Why exclamation marks are not your friend.

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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.

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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’.

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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.