names and brand names in the business world. Plenty of them paint no pictures at all.
At The Writer, we help companies come up with names for all sorts of things. And if there’s one lesson they can all learn from place names, it’s to tap into our basic need for something real we can picture in our heads. A concrete name, not something abstract. As place names show, it’s just human nature.