Saying one thing well is always more interesting than a rag bag of non sequiturs. Even if you’ve got lots to say, the trick is to bring it all under one singular theme. This man makes a bunch of observations about how we use just one word in the English language.
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.
All you have to do is pick one of these Mr Men characters and imagine you’re going to take him on a test in one of the vehicles.
Your role is the chief driving examiner and also licensing authority for whatever vehicle they’re getting tested in. Decide what they do on their test, and report what happened, so their suitability can be assessed.
Tom picked Mr Fussy and the Ice Cream van, but you’re free to pick any combination at all. All that we ask is that you produce something clear simple and well structured. You can use the following template if it helps.
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.
Apple 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 positioning 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.
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.
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 pictureroute?
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. individual snapsots
Research is a topic that raises a lot of hostile feelings in creative people. Numerous campaigns have fallen at this point only to do really well in real life. Maureen Lipman in BT’s 1980’s Jewish Mother TVC campaign was a perfect example. But I think testing material is really useful, if only because it’s a great way to find out more about your target audience. Above is the general process and it can be iterative.
Although it’s really useful for creatives to go to the focus groups and watch behind the glass window, it’s not as common for this to happen as you might think. For one thing creatives see it like going to the dentist, an exam they’ll find painful and would rather avoid. Another reason is that an agency can be making more money from the creative when they’re chained to their desks rather than watching housewives in Surbiton.
One insight I remember getting from a focus group on women’s hair products was that this particular 40 something lady wanted to look great at times I’d never really considered. Not for her husband, not for the cocktail party nor the hen do, but when she was wearing jeans and a T shirt and the builder was coming round.
Obvious when you think about it, but only when you’ve heard from your actual audience.
Just for completeness here’s the bigger process that the creative sits inside. Many organisations short cut this, but this essentially is the ideal.
Two ads, two foods, and two very different approaches to tone. I’m not a big gum chewer, and I do like my prosecco, so perhaps I’m biased. On the right, it’s all about proposition. On the left it’s all about tone. The use of words like civil and sozzled, shindig, even sea salted rather than just salt, all paint a picture of acceptable, maybe even necessary decadence.
The typography which is itself a little tipsy, helps remind us that being too square and sober is best left to other brands and other products.
If you’ve got to sell a pack of salted crisps, where margins are high and competition is intense, tone is your secret weapon.
Tim Riley was one of people who was kind enough to give me some coaching and critiques when I was trying to land my first job in advertising.
Years later he also sat down with me over a cup of tea at the Landmark hotel to help me sort out the content and aims of the Copycourse.
You might know his work from, amongst other things, the most clicked on Sainsbury’s ad for 2014, based on the true story of when the Germans and the British started playing football on Christmas day, from behind the trenches. See above.
He also penned the following words of advice on writing copy (below). Almost two decades old, and coming from a pre-digital age, it still stands up for its no-nonsense tonality, and humility.
“I have a confession to make, and it’s an unusual one for a copywriter. I don’t like writing copy. This isn’t as much of a problem as you might think, though. Because the truth is, nobody likes reading copy either.
People buy magazines to read the articles, not the ads. You’re lucky if people notice your work at all. So I always try to make the headlines tell as much of the story as possible. (Consequently, I end up with some very long headlines.)
Occasionally though, there’ll be ads where writing detailed copy is unavoidable. What do you do then? You get somebody to help you. When I was a junior at BMP, there were three very good writers, Alan Tilby, Dave Watkinson and Alan Curson, who were patient enough to read through my copy and suggest improvements.
Never was this more eloquently done than when Al Tilby looked at what I’d written, carefully tore it in half, then in half again, and let the pieces gently flutter into his wastepaper bin. ‘You can do better than this,’ he said. I did. The other way I learnt was by reading old ads, over and over again.
One I always admired was the Health Education poster: ‘This is what happens when a fly lands on your food.’ I liked the way the writers, Charles Saatchi and Michael Coughlan, made the story so compelling with such a deadpan, factual style.
In 73 words of copy they use only one adjective. (And the one they do use, ‘runny’, is a killer.)
Old ads aren’t the only things you can read for inspiration. Given a poster to do about Michael Jordan, Andy McKay and I found an article about him in an old copy of American Esquire. At one point, the author described Jordan’s game as ‘an ongoing dialectic with Isaac Newton’.
Once we’d looked up ‘dialectic’ in the dictionary, it was a short step to ‘Michael Jordan 1 Isaac Newton 0’. But perhaps the best advice on actually writing copy comes from an ad. It was written for VW in 1962 by, I think, John Withers. Underneath the headline, ‘How to do a Volkswagen ad’, the copy concludes: Don’t exaggerate.
Call a spade a spade. And a suspension a suspension. Not something like ‘orbital cushioning’. Talk to the reader, don’t shout. He can hear you. Especially if you talk sense. Pencil sharp? You’re on your own.”