Blog in 08 2012.
Our Abby’s not impressed with BIC’s range of ballpoint pens ‘For her’ (designed to fit a woman’s hand, and featuring an attractive pink and purple barrel design).
Gender-based branding is feeling the heat this week, as Amazon reviews for the new ‘For her’ pen range from BIC furiously rack up. A random selection:
WOMAN: ‘I quickly found a piece of notepaper with pictures of kittens round the edges and had a go at writing my name. It was amazing! The pen just stayed in place between my fingers, just like it always had for the boys in my class at school.’
MAN: ‘I bought this pen (in error, evidently) to write my reports of each day’s tree felling activities in my job as a lumberjack. It is no good. It slips from between my calloused, gnarly fingers like a gossamer thread gently descending to earth between two giant redwood trunks.’
Humour aside, there’s a serious point to be made. It’s not like these are the first purple-pink, softly cushioned pens to be invented. It’s the incredibly glib byline, ‘For her’, that’s got everyone riled up. In fact, if BIC hadn’t used that phrase they’d have got away with it completely.
So what’s the problem? Aside from the fact that it’s utterly irrelevant if a pen is for a man or a woman, ‘For her’ irks the most because it implies BIC are doing women a favour. And it makes their brand team seem really out of touch with their customers, who are all probably fine with their harsh, angular, patriarchal writing implements.
The backlash is similar to the Femfresh hoo-hah a few months ago. I use ‘hoo-hah’ wryly, because it’s one of the names Femfresh chose to describe where their lady customers would apply their products (along with ‘froo froo’, ‘nooni’ and ‘la la’). I’m talking about vaginas. Their Facebook page was quickly bombarded with comments from people protesting against these infantilised euphemisms, and against a product that makes women feel ashamed about their bodies.
Both of these examples expose how outdated gender-based branding still is. Women don’t need either of these products, but companies think they can persuade them they do by using ‘feminine’ language.
Femfresh and BIC: get out of the 1950s. It really doesn’t wash.
Small supermarkets are here to stay. In fact, for most people, it’s hard to remember what life was like before them.
You can’t go too far without seeing an Express (which brings to mind: bus travel, Royally obsessed newspaper), Metro (Parisian underground, free newspaper) or Local (quick pint, bad newspaper). None of them sound like much fun, and food shopping should be fun. Well, not fun fun – it is food shopping after all – but not dull, at least.
Now there's a new kid on the block – Little Waitrose. And that is a good name.
So what’s good about ‘Little’?
Simple. It uses the language the customer would use – it's a wonder nobody thought of it before. Warm, welcoming and just the right side of twee, you can imagine people using it in everyday conversations:
‘Darling, I’m off to Waitrose.’
‘Which one? Big Waitrose or Little Waitrose?’
‘Great. Make sure you pick up some Essential Roasted Artichokes, will you?’
Putting lazy stereotypes aside, the best thing about it is that it doesn’t actually feel like it’s been named. And sometimes, that’s the thing that turns people off – the thought that an expensively assembled team of namers sat around brainstorming ideas that will appeal to the ‘target audience’.
It sounds easy, but it’s not. There would have been a lot of messages to get across in that name: convenience, choice, value for money and all that other supermarket stuff. But they plumped for size and gave people the benefit of the doubt with the others.
It works brilliantly. And above all, it sounds fresh – and that’s got to be a good thing for any supermarket.
Happy birthday, A Clockwork Orange. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Anthony Burgess’ classic novel. What’s interesting about this book isn’t what happens to the narrator Alex (a Mozart-loving, milk-drinking teen) and his cronies: it’s how the story is told.
Burgess wrote the book completely in ‘nasdat’, the gang’s slanguage. Nasdat is a mongrel that Burgess created by mixing Russian and Slavic words with Cockney street slang, German, kid-speak and old English:
‘You could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencorom or one or two other vesches.’
Peet? Vellocet? Is this brand naming for hair-removal cream? No. It’s actually Alex talking about mixing drugs. Don’t worry though, it gets easier. From about five pages into the book, something strange happens. You start to understand this gobbledygook. You become acclimatised to nasdat.
It’s an example of how sometimes we can surprise ourselves with what we understand.
The best writers invent. Shakespeare created his own words when he couldn’t think of exactly the term to fit and Tolkien wrote whole passages in Elvish. Okay, so maybe Burgess was less an inventor and more a multilingual borrower, but the theory is still the same: your readers aren’t stupid, so challenge them.
Well, maybe don’t go full-out nasdat and invent a language, but making your reader reach for the dictionary is no bad thing. The odd unfamiliar word can refresh a whole piece of writing.
*Watch your words
The Twitterverse is full of nutty ideas. On one of my twambles*, I came across @ShakespeareSong – an account dedicated to writing ‘modern songs and phrases in archaic language’.
Guessing the original song is all part of the fun. Take tweets like, ‘Escort me down to the utopian civilisation, where the vegetation is of green hue and the females are elegant and graceful.’
Or ‘I witness thee parading about the village in the company of the female I am infatuated with and so I exclaim, “Fornicate thyself!”’
See? Loads of fun. But we can actually learn a lot from Shakespeare’s reincarnated Twitter self. It’s a great way of looking at how we use words needlessly – and how we can easily say something in five words rather than ten.
Shakespeare knew his stuff about grammar (he was happy to use ‘and’ to start a sentence), but language has moved on since then. We don’t need to use long rambling words and phrases to emphasise a point. (Even if you think it makes you sound smarter.)
Your readers don’t want to spend ages wondering what you’re trying to say. So, in Shakespearean style: ensure thy penmanship is transcribed as guilelessly as is feasible. Or in real terms – stick to writing simply.
Can you come up with a @ShakespeareSong?
*That’s a Twitter ramble. If you put ‘tw’ in front of any word, it automatically becomes Twitter-related. (This is definitely a real fact.)
On a recent trawl of LinkedIn discussion boards, a thread called ‘Using the right words’ jumped out at me.
The (clearly very sensible) person who’d started it was making a simple, but really important, point: that companies often think more about the words they use in their ads than the ones their people use to sell products to customers.
Take new cars. You can launch a clever, aspirational ad campaign that has customers beating a path to your door. But if, when they walk into the showroom, the sales person says, ‘It’s a 1.6 litre TDCi with Active Park Assist and Torque Vectoring Control’ – well, you’ve just wasted a brilliant opportunity.
That’s why, when we train people to become more effective writers at work, we tell them to put themselves in their customers’ shoes. So instead of describing the features of their product (a family hatchback that does 60 miles to the gallon), we get them to think about the benefits (how many school runs the parents can do before they need to fill up the tank).
So by all means fly to the Amalfi Coast to film beautiful ads with beautiful people and even more beautiful words (and take us with you). Just make sure you show as much love to the words your sales people use. Because they could be the ones that really count.