Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes

Saying what you mean, loosening up and getting the little things right

Hey you! started the email, which is always a good way to get attention. Nothing like a little directness. Whatever happened to Copycam? Or have you stopped snapping?

And you know what? He was onto something, my direct emailing friend. I haven’t stopped snapping – or sniping come to that. Every so often, I’ve been taking photos of copy that could have been more elegant, or clearer, or even omitted. Unintended meaning, misplaced punctuation and clunky prose.

It’s just that I haven’t been posting it. So hold onto your hats, and let’s get started.

Funny you should mention that

I’m a big advocate of humour in small doses, when it comes to writing in general and copywriting in particular. There’s rarely a faster way to connect with people and show them there’s a beating heart behind the business.

You don’t want to lay it on with a trowel (it fasts becomes tedious) or make it dodgy (it soon offends), but a little dash of wit here and there never hurts.

And it if has a topical hook, so much the better. About this time last year, when Margaret Thatcher died, the laundry up the road from Copy Towers was quick off the mark:

It’s clever without being corny. It refers to a controversial figure without being openly partisan. And the speed with which it appeared was remarkable. As was the speed with which it disappeared, to be replaced by another laundry-related pun.

Staying with the theme of ladies, I spotted this one day when I was in town:

One for the gentlemen, I thought. Who could resist at that price?

And yet I can’t really throw the first stone. We’ve all been there – you, me, and everybody who’s ever picked up a pen or hunted and pecked on a keyboard.

Afterwards, you look back in horror and wonder did I really write that? You did. And so did I. But what we didn’t do was review it after leaving it to one side for a while.

My rule is simple: write once, edit many times. Read even more times.

If in doubt…look it up

Let’s stay with with fashion, but move departments. H&M decided to avoid humour and simply tell it like it is:

Unfortunately, they forgot the all-important apostrophe. Yes, yes, I know it’s just a small thing, but all the small things add up to a lot of big things. Lack of attention to punctuation could just lead to more serious lapses. Or is that just the word geek coming out in me?

Perhaps you’re right, so let’s move on. But before we do, I should tell you that I found the missing apostrophe a few streets away in a pub window:

Small but perfectly formed. And speaking of misplaced punctuation, here’s another example:

Which makes you wonder just how good those crêpes really are. And whether they shouldn’t simply have stuck with pancakes, which is mercifully accent-free.

Say what you mean

More serious than a misplaced accent or apostrophe is a tone that jars. And yet it’s one that we find time and again in business copy – and anything that has to sound ‘official’. The giveaway is a construction that’s unnecessarily complicated and roundabout. Much like this sign I saw in Cambridge Central Library:

What’s wrong with it? Well it’s inconvenient for people who want to use the machine, so there’s no may about it. And any isn’t really necessary. Take it out and what changes? Nothing.

Lastly, we are sounds more distant and formal than we’re.

Put it all together, and what do you get as an alternative version?

We’re sorry for the inconvenience

See the difference? It’s more honest, it’s shorter, and it doesn’t mince its words. And it’s friendlier, so people are more likely to be forgiving.

Crème de la crème

But let’s finish as we started, with a dash of humour. It doesn’t take much, so use it sparingly. As this cosmetics shop did to entice people in:

How does it work? Where does the old hand cream go? Is it helping the Third World or Children in Need? What hand creams qualify for the amnesty? Is it free or free*? Are there strings attached?

Who knows. And in a way, who cares. None of those practical questions matter – all that matters is that it hooks your interest, makes you smile, and gets you to go into the shop.

I almost did. But then I looked at the state of my hands and moved quickly on.

Competition, toxic brands and niche niches

Mentioning them, turning them around, and avoiding them

Where does the time go? The clocks have gone forward, spring has sprung and once again it’s over to Copycam, where my random happy (and not-so-happy) snaps take the place of words.

Mentioning the competition is always  a thorny topic. If you do, you run the risk of seeming defensive, and you may just raise a doubt or plant a seed that grows in your neighbour’s garden.

If you don’t, you could appear complacent.

So what’s the middle path?

As always, it’s to tread lightly and do it with style and insouciance. Much like Eat, the fast-food chain did recently. They didn’t directly mention the competition. Instead, they let somebody else do it for them.

Time Out, the London listings mag that’s been around for ever, summed it up succinctly:

And it’s on 100% recycled paper – could they be more virtuous? (Or more smug?)

A third-party endorsement is always better than talking directly about your competitors. It carries more weight, seems more independent, and keeps you on the moral high ground.

Which is just where you want to be.

Lesson 1: when it comes to the competition, tread softly (and let somebody else carry a big stick).

Back from the brink

Remember Northern Rock? Who doesn’t.

Back in 2007, as they looked increasingly close to collapse, they were at the centre of the first run on a British bank since 1866. Long queues formed outside branches countrywide, as worried savers rushed to withdraw their hard-earned money.

Bad karma – and even worse PR.

Northern Rock turned into a toxic brand, that nobody would touch. So the government was forced to step in and nationalise it.

A hopeless case, you’d think. And yet, last November Virgin Money took a deep breath and forked out £747m (that’s $1.1bn, give or take) for it.


Because it had reached rock bottom (pardon the pun) and was a good bargain. And because Virgin’s fairy dust can work miracles.

They’ve now started rebranding the branches, as I saw last week in Cambridge:

Zoom in and you’ll see this:

First come the decals in the window. Next will be a total makeover. And before long, Northern Rock will slowly sink into the ground, leaving nothing but Virgin territory.

As Freddie said, it’s a kind of magic. Brand magic.

Lesson 2: never underestimate the power of brand.

Circles within circles

Some brands, ideas and businesses, however, are beyond help.

Niche products and services are a great idea: you serve a specific sector of the market, and you become the go-t0 person for that niche. You don’t try to be all things to all people, but focus on one area, knowing that it’s a profitable one.

And that’s the key. It’s got to be profitable.

Which is why you should always do your homework to make sure your niche is big enough to support your business.  If not, expand the niche – otherwise your business model will very quickly become unsustainable.

As did that of Hawkin’s Bazaar in Cambridge.

It sold the sort of odd things you see in those catalogues that fall out of your favourite magazines: reading lights on headbands, lava lamps with built-in speaking clocks and odd-shaped back-scratchers.

More bizarre than bazaar. In fact, I marvelled that it was still standing in the worst economic downturn since the 30s.

Not any longer. Last week, I saw it had closed.

Ironically, its tagline foretold its destiny:

Those things had gone for ever for a reason. And people never knew they existed because they didn’t need to.

Lesson 3: niches are good. Just make sure they’re not niche niches.

Humour, poetry and wandering apostrophes

Yes, you’re quite right – it has been too long since I swapped words for pictures and saved myself a thousand of the former.

So Copycam it is.

Realising that I was heading straight for the scrap-heap of mobile telephony, I traded in my Nokia N73 for a shiny new all-singing, all-dancing HTC Desire. It boasts a Snapdragon 1GHz processor, a 3.7″ AMOLED screen and Android 2.2. And all topped off with a don’t-mess-with-me 16GB Micro SD memory card.

Because you can never be too rich, too thin, or have too much memory.

And maybe, just maybe, I was the teensiest bit influenced by HTC’s cutesy line: You don’t need to get a phone. You need a phone that gets you.

It got me.

I got it.

With all that free memory, I’ve been happily snapping left, right and centre with the Desire’s nifty 5MP camera.

So what’s been on the other side of the lens?

Smile and the world smiles with you

Buying things is scary. There’s too much choice, you have to talk to new people, and you have to part with your hard-earned cash.

So you’re already out of your comfort zone. We all feel like that when we’re the buyer, so why is it we so rarely remember it when we’re the seller?

One of the best ways of making people feel comfortable in a buying situation is humour. It breaks the ice and makes people smile. It gives them a reason to use you and not somebody else.

And that’s all they need.

In a busy street in Cambridge with more cafes than you could shake a wooden spoon at, I was stopped in my tracks by this sign:

Builder’s breakfast.

Everything you need to clog your arteries – including the gloriously-horrible-but-actually-quite-scrumptious black pudding. And all for a lip-smacking £7.60.

Not only that. It also has a perfectly placed apostrophe, at no extra charge.

I stopped, I smiled, I snapped.

Now I’m more a light veggie than a brickie brekkie, but even I was tempted.  It was 3pm, so I wasn’t that tempted, but the sign had the desired effect.

I’d struggle to name the other eateries in that street. But Orange Tree, with its decidedly playful approach, has stuck in my mind.

Next time I need an organic latte and a dolphin-friendly muffin, I know where to go.

Lesson 1: you’re never too big, important or professional to deploy a helping of humour (and the bigger you are, the more effective it is).

The cat sat on the… rug

I may have left my N73 behind, but that doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned the brand.

Like somebody who wonders what an old flame is up to, I sometimes stare into the middle distance and remember the happy times.

And in the middle distance just down the road from the Copy Unlimited nerve centre, I spotted this:

No, I didn’t think it worked either. And I don’t mean the dodgy focus (a curved picture plane is my defence, though my newbie status may have something to do with it).

Snaps. Apps.

You know what should come next, don’t you? And it’s certainly not chats.

It either rhymes or it doesn’t. It either works or it doesn’t.

And this doesn’t do either.

Lesson 2: if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. Think of something else (before they do). 

Final countdown

As the recession bites, companies are downsizing, rationalising and consolidating. And that means closing and merging branches.

Much as Currys did recently in Cambridge.  Its city-centre store was on the hitlist, as it consolidated its operations at a PC World/Currys megastore in a nearby retail park.

(You did know they were owned by the same people, didn’t you? Choice is often the illusion of choice.)

So, the city-centre store. They needed to shift their stock, so they created a sense of scarcity (see my last post) and looming deadlines.

But in their rush, they forgot where apostrophes go. They obviously don’t eat at the Orange Tree Café.

Perhaps they were led astray by their own apostrophe-less name. That’s part of a wider trend when it comes to business names in the UK. Just look at Barclays, Selfridges and Debenhams. In the US, Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s still stick doggedly to the apostrophe, defending good old-fashioned values.

It should, of course, have been 5 days’ time. In fact, strictly speaking, it should have been five days’ time, as the convention in English is to write in full the numbers one to nine, and use figures for 10 and above.

That said, in a countdown, figures work best. But the apostrophe still hurt.

Two days later, I walked past the store, in the vain hope that some literate customer had pointed out the error.

Not a bit of it. They were too busy pushing past grannies and young children to bag a deal at 20% off.

3 day’s time, it said.

I thought it would be too sad (and OCD-ish) to make a date in my diary for two days later, to see the magical 1 day’s time.

But I was tempted.

Lesson 3: if in doubt, don’t leave it out. Just look it up.

Find out more:

  • Snap dragon. Great photos – and it makes calls too. The HTC Desire gets you. Get it (or at least its successor, the Desire S).

Misplaced humour, unintended meaning and dodgy punctuation

Offending your target audience, creating confusion and breaking the rules

I’ve been happy-snapping again.

It’s a bit like happy-slapping, but nobody really gets hurt – at least not physically. Wounded pride might come into it, but it’s all in a good cause.

That’s right – it’s Copycam time again.

Fair game

I’m often asked about humour in copy. Some clients think it’s the way to go.

And it is. As long as the humour is at your expense. Nothing endears you to your potential prospects and existing customers like a bit of self-deprecation. Laughing at yourself is a winning formula.

But laughing at others isn’t. So if you feel a smile breaking out when you create any piece of marketing collateral, stop.

And think.

As LA Fitness should have done before they launched this ill-advised campaign to hit the Christmas splurgers.

Join the church of LA Fitness? Repent your Christmas sins?

What were they thinking of?

Do they really imagine that fitness fanatics and Christians are mutually exclusive groups? And would they have done the same thing around Muslim, Jewish or Hindu feasts?

Lesson 1: laugh at your own expense – never at your clients’.

In a class of its own

Have you ever written something you didn’t mean to?

I have. It happens to all of us.

When you write it, you think it’s perfectly clear. And then suddenly, it isn’t. Somebody points it out, and it’s as if you’d never seen it before.

How could I have been so stupid? you ask yourself.

Simple. We develop blind spots. We make mental leaps. We see what we want to see.

Which is why it’s always a good idea to leave anything you write and come back to it later – next morning, after the weekend, after you’ve had a double skinny choccacino with wings.

And perhaps with an extra shot of coffee in the case of the signmakers who created this gem for Santander’s branch in central Cambridge.

Santander University? Last time I looked, that was in northern Spain.

It’s a simple mistake that could easily have been avoided with a little more attention to detail. Which is what you get when you take a break, and look at something afresh.

Lesson 2:  to say what you mean, first slow down. It’s always faster in the long run.

Make my day, punctuation

Like most scribblers, I’m a stickler for punctuation. I have a loaded red pen and I’m not afraid to use it.

You may remember a while back I wrote about the wonderfully entitled “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotes.

Unnecessary quote hang around words like delinquents on a street corner. They shouldn’t really be there, but nobody can quite bring themselves to get rid of them.

And it appears they’re cross-cultural. Just recently, I saw this wonderful example in Cambridge’s funky Mill Road:

So it’s a spoof notice? They’re not really wanted? They’re wanted for something that isn’t really kitchen duties (nudge, nudge, wink, wink)? They’re unwanted?

Quotation marks are for quotes. It’s simple, really.

And exclamation marks? They’re for exclamations. But you should use them sparingly, because JUST LIKE CAPITALS, they have a tendency to shout at readers.

They really shout! And if you use more than one, they shout louder!!!

That’s why newspaper sub-editors call them screamers.

But occasionally, just occasionally, you can misuse them to good effect.

As Japanese chain YO! Sushi has recently (note that exclamation mark). This is what I saw in the window of their newly opened Cambridge restaurant:

Did the hackles of my inner pedant rise?

Not a bit of it. Instead, I smiled broadly and thought how clever it was. It refers directly back to their logo and is cheeky, playful and eye-catching.

More to the point, it’s entirely deliberate.

It’s a completely new way to use exclamation marks. It’s! Fresh! It! Works! (OK, now, that’s quite enough.)

Lesson 3: learn the rules. Then break them.

Find out more:

Multiples, percentages and a bit fat zero

Setting your pricing, feeling their pain and thinking outside the you-know-what

All revved up for 2011? Good.

To get you going, here are just a few New Year ideas to kick-start your marketing, thanks to my trusty Nokia and good old serendipity.

Yes – it’s Copycam time again.

Run the numbers

Did you buy anything in the sales?

And what was it that made you rush out to the shops at the crack of dawn and jostle your way to the front of the queue? The weather? The great service? The indomitable Christmas spirit? The raging hangover?

No, of course not. It was the pricing. It’s always the pricing, stupid. 30% off. 50% off. Up to 90% off! (Yeah, right.)

Nothing, but nothing, gets us out of bed like a bargain. Or makes us take action right here, right now. Slap a cut-off date on the bargain and the frenzy increases.

But the numbers need to stack up for people to take action.  A while back, I noticed this sign in the changing room at my gym:

So it’s £15 for a small locker, and £20 for a large locker for one month.

A bit steep, you might think. But you’d probably also think they’d have an incentive to get people to sign up for longer. Like mobile phone contracts do – or just about any other type of contract you can think of.

So let’s see. 6 x £15, anyone? Oh yes, that would be £90. And 12 x £15? That’s right – £180.

Same story with the large lockers. 6 x £20 = £120. 12 x £20 = £240.

Genius. So the incentive is… absolutely nothing.

People expect commitment to translate into rewards. Why sign up for 12 months instead of six when the money could be earning interest in your account rather than the gym’s?

The pricing should be a no-brainer. But in this case, it’s just brainless.

Lesson 1: when it comes to pricing, longer is cheaper. Always. Or, put another way, 6 x £20 is never £120. It just isn’t.

To add or not to add – VAT is the question

Last time, I talked about the opportunities and threats for companies of the VAT (value-added tax) increase from 17.5% to 20% at the start of the month.

Gyms seem (see above, and below) to be a lost cause when it comes to running the numbers. But not all fitness-related businesses are.

As I fought the crowds of swivel-eyed shoppers in central Cambridge, I saw a sign that warmed the cockles of my marketing heart:

Clever old Sports Direct.

So they’re still charging VAT at 17.5%? No, of course they aren’t. They’re charging 20% like everybody else and absorbing the difference.

Which makes a difference.

The store was packed with grateful shoppers who were getting a double whammy – reduced prices and reduced tax.

Lesson 2: feel the pain. Then the gain.

All change, please!

Then it was down to London for a playdate with my culture buddy S at the Royal Academy. (Haven’t seen The Glasgow Boys? Hurry – it closes on 23 January. And if you can’t make that, check out this clip on the BBC 2 site. )

But wait a moment – what’s this? The train pulled in to an unfamiliar part of King’s Cross station, at a platform I’d never seen before.

No, don’t get too excited: it wasn’t Platform 9¾. That’s right down the other end, through the brick wall, and leads straight to the Hogwarts Express.

But it was almost as unusual:

Isn’t that wonderful? A master-stroke of marketing.

Months of banging, drilling, cutting and scooping and they unveil a platform with the catchiest number ever. Everybody was talking about it.

Some people even took photos – well I did, together with a few trainspotting saddos with dirty anoraks and knobbly cable-knits. But still, you get the point.

It was new. It was news. It was inspired.

And yet it wasn’t always the plan. Originally, apparently, it was going to be called Platform Y.

Not so inspired. Y chromosome. Y-fronts. Why?

Obviously the planners asked themselves the same question, thought a bit about it, and came up with a simple, effective and… obvious solution.

Lesson 3: make a virtue of a necessity. And never ignore the obvious.

Clitch after clitch after clitch

Every New Year I play the game. And every year, there’s a winner, without fail.

Sometimes  they don’t even wait for 1 January. Last year, I spotted the winning entry on 28 December.

And the aim of the game? The first outing of the perennial seasonal cliché: New Year, New You.

This year, the prize went to Optical Express:

But they only just won. For hot on their heels, just 10 minutes later, I spotted this:

Bad, right?

Well not necessarily. You see, at this time of year, even clichés have their place.  Let’s face it: Christmas and New Year are pretty clichéd, aren’t they?

Same food, same TV programmes, same diamond cardies and super toiletry gift-sets from your gran. Clitch after clitch after clitch, as Bevin famously said.

Original isn’t always best. After all, if your tagline is freshly minted, it has no recognition value. Clichés may be tired, old and worn, but they’re also instantly recognisable.

And often, they’re just what people expect to see. So don’t disappoint them.

Lesson 4: embrace your inner copycat. Even if that means a cliché or two.