Should you ever swear in your marketing?

If everybody else is doing it, why shouldn’t you?

[Image courtesy of Melissa Wiese at Flickr Creative Commons]

 “I don’t know why people get so worried about what others think of them,” said a friend last week, when we were talking about a mutual acquaintance. “Personally, I’m past caring.”

Good for you, I thought. Because most of us aren’t.

We’re all just a teensy bit afraid of being judged by others, and being found wanting. Not clever, or funny, or intelligent, or cultured, or polite enough. Or whatever. So most of the time, we mind our p’s and q’s and play it safe.

Most of the time. And most people. But not everyone, and not always.

My friend, who claims to be past caring, still doesn’t extend his nonchalance to swearing. Why? Well it’s not a matter of what people would think of him. The truth is much simpler: he’s just not a sweary person.

Because there are sweary people. We all know one – or knew one, if their potty mouth has caused us to avoid their company.

Swearing doesn’t have to be vulgar, and used cleverly, it can actually be quite funny. And a non-sweary person can achieve even greater effect by dipping into the arsenal (stop it) of bad language and pulling out a weapon every now and then. The fact that it’s unexpected makes it even more striking. 

So much for the personal sphere. But what about swearing in marketing? And branding?

The simple answer is that it depends, as in real life, on who you are and who you’re talking to. If you’re a big, serious, heavyweight brand you’re never going to swear or even come close. It’s simply not in keeping with your image. If you’re a B2B brand, it’s always better to err on the side of caution. Nobody was ever offended by not swearing, so it’s best to play it safe.

No, swearing – or even moderately risqué language – is best confined to B2C brands. And then, only those who feel comfortable with it and are ready to accept the consequences.

Just like in real life.

Get over it, dude

There’s no mistaking the message that Fat Bastard or Sassy Bitch are sending out. What’s surprising is that both are a brand of wine, traditionally not a product associated with colourful language. But by shaking things up, and saying up front who they are and what they stand for, they immediately identify with their target market. 

Which is a clever move.

It’s probably also what Holy Crap cereal is trying to do, though I don’t think I’ll be chowing down on that any time soon. On the other hand, Bigg Ass Fans kind of appeal to me, and sound like they might really keep me cool in a long hot summer.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably already reacted to these brands (currently available in the US, but inevitably heading everywhere else) based on their names. Either you’re their sort of customer or you’re not. 

And here’s the thing: they know that, and don’t want you if you’re not.

Like me, like my lingo

Which is almost exactly what Doug Kessler over at Velocity said to me a few months back.

He’d written a brilliant piece on the subject entitled How to use swear words in your f***ing marketing (except he didn’t use asterisks), which tickled me in all the right places, and went down a storm with his readership (“Funniest and most entertaining blog I can remember reading, EVER!”). 

The thing is, Doug is the first to admit he’s a sweary guy. It’s part of his shtick, and is inseparable from who he is. And when it comes to clients, it separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, and the clients he wants from the ones he doesn’t. 

It works for him, and he feels comfortable with it.

(As an interesting aside, during our conversation lasting almost an hour, he didn’t swear once. Perhaps that was just because I opened  by mentioning the blog post, and the element of surprise, and spontaneity, had disappeared.)

I’m not sure the same approach would work for me, though. Strict parents, Catholic school and a natural aversion seem to stop me letting rip (most of the time – just don’t make me angry, as Bill Bixby used to say.)

And you know that? That suits me just fine.

I’m not offended in the least by other people swearing, and am even amused – or was, as the joke rapidly wore thin and became tiresome – by FCUK. (Yes, yes, we all know what it means. And yes, it’s clever. But if you’re going to swear, at least be honest and come right out with it.)

So should you swear? Or use risqué language? Or push the envelope just a little bit? It’s really up to you, your company voice and your target market. 

A good rule of thumb is never to say in writing what you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face: to an existing client, or a prospect, who’s standing there looking you straight in the eyes.

If that very thought makes you feel uncomfortable, then swearing’s not for you.

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Commonly confused words: the sequel

Little mistakes, big consequences. And how to avoid them…

[Image courtesy of Ricardo Carreon at Flickr Creative Commons]

Just the other day, somebody said to me, ‘What exactly are you inferring?’ when I suggested that he might not be taking the best decision.

It stopped me dead in my tracks.

Why? Because I wasn’t inferring anything – he was. I was implying, but to explain the difference would have been to add insult to injury. So I bit my tongue, adopted my best diplomatic tone and smoothed ruffled feathers.

Every so often, it pays to get back to basics, and look at the little things that matter. In this case grammar, vocabulary and spelling, which can send out signals about other things. We all like to think that we can see beyond a simple mistake, and that it doesn’t really matter in this day and age.

What’s more, we’ve been told so often over the last few decades that we shouldn’t make value judgements about the way people speak or write that we think the same goes for us and our business.

But just because you cut other people slack when they make mistakes doesn’t mean that they’ll return the favour.

And if somebody picks up on a clanger you’ve committed in print or on the web, it might just go viral if it’s funny or embarrassing enough, so you’re receiving attention for all the wrong reasons. Or worse, a potential client might just think that sloppy writing means sloppy service.

Way back in 2008, I wrote two posts about easily confused words. Years on, the confusion continues, with not just those words by many others. So I thought I’d return to the topic, and disentangle a few other common ones.

  1. complementary / complimentary
    These two words are easy to mix up, as they’re very similar, and actually have a common Latin origin (don’t worry – we’re not going to go there). But it’s important to get them right.

    Complement is to do with making something complete. So we talk about a ship’s complement (the full number of sailors) or say that white wine is the perfect complement to fish.

    The adjective complementary follows through on that sense, as you see in complementary medicine – alternative therapies that work with and extend traditional medicine.

    Compliment, on other hand, is to do with praise (we receive many compliments from our clients). Complimentary means flattering or full of praise, or – and this is where lots of confusion occurs – free/given as a gesture (a complimentary weekend for two).

  2. lie / lay
    There’s no easy way around this one, so if in doubt, check it out. The confusion arises because there are three linked, but separate, verbs: lie, lie (no, that’s not a mistake) and lay. And the past tense simply piles confusion on top of confusion, so let’s take a step back.

    Lie (1) means not to tell the truth. So I lie today, and I lied yesterday (a hypothetical example, you understand, as I’m the most truthful person you could ever hope to meet).

    Lie (2) means to be in a horizontal position. So I lie on the bed and go to sleep every night. But last night, I lay on the bed, because that’s the past tense. Still with me? Don’t worry, just one more to come.

    Lay means to set something down. So you can lay down the rules, or lay the table. If you did that yesterday, you laid down the rules, or laid the table.

  3. forego / forgo
    I recently read a story about a CEO who was intending to forego his bonus, as the company results were so dismal. What struck me, though, was not the magnanimity of the gesture so much as the mistake in the headline.

    The verb forego simply means to go before or to precede. You hardly ever see it used in this form, though. Far more common are foregoing (the foregoing conditions apply to all suppliers) and foregone (as in foregone conclusion).

    Forgo means to do without something – which is what our chief exec was doing, when he decided not to take the money and run. Since forego is rarely if every used, this is an easy one to get right: in almost all cases, it’s forgo.

  4. hone/ home
    This one is very common, though it’s easily avoided. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people talking about honing in on things, from USPs to key messages, from target markets to customer needs.

    In its literal sense, hone means to sharpen something – usually a knife. By extension, you can sharpen your skills or even your body.

    When you’re zeroing in on something, you need to use home, usually followed by in and on. Whenever I have a moment of doubt (they do happen) I think of  a homing pigeon flying straight back to to its coop. It’s homing in on that point. By definition, honing must mean something else. A simple but effective way to remember.

  5. podium / lectern
    And finally, here’s one for your inner pedant. It’s also controversial, as (a) American usage differs from British and (b) usage is fluid, even on this side of the Pond – but here goes anyway.

    podium is something you stand on, not at. If you cast your mind back to your Latin and Greek (just kidding) you’ll know that its root comes from foot (but seriously: think pedal, pedestrian, podiatrist etc.). So it’s a stage or a platform.

    lectern, on the other hand, is a tall narrow stand on which you put your notes/speech for a presentation. Again, the root is Latin, and comes from the verb to read. But as I said, this one is changing. Still, it’ll impress your friends at dinner parties.

Misuse of these or any other words doesn’t constitute a cardinal sin in the world of marketing. People will know what you mean, even if you don’t say what you mean. But they may just, at some subliminal level, think a little bit less of you for making the mistake.

And the very last thing you want them to do is infer bad service from bad writing.

Just think of the implications.

Brand journalism, content marketing and storytelling

Why everything has changed, and nothing has. And why that’s good news.

[Image courtesy of Khalid Albaih at Flickr Creative Commons]

Unless you’ve been living on the dark side of the moon, or in a cave somewhere, you can’t have failed to notice a seismic shift in the world of marketing over the last few years.

New terms have been coined, and they’re on everybody’s lips. Have you got into native advertising yet? If not, perhaps you should, since that’s the way everybody seems to be going.

Put simply, it’s advertising that doesn’t look like advertising. So it’s not in a display box, around which everything else flows. Instead, it gets right into the flow of things, and blurs the line between fact and faction.

We should be used to that by now.

After all, every time we do a Google search, we see sponsored ads either across the top or down the side of our search results.

It’s obvious that they’re ads, say Google. But is it? Many of the people I speak to say they had no idea it was an advert that led them to me.

But at least those Adwords ads do actually have a (small, admittedly) tag that says Ads. Native advertising takes this to a whole new level, slipping incognito into mainstream copy.

Next time you take a look at any newspaper site, cast your eye to the right-hand side, or below the article you’re reading. For that’s where you’ll see native advertising. Or brand journalism, which used to be known as advertorial, but sounds an awful lot more respectable under its new title.

Now you see it

So what is this seismic shift that’s taken place in the world of marketing? Why are ads no longer working? What changed?

We did. That’s the simple answer.

Cast you mind back 20 years (if you’re old enough – if you’re not, stay with me and you’ll learn something) and we were all sitting there like empty vessels, just waiting to be filled by advertising. Two-way communication was simply impossible, and joining the conversation was unheard of.

And then it all changed. It was back in 1995 that I remember an email plopping in to my In Box – from Bill Gates. Oh my God, I thought. I’ve only been at Microsoft five minutes, and here’s an email from Him.

And it was from Him, but it wasn’t just to me.

It was to all the tens of thousands of other Microsofties, telling us that we needed to get with the programme. The Internet Tidal Wave was the title of the message. Either we rode the wave, or we drowned. So ride it we did.

And when the wave broke on the shore, it changed everything. Not instantly, though, which made it even harder to notice the change.

But change there was.

Gone was the stuck-on-transmit approach to advertising and marketing. Now, it was conversations, collaboration and Web 2.0. And marketing that didn’t look like marketing. Advertising that didn’t look like advertising. And the word content would never be the same again. Not to mention storytelling.

Back to the future

The thing is, none of this should be a surprise to us. From time immemorial, we’ve been attracted to stories and fascinated by learning new things. By finding out facts and making discoveries. By identifying with the people in the stories we read, and by feeling involved.

So it’s hardly unexpected that advertising and marketing should move in this direction. The crude, standing-on-a-soapbox, megaphone-in-hand approach no longer works when you’re selling to sophisticated consumers – or savvy businesses.

They want to be part of the process, and get involved in the discussion. They want to learn something new, and feel as if you haven’t wasted their time.

So whether it’s a thought piece lurking on the edge of a newspaper site, or a podcast discussing the latest trends, a blog post that pulls them in and entertains or an e-book they share with friends or colleagues, value, interest and quality are the cornerstones.

In the digital age, everything changes but nothing does really. Whether it’s content marketing, brand journalism or native advertising, we’re talking about telling a story and getting back to basics.

None of this should surprise us. What is surprising is that we took so long to get here.

And now that we are here, as Bill said way back when, it’s time to get with the programme. So what’s your game plan?

Do passion and business really mix?

Getting up close and personal can have its downsides


[Image courtesy of Jacinta Lluch Valero at Flickr Creative Commons]

I’ve recently finished a thought-provoking book by Sir Ken Robinson.

He’s a British author, speaker and education advisor whose TED talk How Schools Kill Creativity I’ve recommended before. (If you haven’t seen it, you should – you’ll be one of a select group of over 31 million who’ve done so.)

Appropriately enough, as we head towards St Valentine’s Day, the book is called The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything.

The title says it all really. It’s about doing the thing you love, and how identifying that thing isn’t always easy. But it’s worth taking the time to find it, as it’ll ignite your passion and transform your life.

Don’t you love a story with a happy ending?

There are many inspiring stories, from John Lennon to Richard Branson. And if you’re saying ‘yes, but they were great talents waiting to emerge’, then Robinson heads you off at the pass by pointing out that for many of these people, there were nothing but obstacles along the way.

It’s only because we know that they were subsequently successful that we retrospectively see the signs. But at the time, it could have gone either way.

As Robinson says, there are lots of passionate people out there who never make anything of their passion. And others, who through sheer dogged determination, push mediocrity to the outer reaches of success.

How many people can you think of offhand who’ve made it but aren’t very good? (Go on, admit it, you do think that sometimes.)

Burning desire

But back to passion. Does it play a role in business? Should it be top of mind when you’re writing copy and designing marketing campaigns? Should you put your heart and soul into everything you do?

Let’s just take a quick look at the case for and against. First, for:

  • It keeps you interested and engaged.
  • That enthusiasm shines through in everything you produce.
  • It gives you an air of confidence and certainty.
  • You’re in ‘the zone’ so you’re more focused and sharper.
  • It gets your imagination going and fires your creativity.
  • You’re likely to stick at it for longer, as it’s something you hold dear.

And against?

  • Passion can cloud your judgement and make you take the wrong decision.
  • Everything is personal, from victories to defeats.
  • What you do and what you say are intimately tied up with who you are, so you’re exposing yourself to judgement, and possibly ridicule, every day.
  • It can lead you to say things that are inappropriate in a business context.
  • Passion doesn’t last forever.

From a copywriting perspective, passion has its place. I’m constantly reminding people that they’re writing for other people, so they need to connect with them. And that means putting feeling – and yes, passion – into their writing.

But no too much.

As with everything else, you need to exercise moderation. Too much passion in your writing will make it feel like being with somebody who inappropriately reveals lots of personal information on a first encounter. Who’s emotionally incontinent and can’t stop telling you  how they feel and what’s going through their mind.

Remember, this is business communication, not an affair. And your reader is not your new best friend. So get up close and personal, and let people see that you’re enthusiastic, engaged and confident. But always make sure you control and manage the message. Everything should be thought through and planned.

So passion, yes. But in a controlled, measured and… dispassionate way.

Find out more:

5 tips for responding to negative criticism

Grace under fire isn’t always easy – but it’s essential in today’s social world

[Image courtesy of Celestine Chua at Flickr Creative Commons]

I recently used a well-known holiday accommodation site for the first time. It has properties all around the world, from a simple spare bedroom in somebody’s home to an entire apartment or house.

And of course in the age of Holiday 2.0, guests rate the properties, and the owners… well they don’t go as far as giving stars out of five for the guests, but they can leave feedback about their overall impression. And they have the right to respond to negative criticism.

Several things struck me.

First, negative reviews outweigh positive ones. This is a well-known phenomenon, and I’ve touched on it here before. In fact a study showed some years back that one negative review carries the weight of 10 positive reviews.


Because it’s perceived as honest and realistic, in a world where review inflation is rampant. And where fear of reprisal encourages people to reach for the stars – all five of them.

And so it was with the search for my dream holiday apartment. 10 perfect reviews were outweighed by a single less-than-perfect one. ‘Watch out for the noise in summer’ influenced my decision, even in the depths of winter.

The good, the bad and the ugly

But what really struck me were the owners’ varying approaches to reviews. There were two properties in particular that attracted my attention.

The owner of the first responded to virtually all reviews, thanking those guests who were positive, and appeasing those who were negative. Her language was measured, calm and can-do. She came across as a warm, friendly, reasonable person who would sort problems out quickly and efficiently.

And even when a reviewer left an ill-tempered, nasty review, she responded with grace and aplomb. She was a shining example of how to handle criticism, and how to take the rough with the smooth.

The second owner was completely the opposite. She didn’t bother responding to positive comments, but zeroed in on the negative ones with deadly accuracy. She responded to negativity with negativity, and adopted a snide, self-righteous and pompous tone.

The thing is, the negative criticism was no worse than for the first owner. It was the way she reacted that really set her apart. Instead of trying to defuse the situation, she simply made it worse, drawing attention to the defects of the property – and herself.

So in this 24-hour, always-on social world, how should you deal with criticism? Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. React quickly and positively. Don’t just let a criticism sit there. Get in fast, control the conversation and manage the message. Criticism always hurts, especially if you think you’re doing a really good job, but that shouldn’t stop you moving forward and focusing on solutions.
  2. Never denigrate the criticiser. A negative response is worse than none at all. Maintain the moral high ground, and never respond in kind to somebody who’s negative. Instead, why not ask for suggestions for improvement and engage the criticiser?
  3. Mind your language. Keep it positive, upbeat and friendly. Remember the first rule of copywriting: write as you talk. So don’t go all stiff and formal, if that’s not how you speak in person. Instead, adopt a conversational tone that clearly shows you’re a reasonable person who’s easy to deal with.
  4. Don’t take it personally – even if it’s personal. Remember that all opinions are subjective – including yours. And in our virtual world, people say things online that they’d never say to your face. They can be extreme because they don’t have to feel any embarrassment or emotion. So take the same approach, distance yourself from the criticism, and think about how to turn the situation around.
  5. Remember the audience. In the digital world, the line between private and public is blurred. You’re not talking directly to the client any more. You’re potentially talking to the world – and the competition is watching too. So weigh every word before you respond, and remember that each one affects your company image and your brand.

I’ve now completed the feedback for my weekend stay. Apparently neither the owner nor guest can see feedback until they’ve both submitted it. That way, neither one has the advantage of knowing what’s been said about them, making the whole process more honest and transparent.

I rated the property very highly, and the owner too. I haven’t yet checked back to see if he’s rated me.  I’m sure I’m a model guest, but then as I said, all opinions are subjective.

Perhaps I’ll give it another day. Or two.