Saturday, September 29, 2007

Why I hate Innocent

OK, so I only wrote the heading above out of a childish desire to shock. And, of course, it isn't true: like everyone else, I love delicious Innocent smoothies, and warmly admire their witty way with words, especially on their packaging. But I can think of three reasons why those cheery folk from Fruit Towers don't inspire quite as much warmth in me as they once did.

First, I'm fed up with hearing people talk about the desirability of "doing an Innocent". What do they actually mean? If all they are trying to say is that it's a good idea for businesses to use words in a way that helps to set them apart from their competitors, then I couldn't agree more. But I suspect that, more often, the Innocent wannabes don't really understand what it is they are aspiring to.

So let's be clear: Innocent haven't pulled off some clever marketing trick. Their much loved "tone of voice" wasn't devised by highly paid teams of branding specialists, armed with pie charts and research findings. It was, I'm 99.9% certain, simply how the founders of the business talked among themselves about what they were doing.

Of course, I don't mean to suggest that there isn't any art involved. All that lovely stuff about squishing loads of fruit and bunging it in bottles is beautifully crafted. But my point is that the distinctive way in which Innocent communicate is intrinsic: a near-perfect expression of who they are and what they believe in. And, crucially, it's been there since the start, when three blokes came up with a brilliantly simple business idea (squish loads of fruit and bung it in bottles).

So how could, say, a High Street bank or a car manufacturer or an airline ever hope to "do an Innocent"? Simple: they couldn't. And if they were ill advised enough to try, they would end up looking very foolish indeed. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Barclays.)

The second thing I'm less than thrilled about is the apparently widespread belief that Innocent have invented an entirely new way of using words. Not true. Yes, they do it outstandingly well; but there's nothing ground-breaking about a jokey, highly colloquial style of writing that engages chummily with the reader and happily veers off into apparent (but not actual) irrelevance. I could show you quite a few bits and pieces I've written that show a strong "Innocent influence" - or would do, if it wasn't the fact they I wrote them a decade or two before the first smoothie was blended. (And yes, I'm perfectly aware I sound like a grumpy old fart.)

What Innocent have done that is unique is to build a major brand on this style of verbal communication; and that, I freely concede, is a huge achievement in its own right. Because, normally, as businesses grow they lose the ability to talk with a distinctive voice - especially the kind that can make people laugh. All those "Innocent style" communications I've written over the years have been for small-to-minuscule-businesses: start-up design consultancies, a two woman creative recruitment company, a designer of crazy golf courses, and so on.

Third, and this is the really sacrilegious bit, I just ever so slightly wonder if they might be losing it a bit? I have to say that when I say their new "This water" brand extension, I found something vaguely smug and irritating about it. And just the other day, my 22 year old daughter remarked (unprompted by me) on how annoying she now finds Innocent. If cool recent graduates are starting to fall out of love with the brand (a big if, admittedly, since my observation is based on a sample of one). I wonder if Innocent might be reaching the point where it's just a little too big and successful to retain its fabled sense of humour? I, for one, find it harder to share a laugh with a business that's recently got into bed with McDonald's, however convincingly it argues the ethical case for doing so.

Anyway, those are my reservations. And I know that, since Innocent have made zillions of pounds as well as winning several thousand top creative awards, that this little rant of mine is sure to sound like sour grapes; a kind of fruit, incidentally, that Innocent would never dream of squishing and bunging in a bottle.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

World of Chicken, anyone?

A long time ago, my wife Anna, our friend Philipa and I spent a happy half hour coming up with foolproof restaurant concepts. The only one we all agreed was a solid gold winner was World of Chicken: a place where chicken-lovers - i.e. every non-vegetarian on earth - could enjoy the finest chicken dishes from the four corners of the planet.

For some reason (no money, no relevant expertise - and, oh yes, it was just semi-drunken conversational noodling), our brilliant idea came to nothing. But I was glad to learn the other day that Nando's was originally called Chicken Land, which suggests that its founders were thinking along the same lines as us, though perhaps without our truly global perspective.

I also like the message chalked on the blackboard outside their branch in Park Street, Bristol:

"Man cannot live by chicken alone. But he can enjoy trying."

Monday, September 24, 2007

Why good writers are like Raymond Blanc

Here’s the headline of a car ad I saw the other day:

It turns heads as easily as it turns corners.

I don’t know about you, but I’d expect a car that cost me nearly 25 grand to be pretty good at going round bends. And I hate ads that tell me how good looking the product is, rather than just showing me and letting me make up my own mind. But, for once, let’s consider form separately from content. Let’s see if, without altering the sense, we can improve the headline:

Turns heads as easily as corners.

Easy. But why is the six word version such an improvement on the original nine word headline? Despite what any designer or art director might say, it’s not simply because a shorter headline is always better than a longer one. (Absolutely not true: a 15 word line may encapsulate a thought with perfect economy, while three words can be two – or even three – too many.)

No, the important point illustrated by this rather piffling example is about the way that good writing condenses meaning.

Good chefs reduce their sauces to make them richer and more intense; good writers reduce what they have written – straining off a redundant adjective here, boiling down a paragraph of padding there – until all that is left is the meaty, nutritious essence of what they set out to say.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Northern Rock: when "don't" means "do".

As I write, my mother-in-law is queuing outside Northern Rock's branch in Dorking, waiting to withdraw the money she recently invested with them. Why? Because everybody involved in the bank's lending crisis - chief executive, Chancellor, FSA - has been telling her and her fellow Northern Rock investors that there is absolutely no reason to panic.

In this context, persuasive words like these are directly counter-productive: the very assurance of there being to cause for alarm implies that there may indeed be cause for alarm.

Slippery customers, words. Sometimes they just won't do what we want them to.

Friday, September 07, 2007

So 85% of all communication is non-verbal. (Frankly, I’m speechless.)

Or is it 93%? I think I've heard both figures quoted recently. But, either way, I know a bogus statistic when I see one. To appreciate the breathtaking meaninglessness of this alleged scientific fact, let's consider it in relation to real life. Mine, for example.

Right now, I'm writing this, which I hope you will read avidly. So that would be 100% verbal communication, then.

A little earlier, I had a chat with my mum on the phone. I did roll my eyes a bit, and once I mimed shooting myself in the head - but, since she didn't see these gestures, they don't really count as communication. Once again, then, 100% verbal.

Before that, I saw my daughter off to school. I asked her if she'd remembered her swimming things - to which she replied by pointing at her swimming bag. I then suggested that she might like to give her father a kiss, which made her sigh and glance heavenwards before rushing out of the door. So, harder to score, but maybe we could call it a draw: 50% verbal, 50% non-verbal.

My point? Only that, as a writer and one who believes passionately in the power of words, I'm not going to just shrug my shoulders and let the mime artists and body language experts take over the world.

And you can take that look off your face right now.