For anyone who has ever typed in the wrong URL address, the number 404 will spring to mind. In the beginning of the internet, some twenty odd years ago, a number was all you got: a bald 404 referring presumably to an error code. Some slightly more enlightened sites added a little more to the experience: “You’ve 404’d, dude.” The line still assumed a tech knowledge that was beyond most people at the time.
Gradually companies who cared just a little more about their customers reading experience wrote a few emollient words to help assuage the pain of error and feeling lost in cyberspace. But the Telegraph, which seems to be a class act in terms of its user experience seems to have done a lot better. A simple cartoon by Matt which is suitably funny and on point.
In any highly competitive market, where there is a surfeit of products all competing for the same proposition, then inevitably, the propositions become hard to distinguish. In these cases a sort of exclusion principle applies. Once one successful brand has occupied one slot, the next successful product to compete in that space will have to occupy a different tonal slot.
This is where brand tonality and personality becomes the difference; When price, product, promotion etc are all identical.
To understand this graphically it helps to see tone in terms of the following wheel. It shows how brands connect to the idea of archetype, an idea originally conceived by Jung.
If you’d like to read more about the role of archetypes in brands and organisations try The Hero and the Outlaw, by Margaret Mark and Carol S Pearson.
Apple comes up so often in brand conversations, it’s easy to forget how many different elements work so coherently in its brand mix. So here then are the five P’s outlined. Purpose and philosophy, personality and positioning, proposition, product and price point.
Okay, there are more than 5, but there’s plenty of overlap. The purpose and philosophy for Apple is the aim to be creatively disruptive.
Steve Jobs gave us many clues about this. From his early experience with calligraphy, in the days when typography and computing simply didn’t go together, one of his major creative disruptions to the industry was to make sure that they did. More disruptive messaging was to follow; When the computing world seemed to be at peak IBM architecture, he launched an explicitly disruptive message in the famous Apple Super Bowl ad for 1984. Here, a dystopian superpower, an embodiment of the IBM Gates axis, has their screen smashed by the newcomer.
The personality and positioning are creative and they sit very happily in the creator slot of the archetypes chart.
The strap line think different underscores this. The embodiment of creativity happens, of course, in many ways but one of the strongest was by contrasting the uncool of pc jacket and tie man against the more chilled guy with his shirt hanging out.
And this was certainly living the brand because Job’s own sartorial style had made it to the TV ads and the employee dress code at the Genius bar.
There is a dark side of a creative personality that sometimes comes up and you can see this present in the Apple brand estate too.
The Lemmings ad was what happens when a creative guru shows too much disdain for their clients and their lack of cool. Effectively insulting their IBM audience, accusing them of blind moronic stupidity, the ad bombed, killing sales and Apple had to close three of its six plants. Steve Jobs left the company in the mid-eighties after this debacle. So much for the dark side of creative positioning.
But the rest of the brand estate has been an impeccable demonstration of how to position as creative.
The product and price point are premium. And the strap lines emphasise the personality not the product. It’s think different, not think premium.
When you talk about strong branding, ultimately the strength is a reflection of the coherence of the P’s. It seems so easy when its done well.
In front of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem stands another equally historic building, the YMCA, where if you look closely, you’ll find an inscription. It amounts to the mission statement of the building, put there by Lord General Allenby in 1933.
Eighty years later, the same building and related organisation still has a mission statement, which nestles next to the reception desk. (see bottom of page)
But this version is much longer, difficult to understand in many places, and completely wooly in others. Was it Allenby’s military discipline or the fact he lived in a less committee-based world than meant his single sentence conveys so much more that the committee speak of the later version?
The modern mission statement: “The YMCA has a value system based on equality, human dignity, multiculturalism, and the aspiration to promote peace among nations. The organization makes no distinction between religion, race and gender and aims to embody these principles in its activities. Aware of the importance of every human being, the Y aims to develop a peaceful community in which the uniqueness of each ethnic group works together for the broader benefit of society.”
One of charts that really helps when you’re discussing verbal, or indeed any type of brand identity is the one above. Based on Jungian archetypes and developed by Mark and Pearson, it forms a neat representation of different brand flavours.
The question you start with is the usual consultancy one: where are we now? The next question is where would we like to get to?
If an organisation product or service is say in the ruler section, maybe they want to transform and become a mate?
If they are a ruler, what sort of ruler are they? Bossy and aloof in a not good way or alternatively, aspirational in the way British Airways was, when it was at its best?
Or maybe the content is such a mish-mash it doesn’t really have any distinct tone you can speak of. Maybe it’s just a big pic’n mix nothing.
These are the issues that form the basis of an audit, and obviously you need to do this in some form, even if only in a very cursory way.
In the old days it was all about the branding agency auditing, presenting and ultimately delivering a verbal identity, but my view is that doesn’t really wash nowadays.
Most organisations have scores of content marketing and corporate writers and there’s no reason to leave them outside the process.
This means that repositioning a company needs to be done with them in a collaborative training and exploratory way, rather than brought down from on high and ‘rolled out’.
Not that there’s anything wrong with ‘rolling something out’, it just doesn’t make any allowance for the way organisations usually work.
You usually find that it’s one thing for a verbal branding agency to blithely specify a few choice phrases, that amount to general good writing practice, but it’s quite another to work through the daily diet of communications the team actually have to put out.
It’s for this reason that training, facilitation, content and verbal brand repositioning are a great combination. And you can’t really substitute them for a few standard bromides about copywriting.
Two ads, two foods, and two very different approaches to tone. I’m not a big gum chewer, and I do like my prosecco, so perhaps I’m biased. On the right, it’s all about proposition. On the left it’s all about tone. The use of words like civil and sozzled, shindig, even sea salted rather than just salt, all paint a picture of acceptable, maybe even necessary decadence.
The typography which is itself a little tipsy, helps remind us that being too square and sober is best left to other brands and other products.
If you’ve got to sell a pack of salted crisps, where margins are high and competition is intense, tone is your secret weapon.
Tim Riley was one of people who was kind enough to give me some coaching and critiques when I was trying to land my first job in advertising.
Years later he also sat down with me over a cup of tea at the Landmark hotel to help me sort out the content and aims of the Copycourse.
You might know his work from, amongst other things, the most clicked on Sainsbury’s ad for 2014, based on the true story of when the Germans and the British started playing football on Christmas day, from behind the trenches. See above.
He also penned the following words of advice on writing copy (below). Almost two decades old, and coming from a pre-digital age, it still stands up for its no-nonsense tonality, and humility.
“I have a confession to make, and it’s an unusual one for a copywriter. I don’t like writing copy. This isn’t as much of a problem as you might think, though. Because the truth is, nobody likes reading copy either.
People buy magazines to read the articles, not the ads. You’re lucky if people notice your work at all. So I always try to make the headlines tell as much of the story as possible. (Consequently, I end up with some very long headlines.)
Occasionally though, there’ll be ads where writing detailed copy is unavoidable. What do you do then? You get somebody to help you. When I was a junior at BMP, there were three very good writers, Alan Tilby, Dave Watkinson and Alan Curson, who were patient enough to read through my copy and suggest improvements.
Never was this more eloquently done than when Al Tilby looked at what I’d written, carefully tore it in half, then in half again, and let the pieces gently flutter into his wastepaper bin. ‘You can do better than this,’ he said. I did. The other way I learnt was by reading old ads, over and over again.
One I always admired was the Health Education poster: ‘This is what happens when a fly lands on your food.’ I liked the way the writers, Charles Saatchi and Michael Coughlan, made the story so compelling with such a deadpan, factual style.
In 73 words of copy they use only one adjective. (And the one they do use, ‘runny’, is a killer.)
Old ads aren’t the only things you can read for inspiration. Given a poster to do about Michael Jordan, Andy McKay and I found an article about him in an old copy of American Esquire. At one point, the author described Jordan’s game as ‘an ongoing dialectic with Isaac Newton’.
Once we’d looked up ‘dialectic’ in the dictionary, it was a short step to ‘Michael Jordan 1 Isaac Newton 0’. But perhaps the best advice on actually writing copy comes from an ad. It was written for VW in 1962 by, I think, John Withers. Underneath the headline, ‘How to do a Volkswagen ad’, the copy concludes: Don’t exaggerate.
Call a spade a spade. And a suspension a suspension. Not something like ‘orbital cushioning’. Talk to the reader, don’t shout. He can hear you. Especially if you talk sense. Pencil sharp? You’re on your own.”
Finding well put together case histories and good B2B storytelling is like finding truffles. Thanks to Joshua Morse, at www.joshuamorse.co.uk for introducing me to this one. It’s well structured, nicely shot and is essentially the rationale behind three different case histories. Enjoy.
When you’re in a competitive market, position yourself. Do it anyway you can but especially by tone of voice. Nothing gives the audience a faster understanding of the role you want to play in their lives.