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Alex

What’s the contract

By | Contract theory, Uncategorized

This is a brass plaque that used to live where the post office was in Kentish Town, London. It remains one of the most improbable and impenetrable sentences I’ve ever read. And yet it exists and presumably makes sense in some kind of context. That context will of course be a legal one, and to some lawyer maybe from another century it makes perfect sense. The point is, this communication is best and perhaps only understood in terms of a contract that lies outside the communication itself.
One question that is very useful to ask is: What’s the contract that surrounds a piece of text? Is it a coercive context like a legal framework? Or is it a persuasive context like an advertising poster? Every piece of writing has a contract and it’s usually implicit.
A broadsheet newspaper might be: Pay to read this and we will give you thoughts ideas and information that is reasonably accurate and will make you look more informed in your social and business interactions. We will be interesting enough for you to want to read.
A parking ticket and parking signage has a very different contract: Read this carefully or not, it’s up to you. Fail to understand what we mean and we’ll tow your car away anyway.
The less well a parking signage is written the more revenue the council can collect. It’s one of the reasons signage is often so difficult to fathom.

Story change and communication

By | Communication theory, content, Story, Strategy, Uncategorized

From zero to hero. The classic log line for a Hollywood storyline. Why? because there’s lots of change implicit in zeros becoming heros. A perfect example of this would be the log-line for Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Where the filthy rich meet the dirty poor. You can almost see that there will be change for both the two main characters. Without change there can be no story and without story there’s no communication. These three things go together and if you’re going to understand any one of them you need to understand them all.

Another way of looking at this is by investigating what happens when there’s no change. And by that we also mean no change in expectation.
If you were to try to build a story around visting a vending machine: You go to the a vending machine in some big building. You select, say a Kit Kat, put your money in, and a Kit Kat duly drops onto the tray. Well, there’s no possible story that can come out of that because in no way has any expectation been thwarted or extended. However, if a Kit Kat didn’t drop down, but something much more unexpected did, say a packet of class A drugs, you have the beginnings of a storyline.

Tone Wheel

By | Brand, Tone, Uncategorized

In any highly competitive market, where there is a surfeit of products all competing for the same proposition, then inevitably, the propositions become hard to distinguish. In these cases a sort of exclusion principle applies.  Once one successful brand has occupied one slot, the next successful product to compete in that space will have to occupy a different tonal slot.

This is where brand tonality and personality becomes the difference; When price, product, promotion etc are all identical.

To understand this graphically it helps to see tone in terms of the following wheel. It shows how brands connect to the idea of archetype, an idea originally conceived by Jung.
If you’d like to read more about the role of archetypes in brands and organisations try The Hero and the Outlaw, by Margaret Mark and Carol S Pearson.

Working like a detective

By | Case history, Uncategorized


For a great professional case it’s important the expert sees beyond where other lesser professionals get fobbed off. In this case, in what is a classic twist from Murder on the Orient Express, the incriminating hankerchief bears the initial H. So it can’t possibly belong to Natalia. Or so you might think. However Poirot knows that in Russian an H is pronounced an N and so it could indeed be Natalia’s.
The premise of expertise in case history writing is that when nothing is quite what it appears only a specialist with raised levels of perception can ascertain what really is going on.

Creativity where you least expect it

By | Creativity, Strategy, Thought leadership

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There have been many funky things you can do with the design of a bike stand, and I’ve had to lock my bike to quite a few of them. Some of them are really annoying because they allow a bike to topple over.
But this one I spotted in Islington is a breath of fresh air. And like all neat creative ideas, it starts by asking a question no one else had bothered to ask: What would bike parking look like if it were designed by someone who wasn’t a cyclist or a road engineer?
What if it were designed by a landscape gardener?
The ability create different answers starts with the ability to ask different questions. And follow them through to interesting conclusions.

Starting with a story

By | Communication theory, Communications craft, content, Funny, Thought leadership, Uncategorized, What's out there now


Masters of story don’t start with a simple fact or assertion, they weave a story that does the same thing.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks could have begun his speech by simply saying something like “all faiths have similarities, but they also have interesting differences.”
That would have been a perfectly coherent way to start a speech at an interfaith dinner. But by starting with a story that demonstrates the same thing, he does so much more than assert a first beat.
He demonstrates mastery of the story form, establishes his own character as a player at Government level, and also brings some laughs to the room. But the story is always in the service of demonstrating the first beat of the rest of his speech.

The Apple five P’s

By | B2B, Communications craft, content, Link, Mission statement, Tone

steve-jobsApple comes up so often in brand conversations, it’s easy to forget how many different elements work so coherently in its brand mix. So here then are the five P’s outlined.
Purpose and philosophy, personality and positioning, proposition, product and price point.
Okay, there are more than 5, but there’s plenty of overlap. The purpose and philosophy for Apple is the aim to be creatively disruptive.
Steve Jobs gave us many clues about this. From his early experience with calligraphy, in the days when typography and computing simply didn’t go together, one of his major creative disruptions to the industry was to make sure that they did. More disruptive messaging was to follow; When the computing world seemed to be at peak IBM architecture, he launched an explicitly disruptive message in the famous Apple Super Bowl ad for 1984. Here, a dystopian superpower, an embodiment of the IBM Gates axis, has their screen smashed by the newcomer.
The personality and mac-pc-colour4-tonewheeljobs-gatespositioning are creative and they sit very happily in the creator slot of the archetypes chart.
The strap line think different underscores this. The embodiment of creativity happens, of course, in many ways but one of the strongest was by contrasting the uncool of pc jacket and tie man against the more chilled guy with his shirt hanging out.
And this was certainly living the brand because Job’s own sartorial style had made it to the TV ads and the employee dress code at the Genius bar.
There is a dark side of a creative personality that sometimes comes up and you can see this present in the Apple brand estate too.
The Lemmings ad was what happens when a creative guru shows too much disdain for their clients and their lack of cool. Effectively insulting their IBM audience, accusing them of blind moronic stupidity, the ad bombed, killing sales and Apple had to close three of its six plants. Steve Jobs left the company in the mid-eighties after this debacle. So much for the dark side of creative positioning.
But the rest of the brand estate has been an impeccable demonstration of how to position as creative.
The product and price point are premium. And the strap lines emphasise the personality not the product. It’s think different, not think premium. slide051984_big_brother
When you talk about strong branding, ultimately the strength is a reflection of the coherence of the P’s. It seems so easy when its done well.

The bigger picture

By | B2B, Communication theory, Communications craft, content, Thought leadership, Uncategorized, What's out there now

screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-21-55-26article-2332079-1a092eab000005dc-128_634x417 screen-shot-2016-10-11-at-21-20-07 How do you tell a longer story in just a few web frames when there’s so much to say and so few words to say it in?
Do you squeeze everything in to your first sentence in a general way and hope people will telepathically understand the message? Or do you try something completely different?
How about the big picture route?
Obviously, you need to say something that speaks to what’s interesting topical and important for your audience. (That might take a little creative thought). There are no limits to what it could be, but it has to sit credibly close to the main purpose of your brand or product.
Then, by giving snapshots of that central thought and related ideas, you can build a much more powerful idea up. This is the bigger picture route and it’s the way you build classic campaigns. It enables you to interest people in what you’ve got to say rather than bludgeon them with standard issue clichés.
If what we’re saying here sounds a little abstract, think of the bigger picture and the sub message working like these pictures of the queen. Both work on the fact that the human brain is always trying to distil meaning out of anything it sees hears or feels. You just have to have one eye on what that meaning could be. Try it, and you’ll find it amazingly liberating, because you’re working with your audience’s brains not against them.
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SEO. Things can only get better.

By | B2B, SEO, Uncategorized

Not so very long ago, when search engines started appearing, a rush began to stuff as many keywords into every piece of text as you possibly could. It seemed the obvious and only way to do things, was to brutalise communications and many in the copywriting community shuddered.

Those who had known or worked for old school greats like David Abbott and Tony Brignull felt a mixture of sadness and anxiety. If SEO was the future of commercial writing, it didn’t look like much fun.

There was a new generation of expert, people who said things like: “The electronic screen means no one can read anything properly anymore, so just make it as short as possible”.

And there were other types of operators who were creating link farms to try and game the system, and fool Google into bringing their business up the rankings. It seemed that the kind of intelligent, audience-based, information-rich copy with a touch of wit no longer had a place in a post Google world.
But that was then, and this is now. For the last few years SEO has been changing radically. Far from long form copy being the medium of dinosaurs, SEO actively encourages it. Now Google will penalise you if it considers blog content “thin”, by which they mean less than 600 words.

There’s now a well established relationship between the number of links you earn and the length of text you write. Long form writing is back in business, with a vengeance.

Even the number of characters allowed in the meta tags have increased in length.
But it’s not just quantity that’s gone up, it’s quality too. The last 2 years have seen the Google algorithm is increasingly understanding the hidden meaning between the lines, using Latent Semantic Indexing, LSI. So you’re well advised to avoid keyword stuffing and write properly instead.

Link farming has died a death, keyword data no longer gets provided; the many ways of gaming the search engine system come with bigger Google penalties. Black hat SEO days are numbered.
It’s back to the USP or unique selling proposition, that is now actively used in SEO in Hong Kong. Or, its journalistic equivalent, the Unique Story Proposition. In either case the writer needs to be crystal clear about what they’re offering or what a page is about.

And at the top of the whole process and quietly guiding it, is the age old principle of putting your audience’s question first, not the search query ranking first.

It’s quite possible that contrary to a lot of indications 10 years ago, we could be entering a golden age of content. Abbott and Brignull would be proud.
SEO and Language