Destination bland? The challenge of creating a sense of place with a brand.

The Shire of Bland. You want to visit.

Every year urban developers, cities and whole countries spend thousands of dollars trying to distil everything they stand for into a simple, engaging brand. They go in search of distinctiveness, in a bid to appeal to tourists (which I’ll focus on), residents, businesses and foreign investors. But not everywhere can be unique. Can it?

It’s a tough ask; capture all a place has to offer in a simple phrase, design and identity system. Everything from its role in history and culture, climate and landscape, to the main reasons you might want to go there. How do you cover it all off in just a few words? Chances are, you can’t. But what you can try and do is communicate a feeling. What’s the spirit of the place? What vibe can you expect once you get there? How will it change the way you see the world? Some of most iconic destination brands have been built around attitude. It creates a single top-line message that (in theory) every story to tell (or proof point if you want to go all marketing speak) can ladder out from. The trick is to do it all in a distinctive way, creating a brand so strong, you could cover up the destination name on a promo piece and know exactly where it was from.

Winning the world over with a word or two.

Great Britain has a stylish, flexible, distinctive destination brand.

Great Britain has a stylish, flexible, distinctive destination brand.

Sometimes, simply does it. The current idea behind Visit Britain is simply Great. Obvious, yes, but flexible, effective and relevant.

The Great Britain identity system can easily be used to cross-promote.

The Great Britain identity system can easily be used to cross-promote.

The GB identity system can easily be adapted to convey a wide range of messages and can embrace brand partnerships with ease.

"I say old chap."

“I say old chap.”

The Visit Great Britain website has a splendidly British tone of voice too don’t you know. A positively spiffing way of bringing the brand to life for the world’s rapscallions to devour.   The mother of simple destination branding?

I heart NY

Milton Glaser’s classic I love New York logo

Almost 40 years old, the iconic I♥NY logo, designed by Milton Glaser, looks fresh as ever. Minimal, yet human, it feels instantly rebellious, yet the heavy serif’s of American Typewriter font give it a credible corporate feel. It may have stood the test of time, but the catchy song (written for the State) and radio jingle have gloriously dated, almost full circle to being cool again. 

 has the power to resonate belonging, however people are feeling. In post-911 times, the bruised logo became a mark of resilience. Like the city itself,  I♥NY is a rare beast that becomes much bigger than simple a brand, it creates a sense of belonging that deserves its place in peoples hearts. Post 9/11, a redesigned and bruised I♥NY became a mark of defiance and resilience.   Incredible India, 100% Pure New Zealand. One word brand messages that work. New York was lucky enough to get to the branding table early. There are only so many generic positive one word ideas that can be claimed and made to stand for a brand. Much as New York now owns love and India Incredible, New Zealand can pretty much claim the word Pure. The 100% Pure New Zealand campaign, launched in 1999 has been a massive success, even before the Lord of the Rings / Hobbit effect.  It instantly conjures an image of what the Land of the Long White Cloud is really like, with the flexibility to stretch across a wide range of messages. 
In the year after launch, visitor numbers were up 10%. Today the brand alone is estimated to be worth US$13.6 Billion. If you’re interested in its evolution, this site ,  created for the brand’s 10th anniversary, is well worth a look.

Tourisms Grenada's new brand identity.

Guess it’s not 100% Pure.

With New Zealand owning 100% Pure, it would be a brave destination who would try something similar. Which makes the new Pure Grenada campaign a little bemusing. If they were looking for a point of difference, it aint there. Though it’s an improvement on their previous slogan – “Live the Rhythms of Spice”, which must have painted them into a corner. (The spice lives on in the stylish Nutmeg dancing in the Pure Grenada logo.) For every successful destination brand, there are countless places still struggling to successfully communicate their identity. Greetings from Beigeville! It’s a magnolia marvel! Take a look at 105 tourism slogans painstakingly captured by blogger @Fionacullinan on her blog Tourist Vs Traveller in 2012.

Holland invites you to add some orange.

It’s very Dutch (and the reason carrots aren’t purple), but is the brand idea lost on most people?

There’s all sorts in here. From the dull ( Visit Gibraltar ) and the ‘so what?’ (Bolivia awaits you), to the bland (Bermuda – So much more, Portugal – Europe’s West Coast), genuinely appealing (Kyrgyzstan – Oasis on the Great Silk Road, Egypt – Where it all begins), strange-until-you-know (Holland – Add some orange) and mildly terrifying (Colombia – The only risk is wanting to stay – pull your pants up Colombia, your strategy’s showing). The most common attribute of these is the way they try and tap into feelings. Just blame the marketeer. “Talk about benefits, not features, capture emotions and appeal to consumer need-states”. Trouble is, in doing so, they’re in danger of losing so much of what makes somewhere distinctive. Bulgaria isn’t the only place in the world with Diversity, Natural isn’t wholly ownable by Switzerland and I don’t so much Need Spain as want to enjoy sunshine, good sangria and affordable fruit, veg and cerveza again (there’s Nothing Like Australia for turning life’s small pleasures into wallet-busters).

Bland Brand Quiz. Can you guess which country these slogans are for?

Poland - Move your imagination.

Emotional destination brands can inspire…but they often lose a sense of place.

  1. See it! Feel it! Love it!
  2. Love life!
  3. Best enjoyed slowly
  4. Yours to discover
  5. It’s a pleasure
  6. Be inspired
  7. Inspiring new ways
  8. A world of wonders
  9. Where dreams come to life
  10. There’s more to celebrate


  • Lithuania
  • Ecuador
  • Latvia
  • Ukraine
  • Mauritius
  • Korea
  • South Africa
  • Zimbabwe
  • Qatar
  • Tunisia

Play to your strengths. Even if they’re a little odd.

Not every destination settles for generic stock-shot feels. Whether by accident, or design, there are some intriguing destination brands out there that do what every great brand should – they draw you in, whisper in your ear and make you want to learn more. Even if their main strength is their name, like the hero shot for this post.

Bhutan. Land of Happiness.

The blue poppy. Let’s not mention the fact opium and happiness don’t always go hand in hand.

The tagline behind Bhutan’s small tourism council is ‘Happiness is a place’. At first glance, it may seem like an identikit bland touchy-feely line, but it’s part of a much richer story. The Bhutanese take happiness very seriously. When Dragon King Wangchuck opened up Bhutan to modernisation, he signalled his commitment to the new Bhutan by declaring Gross National Happiness a more important measurement than GDP, an ethos in keeping with the values of the mainly Buddhist society.

Bhutan's Thunder Dragon would make a powerful brand ally

The Thunder Dragon. Alive and well on the flag of Bhutan.

Just as appealing as a destination brand would be the traditional name for Bhutan – Land of the Thunder Dragon. It may sound at odds with peace and happiness, but don’t tell me an Asian destination brand built around a mountain dragon wouldn’t set hearts racing, especially for Game of Thrones and Elder Scrolls fans. It conjures up ideas of mountains, clouds, drama and noise – not to mention a little mystery. Could there really be a dragon?

Go mud.

A great direct mail piece promoting Welsh tourism

Speaking of dragons, the Welsh Tourist Board also has an interesting angle. Their flag features a fearsome red dragon, so what do they use to lure you into their territory? Mud. Gooey, icky, glorious mud. Chances are it will rain while you’re in Wales anyway, so why not make it a virtue? The TV ad and DM pack do this beautifully, with a big dollop of British humour.

It takes guts to do create a destination brand that focuses on a very specific detail of a place, especially when you’re aiming for the broadest possible target demographic.  But in doing so, the power of authenticity and intrigue are at their strongest. It seems too many destination brands forget that they don’t need to tell someone how they’ll feel when they visit, but why they should visit. What can a visit give them that they just can’t get anywhere else? A visit should bring visitors’ imaginations to life, and gives them something that will live with them always. Whatever it may be.

Have you come across any destination brands that really made you want to visit a place?

ThingKings and Cloddles. How will we talk about the Internet of Things?

When everything is connected, who rules the roost?

People with large brains (and even larger spectacles) are declaring the Internet of Things the Next Big Thing. And while much of the technology and how it will shape our lives is still in drawing-room diapers, it’s no giant leap to imagine the new language that could come our way to help us discuss it.

In my last blog post I pondered how every wave of technology not only introduced new words, but re-purposed everyday verbs to give them a whole new meaning. So for shiggles, I thought I’d have a stab at starting a fantasy lexicon – including a few neologisms – that could be applied to the Internet of Things, or IOT as it’s known to its buddies.

Skynet Starts here. - The Internet of Things

Yes, before you ask, this is how Skynet starts.

IOT? You know, the idea of all our devices being connected and talking to each other. From our cell phones, tablets and laptops, right through to our smoke alarms, refrigerators and front doors, there will be one network for everything, controllable at the touch of a button – or in many cases, acting autonomously.

There are caveats abound. No-one yet knows exactly how the IOT will take shape, who the big players will be (though we can take a guess – events like Google buying Nest will give the game away early) , what the devices will do, let alone how they will perform. And yet we can make some fair assumptions about the key actions and interactions.

I’m taking the liberty of basing my lexicon on these, as well as creating some fantasy scenarios which may, or may not, come to pass. And as a special bonus, I’m even throwing in a few examples of the words in use, so you can try them on for size.

4 key interaction points of the IOT and the verbs they could inspire. (And yes. A few non-verbs too.)

1. Human>Device and Device>Human

The obvious one. How we interact with an object that’s connected to others. From using it offline in person, or online remotely, to explaining the rules to it, so it can do its thing when we’re not around.

Sing – Synching all devices on a network. “I finally got everything to sing last night.”

Beard – To trick a network into accepting an incompatible device – “I totally bearded the toaster with my phone.” (From the idea of false beards as a disguise.)

Darkwall – To turn off all recording and transmission of usage data externally.

Delegate – Authorise devices to make decisions on your behalf.

Dob/Snitch – One device reporting the poor performance of another. “The bathroom light dobbed in the catflap today, apparently it kept slapping Snookie on her way out.”

Faux-Dob – When a device sends a false dob on a device from a rival manufacturer. “My Sony Thermostat told me the Amstrad Latch kept opening the window when it got cold outside, but it was just a faux dob.”

Vext – A text message sent from a device reporting a fault or problem, but too vague to work out what it is.

Ostrich – When a device relays information a user chooses to ignore. “My toothbrush keeps telling me I have a cavity, but I ostrich the news.”

NonSense – Literally, when a device sensor is broken and the data it gives and acts on is untrue.

NOTKnot – When a new command or rule messes up one that used to work fine.

Resplend – When an action triggered by a connected device is particularly pleasing and you recognise the moment by looking smug. “The wine cooler will serve me champagne at exactly 9ºC and i shall resplend on the veranda in my silk dressing gown.”

Ghost – To hide from all sensors in the home and act like you’re not in.

Patch – To get through to a device remotely, usually via mother. “Mother, patch me kettle.”

Island – To temporarily isolate a device from a network and perform on its own for a while. “I’ve Islanded the freezer to try and work out where that smell is coming from.”

Snark – A smart action by a connected device that the user interprets humorously. “The fridge knew I was making spaghetti, which i usually spill on me, so the washing machine snarkily opened its lid.”

Jedi – The magical nature of these devices will lead to obvious connections to The Force. It could result in Jedi becoming a verb “He Jedi’d the lights off with his mind.” or “I’m going to Jedi the hell out of this laundry.”

2. Device>Device

The whole point of the IOT is a series of connected devices talking and responding to each other and working together to create a controlled environment. It should be harmonious. But if software bugs and programming VCRs taught us anything, it’s that the reality is likely to be anything but.

Mother – Defining the boss. When writing rules, the device that takes priority – “The fridge mothers the TV”. A link back to motherboard as much as maternal discipline.

Muster – Collective gathering of data from device sensors.

ThingFling – When a network rejects an incompatible device that’s trying to initiate contact, refuses to let it integrate and throws it out of the loop.

Cuckoo – When one brand tricks another brand into thinking a device is part of the same family. (From cuckoos laying eggs in other birds nests.)“My Apple TV was cuckooed by my Samsung Galaxy Tablet and I can finally play .MKV files on the big screen.”

Bully – When the majority of devices in a network are made by one manufacturer and they refuse to accept commands from devices made by another, forcing it to compromise performance.

Chime – When a perfect pairing or new command does exactly what the user wanted it to. “The smoke alarm knew I’d only burnt the toast, so it kept quiet. It totally chimed with the toaster.”

Turf – When a mistake by one device is corrected and covered up by another without it being reported.

Sweep – When a device (like Google’s Project Tango) maps a location and reports back on all active IOT objects.

Particulate – When a device doesn’t just tell you which spare part it needs, it connects to your 3D printer and makes it for you.

3. Device>Itself

It’s part of a grid. It’s been told what to do. It’s primed and ready. These events are the internal monologue of an IOT-ready device. Very doge. Such think. Wow.

Mustard – Gathered data that’s sensitive (hot). “The bedroom fan knows exactly how many people stayed over last night, but I’ve told it to run all mustard by me before reporting.”

Bask – Leaving devices idle, but processing sensory information.

MOOP – Matter Out Of Place. A term used at Burning Man to refer to litter left on the Playa, but destined to go mainstream. In the IOT it would refer to the detection of an unconnected device or unexpected object.

Blot – To absorb data from MOOP, observe, report, but not act on it.

Peg – Processing input data from an unknown object and trying to formulate an appropriate response (from square peg/round hole). “I hacked my sister’s Furby and synched it with the garage door, now it pegs itself open every day at 2pm.”

Math – (Yes, as a verb) When a device is calculating the best response. “The TV is just mathing whether this ad break is a good time to boil the kettle.”

4. Device>The World

Results of ‘decisions’ made by the IOT. Whether an action triggered in the immediate vicinity, or acted out long-distance across a wider grid of interconnected devices. And yes. A butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil, if connected to the IOT could very well cause a wind turbine to blow up a storm in Texas.

Nettle – To bed in/settle several complete networks with each other. “I’ve given your network permission to access mine, so let’s wait for them to nettle before we start tweaking commands.”

Musterfuck – Gathered data that screws up the performance of multiple devices.

Prod – When a network tries to connect with an unrelated network to see what the response is.

BrickFace – When a smart network keeps trying to talk to a non-connected location.

Cloddle – Data congestion in the cloud preventing instructions reaching a device. “I told my Nespresso to froth the milk as soon as I parked out front, but my message got cloddled.”

Cross / RatWork – When your own home transmits personal data about you to a government or company without your consent. “I was crossed by my grid. It told Prism everything the total ratwork.”

SynchBomb – A disaster caused by devices not synching properly and crucial commands being overlooked.

ThingKing – The dominant brand in the IOT. “The ThingKing’s refusing my request to pair with the library as I’m not using their software.”

ThingKiss – A moment of delight sent from a faraway place. “Some random girl in Seoul just got my 3D printer to make me a heart with her name on it. Such a cute ThingKiss.”

So there you go. From the sublime, to the ridiculous, a few verbs and phrases we may someday be hearing on a regular basis. Of course, in reality, much like Google didn’t invent glassholes, it’s the community who will have the biggest influence on the words we use to define the IOT.

If you’ve got any predictions, humdingers or joyzingers of your own, add them below and who knows, maybe one day you’ll be known by etymologists as ground zero for one of the 21st Century’s biggest buzzwords. Just like this guy.


A great illustration by Paul Sahre for the New York TImes that captures the comedy and possibilities of the IOT.

Technology. The Great Verb Twiddler.

New technology, new linguistics.

With every hark of technology comes a wave of new words. And while brands often create new nouns (like smartphone) or proper nouns (like Samsung Galaxy), little attention is paid to the verbs that describe how we’ll interact with them on a daily basis. A wasted opportunity?

Dialling, texting, surfing, Skyping, Tweeting. It’s no shocker that technology has radically changed our lives in the last 50 years. But one thing you might have missed, is its effect on language. Whether redefining existing words, or creating new ones, eager technologies have a habit of tail-swiping the Scrabble board with every revolution. And while it’s pretty easy to create new nouns, especially if you’re first to market, its much harder to define the way we interact with these technologies without hijacking verbs already in use.

Shiny new product. Same old verbs.

When you’re launching cutting-edge technology, the last thing you want in your CES showcase is to crank out a rusty bucket of verbs from a bygone era. And I’m not talking thrillingly defective verbs like quoth but over-used everyday ones that just don’t sparkle the way they used to.

Syntax error

Like most early(ish) computers, the Commodore 64 had a wealth of commands and programming verbs – including POKE and its companion, PEEK.

While verbs like call, chat, run, charge or post seem to stand the test of time, you can almost see the dust motes dancing over words like click, key, point, rewind or eject. Words like tune seem to change dominant meaning over time. From the noun, to tuning an instrument, to a radio station and currently, back to noun as a musical track.

There are many verbs that straddle several technologies, but even more that evoke very specific products.

Check out these buckets of verbs and guess the technology they came with.

Some verbs are intrinsically linked to a technology, others seem more versatile.

Some verbs are intrinsically linked to a technology, others seem more versatile.

Obviously it helps seeing these sets of verbs clustered together, but even on their own, most will probably evoke one technology over another, until a new use outweighs an existing one.

Understanding vs. Ownership.

As my English teacher always drummed into me at junior school, “verbs are doing words”. So it makes sense that the verbs commonly used in tech strongly relate to the action being taken.

Ctrl C, Ctrl Z.

Some of the more obvious tech verbs are still going strong.

But for every drag and drop or cut, copy, paste, there are more complex verbs like cache, toggle or leech that need a little more understanding of the technology to get what they’re referring to. This also means they often become anchored to something very specific, limiting their use. YouTube for example could never go near the word torrent and spy is very much off the table.

Crazy as it sounds, most manufacturers don’t think much about the verbs people will use to talk about their products, especially as instruction manuals are increasingly sent to the golden shredder in the sky. In 2007’s iPhone launch presentation, Steve Jobs himself talked about hitting icons on the screen of the iPhone. It’s an action most of us would now call tapping. Tapping re-enforces the action as gentle and finger-based, instead of a key that needs a little force to make it trigger (to hit is a verb left-over from an age of typewriters and rickety keys). Steve made a big deal out of slide to unlock, but didn’t use the word swipe as much as we do today. In fact, in this presentation, he said scroll rather a lot, which is one of the oldest sounding verbs around, bringing to mind monks, feathers, ink wells and endless reams of pampas grass pomposity. In terms of new phrases, he used the term ‘rubber band’ to describe the bounce-back effect at the end of a scroll (and source of yet another patent fight with Samsung), yet now the word rubberbanding is used negatively in online gaming when a server lags. Which goes to show, you may own a patent or trademark, but it’s much harder to make a verb your own.

When brands become verbs.

Much as it can pay dividends for a brand to own the language used to describe interactions with its product, problems arise when the brand name itself becomes synonymous with use and starts being used like a verb. Googling, Hoovering, Xeroxing or Tippexing (White Out in the US). We’ve all said it. You’d think a brand would like the free advertising and recognition that they’re number one.

Heroin started life as a brand name created by Bayer for their new pain relief product.

Heroin started life as a brand name created by Bayer for their new pain relief product.

But the problem with using a brand name as a verb is that it actually dilutes the power of the brand, turning it into ‘just a word’, and in a worst-case scenario, have an effect on how they can control the use of their trademark. Zipper, Aspirin, Thermos, Yo-Yo (in the US at least) and even Heroin were all once trademarks that have become generic.

Once a brand name is fixed to a specific product or service, it also becomes much harder for their business to diversify. If Google just meant ‘search’, then mapping, computing, entertainment and wearable technology would feel like much more of a stretch for the brand. Which is why Google work hard to discourage the use of their brand name as a verb. And while googling was declared ‘most useful word of 2002’ by the American Dialect Society, and added to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary in July 2006, the company actually sent out cease and desist letters to the creator of Word Spy for referencing it as a verb.

The official word is that you should only use Google when referring to Google Inc, and not as generic verb for searching. Googling it seems, might be acceptable, as long as the search is made on Google (but certainly never with a lower case ‘G’ – googling). Amusingly, it was Google co-founder Larry Page himself who first used Google as a verb (in lower case) on a 1998 mailing list – “Have fun and keep googling”. Something I’m sure he and the lawyers now regret.

Not all brands resist their product being turned into a verb. When their offering is very specific, it’s a powerful marketing device

Skype, Bump, Swype, Kick Starter, Shazam - some brands don't seem to mind their name being used as a verb.

Some brand names happily get turned into verbs.

Skyping a friend, Kickstarting a fundraiser, Bumping phones to swap files, Shazamming a song or Swyping text are all verbs derived from brand names, and their owners seem only too happy to have them enter the vernacular.

When verbs attack

The 2005 launch of the iPod Shuffle demoted the word random.

The iPod Shuffle did well here too, pretty much killing the word random – a feature long used by CD players – by demoting it to a tagline.

Ultimately, consumers decide the verbs they’ll use. Not brands. So if you want things your way, make it easy for them to use your verbs. The key to success is to decide early on how you want people to talk about what you do and give them a range of natural sounding verbs to use from the off.

Need a new verb? Here are some tips.

If you’re a brand launching a revolutionary new product that will change the way people do things, it’s worth trying to create some ownable verbs to go with it. After all, you spend so much time and money patenting and defending the technology, the costs of trademarking some of the words around it are minimal, even if it can take a lot of marketing to get people using them.

1. Turn a noun into a verb – like phone

Many verbs associated with technology started life as nouns. From the traditional – format, phone, text and scroll, to the modern – flame, troll, DM, spam or pirate. Could there be the perfect new verb bursting to get out of an everyday noun?

2. Invent a verb of your own – like phish

The verbs of Facebook are pretty ubiquitous. Poking may be all but dead, but post, share, comment and like are very much alive. While liking will never truly be ownable by Facebook, Google Plus have pretty much claimed +1ing, turning a specific thing into a verb…even if not that many people use it yet.

My favourite invented verb is for the act of ‘keeping records of the songs you play and uploading the data’ or to scrobble / scrobbling, created by Last.Fm. It’s fresh, intuitive and quite specific.

3. Modify an existing verb – like repin

Much like the words upload and download come from load, some tech verbs are simple modifications of existing words. Instagram uses regram to talk about reposting a shared photo. Pinterest has done well to own ‘pinning’ online and created ‘repin’, which while a new word, makes absolute sense. (As long as Pinterest is popular, it will propbably own these words in the online space.)

4. Own some lesser used verbs – like shuffle

One of the best marriages of brand and verb is Twitter. By taking two little-used existing, yet strongly connected verbs Twitter and Tweet, and making them their own, they have built an incredibly strong lexicon that would be very hard to be used by someone else, probably even decades from now. Tweet is a much sexier verb than update, right? Retweet is of course brand new verb.

Verbing is an evolution.

In an ideal world, brands would be able to choose the verbs people use when talking about their product. In reality, the fluidity of language means consumers will choose the words that work best for them. But give them the chance to ogle or silvertongue some new ones, and they might just adopt them as their own.

What are your favourite tech verbs? Share them in the comments section below.

In my next post: What verbs might the next wave of technology adopt and give new meaning to?

6 reasons you always fall for click-bait (and the secret formulas publishers won’t want you to see)


Sometimes we can’t help ourselves. Even if we have no interest in the subject, we find ourselves clicking irresistible links. But what is it that makes headlines from sites like Buzzfeed so compelling?

Unless you spend your whole time online on Pinterest and YouTube, chances are you’ll have noticed a big change in the way stories are told recently. In fact, you may even have noticed many of the world’s biggest online titles beginning to write headlines that don’t just sound the same, but are becoming harder to ignore. Welcome to the dark art of click-baiting.

Headlines do the heavy lifting.

Clever headline writing is nothing new. Newspapers and advertising copywriters have been crafting them for decades to sell papers and push product. But what’s changing is the role of a headline and it’s having a big effect on the content.

Newspaper headlines pretty much exist to relay information. Succinct, accurate and usually a complete unambiguous thought, they summarise the most compelling facts of a story in less characters than a tweet. And while there’s a bit of variation between infotainment tabloids and ‘serious’ reporting, both should help you navigate content and get a feel for the day’s news at a glance. And the front page? That’s reserved for the one headline of the day with the power to create most impact, whether its the most important story, or simply the most sensational. The information it reveals should be so compelling, you feel the need to buy the paper and read on.

Advertising headlines work differently. By their nature ads are intrusive stowaways lurking amidst bona fide content. If there’s body copy, there’s usually a slim-chance it will be read unless the headline gives you reason to do so. That’s why ad headlines have to work harder. They either join forces with the visuals to express an idea (usually leading to a sales message) or more traditionally, tell the whole story in as few words as possible. This has become especially true of banner ads, particularly on mobiles where you have just a few pixels to get the message across on a tiny screen. If there’s a big story to be told, it’s saved for the landing page – where you end up when you click on the ad.

sniffle sniffle

So what’s click-bait?

In a nutshell, click-bait is a headline written in such a compelling way that you almost feel powerless to resist clicking, and often sharing it. The space between editorial and advert is becoming a grey area as brands use content creation more and more to spread their message. Overtly or otherwise.

The absolute masters of click-bait are sites like Buzzfeed, Upworthy and The Huffington Post. They make their money from advertising placed on their pages, revenue often determined by the number of people that see an ad. Your eyeballs are a goldmine. So it’s in their interest to drive as much traffic to those pages as possible, through making stories tempting and share-worthy. SEO (search engine optimisation) changes all the time, and with the current trend to rate shares over tags, a carefully constructed, irresistible headline is essential.

The art and science of temptation.

Here are a three successfully proven headline techniques that use mystery and surprise in different ways to encourage clicks.

 1. Culture-jacking

 “X things Y can teach you about Z”

Where Z is something worth knowing

Where X is a number

Numbers are useful. Their precision is a promise to be fulfilled. A low number suggests simplicity and information that’s easy to absorb. A high number suggests authority and definitive coverage. It’s better to keep numbers lowish. 50 facts get tiring, especially when scrolling on a mobile.

Where Y is a cultural touchpoint

How can you instantly pique someone’s interest and race up the search results? Piggyback on something popular. This is often where the real creativity lies. Make a link too tenuous and people see straight through it, get it right, with a good balance of fact, surprise and comedy and you’re onto a winner.


2. Visualisation

A nifty content formula by web psychologist Nathalie Hai

A nifty content formula by web psychologist Nathalie Hai

This formula, created by ‘web-psychologist’ Nathalie Nahai (who has a great presentation on persuasive content here) uses similar buttons to the above, with the number, promise and keyword, but instead of cheaply hooking into a cultural reference, it creates intrigue via  surprising visualisation and engaging adjectives.

How an article on 'Egg Boiling Tips' would be rewritten using this formula.

How an article on ‘Egg Boiling Tips’ would be rewritten using this formula.


(Based on the above formula, the second headline would work better if it was ‘8 adorable things scruffy meerkats can teach us about love’)

3. Because feels

The last of my three formula examples does away the numbers (which can be tiring if used in every headline on a site) and wheels in emotions. According to Forbes, Upworthy’s writers come up with 25 headline options for each story, before pilot testing the top 4. The headline that gets the most clicks, goes live for reals. As you can imagine, after months of doing this, they’ve built up quite an understanding of what works.

Apparently, Upworthy’s formula for a winning headline is:

Outrage + Uplift + Mystery = Clicks

Which is essentially ‘make a statement to stir an emotion, turn it up to 11 and throw in a cliffhanger.’ It works a treat.

After cancer took his wife, this father does something incredible to make sure his daughter never forgets mom.

The above is a beautifully touching story. You can see how Blog Distractify have tinkered with the headline to pull in more eyeballs. The original title (as seen in the url) looks like it was ‘dad-and-daughter-recreate-old-photos-from-deceased-mother’. Seemingly following Upworthy’s formula, the new one is much more compelling.

 Here’s one of Upworthy’s most shared headlines from their first year:

Upworthy's biggest story of 2012

Upworthy’s biggest story of 2012

Outrage – Bully Calls News Anchor Fat

Uplift – News Anchor Destroys Him On Live TV

Mystery – What did she say?

With this formula, you’re intrigued, feel slightly uncomfortable, but promised a satisfying pay-off, after all, we all like an underdog.

That’s how to write click-bait. But why do you click?

The obvious reasons to click on a link are because you’re interested in the subject and the element of mystery in the set-up. But look a little deeper and there are some subconscious reasons too.

Ask any good door-to-door salesman and they’ll tell you about some of the buttons they have been trained to push to lead you to a purchase. These same basic marketing buttons can easily be applied to click-bait headlines.

So finally, here they are, 6 reasons why you click.

1. Fear

From assuaging genuine fear (3 ways to survive an earthquake) to curing FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out,  (Dermatologists hate her for this one weird trick, The 10 most shocking celebrity instagrams of 2013 ), fear is a powerful motivator for action. Faced with the prospect of risk, embarrassment or unnecessary loss, where’s the harm in a quick click?

2. Guilt

Whether it’s something you do that you know you shouldn’t, or something you know you ought to be doing, pushing the guilt button is a sneaky way to trigger an emotional response from a perceived failing. Used evilly, it can also plant a seed or concern that you may never have had. (“Does this make me a bad mother?”, “Eating this delicious donut will make me less attractive.”)

3. Love

The strongest motivator of all, and often lurking behind all the others, love drives action. Whether it’s something you do for the love of someone else, or something to make you feel good about yourself, tapping into your passions and people you care about gets results.

4. Pride

We all like to think we’re pretty decent human beings. Our pride is our feeling of pleasure or satisfaction in ourselves and our achievements. So a powerful way to generate a response is to question someone’s pride, forcing them to act in order to maintain it. In terms of information, the simplest way is to present information that someone feels they ought to know, but do not.

5. Greed

This is the easiest sell of all when it comes to marketing. The promise of something for nothing or the chance to get rich quick is often too good an opportunity to miss, even for the skeptics.

6. Belonging

This is closely linked to FOMO, but as a social species, we want to feel close to people. Sharing knowledge, memes and stories connects us, whether online or at the water cooler. Missing them can make us feel more isolated. Much like a salesman will use the idea of people behaving like sheep (keeping up with Jones’) to sell a product, click-baiters can reward us by making us feel part of a community (Like! Share!) all to their own eyeballing ends.

The 35 naughtiest dogs on the planet. You’ll laugh so hard when you see what they did!

Still compelled to click?

So there you have it. A by no means exhaustive look at some of the ways writers get you to click, and some of the reasons you do. Fess up. How many of the above headlines did you click on?

There’s nothing wrong with click-bait per se, but in trading editorial standards for eyeballs, there’s a danger it will lead to the dumbing down of mainstream media.

The demotion of facts in favour of tricks is captured brilliantly in this parody.

A clever illustration of clickbaitising from

A clever illustration of clickbaitising from

Spoilers sweetie.

Spoilers sweetie.

You can save yourself the dilemma of deciding whether to click by following one of these great ‘click-bait spoilers’ on Twitter @HuffPoSpoilers and @MammaMiaSpoilers

Now you know some of the tricks to click-bait writing, maybe you can use some of them yourself and play the experts at their own game.

Why exclamation marks are not your friend.


Danger ahead. I’ll let you in on a little secret. One of the biggest giveaways that a client has written their own copy, without hiring a copywriter, is the over-use of exclamation marks.

The world’s most over-used punctuation mark has a lot to answer for. In a fraction of a second, it has the power to turn even the most delicately worded prose into a pantomime horse. It’s right up there with CAPS LOCK and alphanumeric truncation (h8ers gonna h8) for a spot in room 101. In the printing world, an exclamation mark is often referred to as a ‘screamer’, ‘gasper’, ‘bang’, ‘slammer’ or ‘startler’ – ie: something to be used sparingly, and for dramatic effect, where warranted. Over-use is tiring and annoying at best and shows lack of control. (Apple even has a specific section in their distributer rulebook about avoiding their use.) There’s even a word for excessive use of exclamation marks: ‘bangorreah’. But try telling that to writers on social media, where the mere whiff of a competition is excuse enough to crack open a whole can of exclamation marks! Take a look at this list of contests currently on NineMSN’s homepage. Among other things, you could win a cheese plate. A CHEESE PLATE! I might forgive them for using one on a prize worth a cool million dollars, but a cheese plate

Win a cheese plate!

NineMSN love their exclamation marks.

Exclamation marks give the impression of an over-excited child. And in marketing copy, they often just aren’t needed. If a statement’s flat, no amount of exclamation marks are going to liven it up, they’re just going to make it look ridiculous. If it’s already exciting, why would you need to sign-post it? Exclamation marks are distracting. And while excitement will always be subjective, no brand should lose their shit over a cheese plate. Have a look at the next Lost Dog, School Fete, Yard Sale or Fresh Lemonade sign you see. Chances are it will be festooned with exclamation marks, most likely some clip-art and quite possibly a smattering of comic sans. These are not the communications tools of professional marketers.  F Scott Fitzgerald once said “an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke”. If that rule applies to everyday brands, it should go double for premium ones.  I spotted this advertising billboard for Swiss Miltary Hanowa watches at the weekend. Image The Flagship Chrono looks like a nice watch. Admittedly, it’s not in the same league as Rolex, Omega or even Tag Heur, but if Hanowa want to at least pretend to play in that space, that exclamation mark is a huge no-no, especially for their flagship watch. The words leading up to it are strange too. I assume the line ‘ALWAYS ON TARGET!’ is used to suggest a sense of dynamism, accuracy and weaponry, all stuff blokes love. But whatever the disconnect between the words, image and message (what’s it targeting?) that exclamation mark shoots the soaring metaphor dead mid-air. It’s a scream of shock, as if being on target is something you wouldn’t expect from the brand. It starts you wondering about the surprise itself and makes you completely forget to read the body copy (a list of bullet points). A time and place for exclamation marks.  So now I’ve had a whinge about the bad use of exclamation marks, it’s time I said a few words on the good. If you know what you’re bringing to a communications piece by using an exclamation mark, it can be a useful gizmo. Exclamation marks can be a simple way to add a touch of personality to a brand name. Air France’s new regional subsidy Hop! uses an exclamation mark not only in the name, but as a very effective graphic device on its destination price lock-ups, acting as a clever nod to flight paths. ImageImage Hop! captures the excitement of flying, in a playful fashion. Similarly classic fragrance Joop! and Yahoo! Both benefit from the quirkiness the exclamation mark brings. The surprise is delivered by the brand itself, not a clunky message it’s trying to express. It can be tricky to get right in sentence copy and headlines, but the best use of an exclamation mark is, oddly enough, the one it was designed for. Trusty Wikipedia tells me it was first introduced into English printing in the 15th century to show emphasis, and is well-known for appearing alongside words like ‘bang’ to increase their potency. Boom! Bang! Boo! A boo without one would surely sound sarcastic? I may sound a little down on the shriekish bang, but I use it myself from time to time. My unofficial rules are to think about adding it to a script and imagining the difference it would make to the way the words are read out. Which tends to mean, I end up saving it for expressions like Ta-Da! Wahooo! Or Yippeee! And by the time a brand is playful and brave enough to be sporting these kinds of words in its vocabulary, chances are they won’t be needing cheap exclamation marks anyway. Image

Naming someone else’s baby.

Naming a brand. Where do you start?

Choosing a brand name. Where do you start?

How creating an effective brand name is much trickier than naming a child.

It’s a funny thing, naming. Everyone thinks they’re an expert. We’ve all named something at one time or another, even if it’s just the goldfish. But when it  comes to naming a company, product or service, choosing the perfect  name can have many an “expert” flummoxed. Employees, customers, shareholders; how can you inspire everyone in just a word or two? The short answer is, you can’t. Not everyone. But what you can do is have a  very clear idea of your audience and the most important things you want to communicate, and go from there.

To the uninitiated, naming can be a minefield, which probably explains why   so many companies spend months, even years, developing a product only to   discover as the launch date approaches that they’ve yet to agree on a name, let alone secure the trademark.

Cue a last-minute panic and cry for help to the advertising agency, who are often asked to come up with a name as a tiny part of a launch campaign brief, without being given the adequate time or budget to do so.

The agency will often think coming up with a name is a doddle, give the task to a junior copywriter as ‘a nice little job’ and come bounding back with a long list of suggestions, which get knocked out one by one for creative reasons (they’re too obscure), legal reasons (they’re obviously taken) or linguistic ones (sorry, Mist in German means manure – just ask Mercedes). The deadline gets ever closer, but the solution doesn’t.

Luckily for Australia, because of our youth and size, securing a trademark and url for the domestic market is much easier than in Europe or the US, which probably explains why the slap-dash attitude to naming still prevails.

Considering it can take up to two years for a trademark to be registered (although in reality, few companies wait that long), the sooner a name is chosen, the better.

Naming. So where do you start?

Short answer – by knowing what you want to communicate. Defining what your brand is about is where every naming brief should start. Once everyone is looking for a clear expression of the same idea, it makes choosing a name much less subjective.

Can you imagine naming someone else’s child? Creating a name for someone else’s company is just like that. People can get very subjective, especially as everyone has natural associations with certain words. The smaller the company, the higher the personal stakes.

When you name a child, you have no idea what they’re going to be like, yet you have the responsibility to pick a name that will suit them in the future. In theory, creating a brand name should be easy by comparison, as you should know exactly what you want to get across and choose a name that does it.

Thing is, people and brands can often grow into a name, whatever it is. Think of the people in your life, can you imagine them being called anything else now?

The different styles of name; descriptive, associative, abstract.

Whether you’re a company like Unilever launching a new FMCG or a multi-million-dollar enterprise in need of a new name following a merger or acquisition, the first step is to have an idea about what style of name you looking for, something often dictated by geography.

Do you just want a descriptive name that’s very direct and obvious, setting out your stall in a flash, or is it more important to build your brand by creating an associative name rich in personality? More often than not, companies want both.

Names used to be very straight-forward. Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Dick Smith Electronics, National Australia Bank… But as companies became more diverse, expanded internationally and saw an increase in competition, the need to create differentiation became much more apparent. What began as a simple way to tell cattle apart with a hot-iron brand has moved into a world of much more complex identity creation.

A brand’s identity has both visual and verbal elements. Design and tone of voice together bring it to life.  The brand name is often the way into both of these as a means of introduction, usually with a strong idea at the heart. For example ‘Apple’ suggests refreshing simplicity or a (Newton) eureka moment, ‘Wii’ togetherness and ‘Google’ has the clever double association of googol (a number with 100 zeros) and goggle – a wide-eyed look of amazement.

In Australia, it seems many of the biggest brands have very traditional names, often taking those of their founder. The brands now stand for far more than the characteristics of the person that created them, which can make them feel very dated and tied to the past. And if you don’t know of that person, the name is abstract anyway. Harvey Norman means nothing to me…but then I guess, so does Calvin Klein, although at least he has a legacy.

It’s often the young upstarts that tend to have the most engaging names. Launching in a crowded market, it’s a great way to get instant cut-through. Just look at how undies maker AussieBum ripped into Bonds’ market share in just a few years. In the beginning, with a limited budget, the cheeky name really helped them get column inches and punch above their weight.

Why it pays to talk nonsense.

Abstract names are the hardest to warm to. Made-up or unfamiliar words can take a lot of work to build meaning into, but ultimately, they are the most distinctive, the easiest to trademark and tend to travel well as you don’t have to worry if people who speak other languages will understand a name – because at first, no one will.

An abstract name is like a blank canvas you can paint with meaning. When done well, they are incredibly strong brands. Kodak, Sony, Viagra, Optus, they’re all essentially abstract names, but you probably carry plenty of association with them now.

Even abstract names can have association. Xstrata is an interesting name in an industry full of bland ones. (Rio Tinto incidentally, comes from the Spanish rivers washed red from all the iron ore.) Xstrata feels quite techie and progressive. It conjures images of multi-layered rock-strata, along with a hint of ‘X marks the spot’ treasure hunting. Even when your product is already valuable, it never hurts to have a strong brand to help build a premium offering.

There’s a great theory – nominative determinism – that people become the names they are given. It might not actually be true for children, but it often is for brands ­– a brand like Nike was always going to be about victory. But playing against type can work wonders too – like Caterpillar, big, powerful, heavy machinery named after a small squishy insect.

Naming is full of contradictions. The only consistent rule seems to be, there are no rules.

The original version of this post was published in The Australian Financial Review - June 2011.

The original version of this post was published in The Australian Financial Review – June 2011.

How San Francisco is reclaiming the word ‘social’.

A growing trend in SF - asking patrons to Go off Grid.

A growing trend in SF – asking patrons to Go off Grid.

I went to San Francisco agog to see a Google Glass or two in the field. Instead, I found an even more absorbing trend – Americans Going Off Grid.

One of the most surprising things I saw on a recent trip to California wasn’t the use of technology, it was the lack of it. People in bars just weren’t on their phones as much as I’m used to seeing here in Australia – they were totally present in the moment.

Walk into any bar in Sydney and a large percentage will be glued to their screens, whether alone or not.

In San Francisco, people seemed almost sheepish about whipping their cellphones out. Perhaps in a nation known for working so hard, mobiles represent work more than play and a dreaded email from the boss could be just a glance away.

The switch-off wasn’t always just through personal choice; sometimes it was enforced, with some bars proudly displaying a ‘no cellphones’ sign by the front door. Promoter Bus Station John has messages at his events written in a cheerful tone of voice, like “No cell phonz thanks!”  and one bar I visited gleefully promised ‘you’ll be ejected if we you see you using your phone’.

It’s unclear whether such bans are wholly altruistic (“We’d prefer patrons talk to each other”) or self-motivated (“Don’t Shazam my quirky playlist”). Either way, America Going off Grid made for some great nights out. When we’re not engaging with faraway strangers on our phones, it seems the ones close to us are more likely to engage. Who knew?

Do strangers still exist? Removing social barriers.

Northern Californians are some of the friendliest people I’ve met. I doubt they’ve ever been scared to talk to strangers. But has being online actually helped redefine the term ‘stranger’?

It’s certainly fair to say we’ve got more shared experiences than ever. Whether headline news, must-see TV, Reddit meme cycles, or cookie-cutter Instagrams telling us exactly which bakery makes the best cupcakes in town, we’re cross-culturally aligned like never before.

And it’s not just our experiences that are harmonising, it’s our attitudes. We know the latest socially expected responses to certain questions and the world leaders it’s ok to admire, or deride. We also know the issues we’d be wise to bite our tongues on when our own opinion is against the norm. It’s ok, social media will tell us when the barometer shifts.

Social harmonisation is affecting our language too. Never has vocabulary shifted so quickly, Yesterday’s hashtag, is today’s dictionary entry and tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapper.  Amazeballs. YOLO. FTW. Ehmahgerd. Gold! I can’t even… strange and alien becomes familiar and understood in no time. It’s totes cray cray.

All of which means, when you meet a stranger, you probably have a lot more in common with them then you might have done twenty years ago. That goes double in a city as small as Sydney, when you can check out someone you’ve just met online and discover you’ve already got heaps of mutual friends.

Look me in the eye. Removing tech barriers.

The word ‘social’ has become two-tier, with the real world and the online fighting for our attention. Perversely, engaging in the latter in public is largely seen as antisocial, something products like Google Glass will address. As technology becomes less about objects and more about passive, intuitive integration with ourselves, it jolts us back into the moment (or at least, hides the fact we’re distracted). For those who can’t bear to be without their phones, or who feel guilty about using them in real-world social situations, it will bring the best of both worlds, enabling people to be more present, whatever they’re doing. Until wearable tech gets banned from bars too that is.

Oh San Francisco, whatever you’ve got up your sleeve, this copywriter rather enjoyed your places where the only ‘likes’, were like, vocal and the LOLs were just that. I hope you do your best to keep it that way.