THE PLAIN TEXT GAZETTE – Issue 11, October 2004
* The corporate strapline must die
* Words we hate: another one
Welcome to the many new subscribers who have joined up following our citations on Metafilter and Signal vs. Noise. And thank you to those who cited us. I was particularly taken this rather arch comment: “Wow. A whole screen of text, every six months? I can’t imagine how they keep it going.” You’re right. It’s tough. But you wouldn’t want us to email you 10 words a day instead now, would you? We like to think that in a world of overflowing inboxes, the Plain Text Gazette’s infrequency is part of its charm. Do let us know if you think otherwise, and want more: we’d have to staff up, of course, but it would be a pleasure. Otherwise, we’ll stay infrequent. Perhaps we should team up with the Long Now foundation, who among other things are building a 10,000-year clock. Now there’s someone who’d be in the market for an occasional newsletter.
On to this aeon’s issue. We have a lengthy rant about corporate straplines which, predictably, we’re not terribly keen on. But we do have some practical suggestions amidst the ‘sturm und drang’ of our righteous irritation with them.
And then another unloved corporate word gets it in the neck. Conscious that the Plain Text Gazette might err a little to the negative from time to time, we’d like to add more sites to our links page that show really good writing in practice. We’ll be scouring blogs and websites to create an eclectic listing. As a starter, I offer you California’s Rivendell Bicycles, whose delightful, opinionated site will leave even the non-cyclists amongst you desperate to get your hands on their beautiful retro creations. All suggestions from readers will, of course, be gratefully received.
Keep it plain,
Most company straplines should be dispensed with. Harsh? Yes, but have you ever been in a strapline-related meeting? It is during such sessions that companies look the furthest up their own fundaments; and the results are rarely edifying. Day-long workshops followed by endless rounds of managerial approval often result in lines like: ‘Delivering excellence today’. What does that tell anyone, apart from the fact that the company is run by management consultants? Then there’s the ultra-abstract strapline, such as Vodafone’s ‘How are you?’ to which I *always* want to answer “None of your flipping business.” I know it would be desperately tedious for them to say: “Mobile communications”, but why say anything at all unless you say something effective? Perhaps it is a good test of a company strapline — as it is of a mission statement — to see whether the opposite can be easily stated. McDonalds’ UK line “I’m lovin’ it” would immediately crumble under this test: I, for one, am definitely not lovin’ it. Not since I learnt about the modern food industry, anyway.
A sure sign that the corporate strapline is in the descendant is that businesses that would never before have bothered with such nonsense are now using them. A personal favourite is a northern English transport company’s “Taking people to places”, which, particularly when emblazoned on the side of a coach, is taking the bleedin’ obvious to new and entirely unnecessary heights. Similarly, it seems a little ‘de trop’ of a local taxi firm to bill itself as “The human logistics experts”. It’s a vehicle. It says ‘taxi’ on it. Which part of that howlingly obvious semiotic proposition does the marketing manager think the punters might not understand? Then, of course, there’s the pretentious strapline, now shed by many large businesses but still affecting the small: witness the north London glazing company billing itself as providing “Total fenestration solutions.” And there’s the ambiguous: the City of London police were recently spotted at a roadside speedtrap using this marvellous line: “Engaging criminality.” Call me awkward, but I read it as a suggestion that they had some really rather attractive felonies to talk about. What’s wrong with “Stopping people speeding”, for goodness’ sake?
This rant would doubtless raise a kindly, avuncular smile from branding professionals, would might then go on to explain in detail the art, science, and importance of corporate straplines. And there are some lines that manage (in my view) to work well without actually telling you what the company does. Nike’s “Just do it”, for example had a relevant, motivational oomph that did much to power their brand (although one wonders how it was interepreted by their factory workers). Honda’s “The power of dreams” has a certain resonance, although it sits somewhat awkwardly in an ad for a bland people-carrier.
But do we really need these lines? And if we must have them, what makes a good ‘un? Here’s the Plain Text view — unscientific, unreasonable, and opinionated — in handy, bullet-point form.
1. Don’t use one if you don’t need one. The UK Post Office (see also point 5. below) surely does something so widely understood that it needs no further explanation. It may well be that our country will soon ‘benefit’ from a deregulated market for postal services, but is the incumbent really helped to fight newcomers by the line “With us, it’s personal”? Ugh. I don’t think so.
2. If you must have one, at least make it useful. It’s interesting to see KPMG, who have probably been responsible for a fair bit of corporate psychobabble (and the world’s favourite corporate anthem) in their time, going for this nuts-and-bolts description: “Audit. Tax. Advisory.” It ain’t going to set the world on fire, but at least you know what they do. Or the splendid Brooks saddlemakers, whose lovely site shows how the Victorians would have approached web design. (Or at least it did until they started mucking about with animations). The simple line used on their packaging: “Saddles, bags, etc.” gets straight to the point.
3. If it has to be abstract, make sure it works. OK, so an ultra-obvious strapline may sometimes be a little dull. But get carried away too far into the worlds of abstraction and pretention and it’s even worse: stuff like “Delivering tomorrow today” (I dreamt it up but yes, it is almost someone’s strapline — I hope they don’t read the Gazette) doesn’t really say anything at all. Good examples are HP, who, by using ‘Invent’ everywhere, give a strong impression that this is what they do; or Sun’s ‘The network is the computer’, which, although perhaps too abstract for some, serves as a perpetual dig at Microsoft, and a statement of Sun’s position on technology.
4. Strictly limit the approval process for corporate straplines. Benign dictatorship is the only way to stop every division trying to get an explicit mention on the strapline: “NewVisia: Innovative solutions for enterprise consulting, outsourcing, change management, organisational effectiveness and human capital development.” Even people who stayed awake while reading this line are still unlikely to remember any of it.
5. And finally: refrain from using the words ‘delivering’ and ‘solutions’. So very, very, 1990s. Let the UK Post Office’s “Delivering value” — lambasted in these pages before for avoiding the undeniably useful fact that they deliver letters and packages — be the last major appearance of one of these overused words in a strapline.
Words we hate: another one
Enterprise, n, meaning: ‘a business concern’
I know, I know. It’s useful. It’s there to mean ‘company’ or ‘business’ when we’re talking about the whole thing, when we’re implying that there’s a lot of it, when it probably includes lots of people and departments and almost inevitably crosses many international borders. So ‘enterprise-class’ software is what you buy if you’re a big swinging company. And you doubtless pay ‘enterprise-scale’ bills for it, too. ‘Enterprise’ jars because it fails the ‘write as you speak’ test. Who actually says ‘enterprise’, ever? “Do you like working for this enterprise, John?” “Yes, Mary, as enterprises go, it’s pretty good: possibly the best enterprise in the sector”. Maybe people just like their companies to sound like a famous starship. In our entirely unreasonable view, the term should be avoided at all costs. How about ‘thing’, as in ‘cosa nostra’ (our thing)? Now *that* would sound cool in a technology discussion. “We want a system that works right across our thing.” “All the way across the thing?” “Yes, the whole thing.”
That’s it for this issue. As always, your comments, suggestions and rants are welcome.
Paul & Paul
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