What’s in a name? Everything.

I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. A couple of days ago, a PR agency was being castigated for calling itself ‘Strange Fruit PR’. I knew the name was familiar but couldn’t quite pinpoint it. Was it something to do with ‘Oranges Aren’t The Only Fruit’? In what way was that controversial? Then I realised. Oh dear. Oh dearie dearie me. Oh dearie dearie dearie dearie me.

There was a link to the Twitter account. It didn’t exist. So I looked for the website. That had been taken down. So I took it as one of those strange warps in the fabric of spacetime that you occasionally glimpse, shrug your shoulders, and move on.

But today it turns out not to have been an interdimensional anomaly, but a real thing. It seems the Twitter backlash has caused Strange Fruit to change its name. Hardly surprising really. I mean, what on earth were they thinking?

This is quite a brazen example of really getting branding very badly wrong, but the closer you look, the more difficult branding gets. It’s not just a name or a logo. It has to be something that differentiates you from your competitors, makes you relevant to your audiences, and works internally, now and in the future. It’s a tough nut to crack and I’ve had several goes at it in my time, using the seat-of-the-pants method (ie making it up), going through agencies (ie doing it properly) and bringing it all together for my direct clients.

So branding is deep and wide: deep in that it gets to the heart of what a company is about; and wide because it affects everything that company does. However, the public face of a brand is its name, strapline and logo. So when I was thinking about Strange Fruit – when I’d got over the shock of how completely dumb they must be, that is – I got to thinking about other examples down the ages. Here are some:

  • Consignia. It was called Royal Mail. Then it was called Consignia. Then, after a backlash, it became Royal Mail again. The idea behind the new name was to have a brand that encompassed more than just ‘mail’. This made sense, because the brand has to reflect what the company does. I daresay the word ‘Royal’ also seemed old and out of touch. However, people just didn’t like the new name. It smacked of an awful portmanteau, that is, a word fused from other words, in this case ‘consign’ and ‘insignia’. Whereas Royal Mail had weight and authority, Consignia seemed a bit, well, plasticky.
  • Abbey. This relaunched Abbey National with the promise of ‘turning banking on its head’. This line is nonsense. What does it mean? Credits become debits? The bank gives us money which we invest and then give back to them? It became an object lesson in how to mismanage a rebrand and seriously damaged the business. Mark Ritson gives a great breakdown of this breakdown. Talking of poor straplines as opposed to names, there’s also Mellow Birds, a coffee brand that promised it will ‘make you smile’. What on earth has that got to do with coffee? So does my cat.
  • New Coke. There’s a problem with putting ‘new’ in front of anything. Sooner or later, it’s going to become old. Then, where do you go? So it was with New Labour, so it was with New Coke. Actually they did pretty much everything right, with consumer tests apparently proving that the new taste was better. Then the backlash came, and remember this was well before any social media existed, or even online communications of any significant type. Coke switched back to Classic Coke and continued to outsell its competitor. So perhaps this goes to show, sometimes you can follow the right path but make sure you’re agile enough to switch.

These are all mistakes that, when you examine them more closely, were made honestly. Portmanteau names can work, in the same way nonsense words work, especially in crowded markets where you have little choice (Google, Yahoo). You just build the brand around the name and it becomes synonymous with its values. Straplines aren’t even necessary much of the time, but the management of the rebrand needs to be tight. And New Coke got it right, then got it wrong, then got it right again.

But Strange Fruit? Gah.

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Accountants are part of the brand too

Mistakes have repercussions. Don't get a fly in your brand.

Mistakes have repercussions. Don't get a fly in your brand.

So today, for the third time, I find myself chasing major companies for money after the 30-day period on my invoice has expired.

I do wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t kept my records in order. Would I ever have been paid? Or would the invoice be expedited/dormanted/deleted, or lost behind a filing cabinet, as per Brazil?

This is about more than money. It’s about brand.

People sometimes talk about brands as if they’re something mysterious or difficult to grasp. They talk about brand equity and brand values. They mention brand advocates and – yuk – leveraging brands. Or brand synergies. Arghh.

For me, it’s simple. A brand is the person as company – quite literally, the corporate. Some companies are nice, others are nasty. Remember how PR is essentially about what people say about you when you leave the room? Well brands are the same. You’ll do business with them and if you continue to love them you’ll tell people how great they are. If they don’t pay you in time – after 30 days, for chrissakes – you’ll smile and be nice to them in future, but slag them off to your friends. Like I’m doing now.

Of course, culprits shall not be named – even the ones that were 40 days late, or the ones who failed to pay me on time twice – but suffice to say, they should be big enough, and grown up enough, to know better.

Because when I first met them I thought they were great. But poxy accountants, working in the engine room, thinking that their efforts have no impact on the brand, have now made me very wary of working with them again. Their brand is damaged.

So, it’s an object lesson. Brands work outside the company, and inside. They permeate the company. If the company wants to be associated with great client service, then each and every member of the company needs to know this and work with it in mind. Even the accountants. Good Lord, even the copywriters come to that.

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it

Today I took a look at some more ‘techy’ posts and came across this on Google Blogoscoped:

If the user interface ain’t broken, don’t fix it… but fixing, Google did, and recently released a new YouTube player that is breaking some of the “learned” interface.

Absolutely Goddamned right.

I spent about six years owning the interface for web-delivered financial information software and during that time learned a lot about how people interact with software. Basically, if anything can potentially confuse people, it will, and even if that’s just one user in a hundred then it all ramps up as your userbase increases.

The most important thing, I found, was consistency, particularly of colour. I’ve advised site designers in the past to make sure they ALWAYS use the same colour for hyperlinks. I’ve seen the effect it has if you just change the colour of something: people get scared. They’re not sure whether what’s going to happen will be what they want to happen, simply because it looks different.

This can even mean reverting to counter-intuitive – or plain old wrong – terminology. For example, being web-delivered, the software didn’t need to have a ‘File’ menu because nothing was saved locally, but we added one because that’s where people expect to find functions such as Print.

But perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising. If you start to muck about with a company’s brand, from values to position to logo, you’re in for a rough ride because suddenly you’ve made the familiar unfamiliar. Corporate history is littered with the aftermath of companies that tried to fix what wasn’t broken, from New Coke to Abbey.

Universal learning for the day: don’t scare people, unless you tell them you’re going to.

Sieving through the mud to find gold

It’s easy to overlook the search terms people use to find your blog. But instead of discarding the ‘weird’ entries, take another look: you might pick up on an emerging trend. 

Often, when looking through the search engine terms that have been used to find this blog, I’m confused. Why are so many people looking for information on ears? What is it with Eric Sykes? And crack babies?

Today however, two entries made sense, and one of them in particular revealed an interesting use for these terms.

Firstly, and unsurprisingly, Marion Jones. I posted about her yesterday. I would have expected some people to be looking for her.

But the other stood out, not least because it was the second highest term both today and yesterday: Doc Martens. I wrote about the beleagured boot brand some time ago, reacting to its tasteless advertising campaign and media backlash, so there is one post on this blog about it. Why should people be searching for it though?

Google News reveals all: looks like Doc Martens is making a comeback. This tells me two things:

  • Tasteless though the campaign may have been, it worked. Goes to show that perhaps any publicity really is good publicity.
  • You can discover trends by examining the search terms people use to find your blog. If, by definition, people are looking for it, then there must be some buzz about it. In this case Google Trends doesn’t back up the Doc Martens finding (there’s a slight upturn but nothing major). It could still be too early to plot and in any case is just a sanity check. Don’t discount it: you never know, you might get in on a developing trend at the beginning.

I predict a surge in Doc Martens sales. But then again, I was wrong about the ad campaign…

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What was that about logos again?

This morning, on Today – yes, I listen to it a lot on the way into work – I heard an interview with some fool who was associated with the London Olympics logo, discussing the possible change to the Barclays ‘eagle’ logo if it were bought out by Dutch Bank ABN AMRO on account of it having Nazi associations.

The main thrust of his argument seemed to be that ‘the eagle doesn’t have Nazi associations’. Well, he might think it doesn’t but maybe a lot of other people do. Isn’t this precisely the same arrogance as displayed with the London logo, that design-wise it ticked every box (it doesn’t btw, see below) but they forgot whether people would like it? Talk about forgetting key stakeholders…

Which leads me back to the London logo. After reading some valid criticism of it recently I can see that it doesn’t really work as a logo anyway. You see the Olympic rings and the ‘london’ text in it? Well, how will that scale? If you make it the size of a postage stamp – ie something which works on letterheads or business cards – then you won’t be able to read it. I was discussing it recently with a colleague and he reckons that really the designers haven’t created a logo, they’ve created a brand that other brands can hang off. I think this means that, for example, Coke or MacD will be able to place their logos within the London logo, but I’m not sure. If someone who knows more about this could let me know, that would be great.

And while we’re on the subject of branding, another conversation with another ex-colleague recently kicked the legs from under my great idea for a Cheddarvision-like campaign. The whole point of Cheddarvision and similar feeds is that people feel they have discovered them, that they ‘own’ them, and the emotion associated with that is pride: pride to own the brand. For projects such as mine, the brand would get in the way. So therein lies the challenge: allow your consumers to have pride in owning your brand while still influencing it. Toughie.

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It’s not just a website

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Can you just ‘relaunch’ a website? FG thinks not. There has to be a reason for doing it.

I’m in the middle (I hope) of a website relaunch. Where I once was a copywriter, I am now also a web producer and project manager. Part of me thinks this is ok – I have done both in the past, although as my sole occupation at the time – but part of me wonders whether people have a true appreciation for what’s involved.

So, this is what’s involved:

  • Before you do anything work out a brief. This will be very similar to a copy brief and, as I’ve said before, it is at the heart of everything you’ll do. It asks questions about what you’re trying to achieve, who the site’s for, the amount of resource you have to achieve this and the timeframe. You cannot spend too long on the brief. Even if you get the sense that people “Just want it done” rather than “Just want it done properly”, insist on the brief and…
  • The messages.  Whereas your brief outlines the strategy, the messages form the basis for your content. Essentially these are the brand values (if there any – you may have to go right back and figure them out)  written as, say, four or five bullet points that get across key messages that you want to press home at every opportunity. So, if one message is “We provide great customer service” then try and get that element across whether you’re talking about your HR, your operations and your sales team as well as, of course, your service team. Make sure you can back this up too. Your messages are promises.
  • Your messages then form the basis of your copy brief and graphics briefs. As I’ve said, your copy should press these home but so should your images. Try and get your graphic designer to produce one image per message. Then, in the same way your copy constantly refers back to the messages, so do your graphics. Take them as ‘position zero’ every time and you’ll be assured that you won’t wander too far from them.
  • At the same time you obviously need a plan. Make sure everyone knows what the plan is and what’s required and when. This is where the project management comes in. You will necessarily need to keep reminding people of their responsibility. Try and delegate work. I’m convinced that the essence of good leadership is not “All these people depend on me” but “I depend on all these people”. This way you’ll get the best out of them and not drive yourself into the ground.
  • OK, so things might not always go to plan, so update the plan as you along. A plan isn’t something you produce because you feel you should, then forget it. You need to know whether one element has come in late so that you rearrange other dependencies so that you go live on time.
  • I would also recommend keeping a log of things that have caused problems along the way so that you can improve things next time around. If the content management system isn’t up to scratch, then make a note that it should be upgraded or replaced in future. If there is no documentation for processes then get someone to write them up (or do that yourself too).
  • Finally, when this is all completed, take a good hard look within the company and ask whether the values and the messaging that you worked out to begin with are really communicated well internally. If no one knew what they were to begin with then chances are, they’re not. This is a big thing: everyone needs to know how they should be working and what they’re working towards. This is where the brand permeates a company inside and out. This is where a company really starts working in a consistent, effective way.

So you can’t really just launch a site as an independent project. It will necessarily involve talking to lots of people and working out the real reason for the launch. Everything is connected. If it isn’t then it’s your task to connect them.

There is more involved and I’ll probably have more to say on this matter as things develop. When it finally does go live I’m hoping I’ll have time to talk about PR and copywriting again.

Justin.TV – Online all the time.

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Many years ago I thought how cool it would be if you were to go out with some friends each with a camera strapped to our heads, record an afternoon then to play it back on a split-screen.

You’d see what each person was focussing on at any time. Imagine a car journey for example: one person might be looking out of the window while the other three are engaged in conversation. Then suddenly that person might zone into what’s being talked about, and who’s to say, maybe their contender in the group would then zone out. Maybe the leader would be the person looked at the most: or the least. One person might be totally involved in the group. Another might be slightly distanced. Or perhaps the entire group would react the same way. It would be illuminating. It would be fascinating.

I never actually achieved this because at the time VHS cameras were the size of bricks and apart from the logistics involved – gaffer-taping bricks to our heads, incurring neck pain and instant, premature, substantial, painful hair loss – it would probably also have influenced our behaviour. But now technology is unobtrusive enough to allow such experiments to happen. And now we have broadband streaming video access, someone has taken advantage of Tuvalu’s fortuitous domain name to turn themselves into a media brand.

Justin.tv is a guy walking around with a video camera strapped to his head. All the time. Right now I’m watching him at the laundromat.

I heard about him earlier today on The Message, a Radio 4 programme covering the media from the viewpoint of journalists, producers and writers. David Quantick roundly criticised Justin’s activity, calling him a ‘dork’, his site ‘mind-numbingly dull’ and – amusingly – suggesting that it would be more interesting if he had a camera in his head and no one had told him.

David Quantick is an arse. What he doesn’t realise is that this is ultimate TV. Everyone who speaks to Justin knows what’s going on. He’s the Ultimately Famous Person. Everyone who talks to him sees their potential stake in his brand. When they nurture him, they nurture his brand, and therefore themselves. It’s exactly the same as real life except they know that they’re being watched by many people online. Person and brand – online, one-to-many brand – become indistinguishable. It’s the closest thing to really Being John Malkovich currently available.

This isn’t wrong, and it isn’t right. It just is. Justin just is, and you can see him being. I’m not suggesting for a moment that our lives are so empty that we must live them through Justin. But we know what he’s looking at and listening to and if you want to walk around in someone else’s shoes – which after all is what Harper Lee urged us to do many years ago – then you can do it, now.

OK, so he may be a moron. But we owe it to ourselves to know what it’s like to be one.

If you’re interested in Whitehouse and Wolfowitz, you’ll love this.

I don’t just receive. Actually, I don’t really receive much at all on this blog. But I do give.

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I’m not going to tell you exactly how I created these feeds, but what I do know is that I’ve developed techniques to ensure wide-ranging, deep-probing and relevant hits for each category. They’ve been filtered, collated and filtered again, and I’ve tested them and they work. I use them every day in my professional life.

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The heart of everything you do

Everything hangs on your messaging and your brand personality. This doesn’t just apply to copywriting.

When I take on a new piece of work I insist on going through the copy brief. Some people are brilliant at it, providing me with exactly the right information, mainly because I ask for exactly the right information. Others aren’t so good, but I still use it as my cue for making sure I cover everything. In PR parlance this is probably called a 360 degree view.

But what a lot of people don’t seem to realise is that the copy brief can apply pretty much everywhere else. Essentially it asks ‘what are you trying to achieve’, ‘who is it for’,’what’s the message’ and ‘what’s the brand personality’. You would ask the same questions if you were a designer. You would ask the same questions if you were creating a website.

I don’t think many people take this on board. An inexperienced client will approach an inexperienced designer saying “We want clean lines and bubbles“, so naturally the designer will produce clean lines and bubbles. Or might say “This won’t take you long to write”, so an inexperienced copywriter is annoyed when it takes three days instead of three hours.

Let’s amplify. Let’s realise that really at the heart of what we do lies exactly the same thing, whether it’s writing, design, PR or advertising. It’s clarification of those four basic principles. It’s the font from which everything flows.

I’m sure I’m over-simplifying here. If only someone would read this blog and tell me.