How can brands help build better people?

The Family of Man - the democratic surround in action

So I’ve been deep in a fascinating book, Fred Turner’s ‘The Democratic Surround’. It describes how European mass media societies enabled the deeply destructive politics that led to WWII, and what the US did when it realised that it was a very similar kind of mass media society.

It’s got a lot of lessons for us today.

How to build better people

The Americans were lucky – they had a combination of Bauhaus refugees and brilliant psychiatric, sociological, anthropological and artistic thinkers to draw on. ‘The Democratic Surround’ tells their story.

Together, they analysed pre-WWII European politics, looking to understand how certain kinds of mass media could create and support a certain kind of self – the fascist self. Then they asked themselves how those media could be used to create its opposite – the democratic self.

That led to the development of a certain kind of public event, which reached its peak in the internationally successful ‘Family of Man’ exhibition. It was first shown in 1955 in New York, then toured the world for eight years. It was seen by millions and widely acclaimed. There’s a picture of it up at the top of this post.

You were largely free to make your own way through it. Words and images arranged in free-floating groups surrounded you, encouraging you to shuffle them together in your own way and create your own interpretations of them. And those words and images were carefully curated to engage with the full diversity and shared experiences of human life.

You can read more about it here.

The exhibition as a whole was a machine for building empathy and encouraging freedom of choice. And that style went on to inform the next decade or so of US public exhibitions. It was a direct contrast to totalitarian comms styles, which remorselessly imposed absolute, divisive, individuality-eradicating us-vs-them experiences on their viewers.

Asking a very important question

It was also a model for a broader US media experience. Across all media, freedom of choice and interpretation, and active encouragement of diversity, would build up people’s democratic selves.

As the US’ visionary public comms people developed their events, they started with a very important question:

  • How can we help people build up the best in themselves?

It was a very important thing to think about then. And it still is now. That’s because we live in a society far more shot through with mass media than 40s Italy or Germany ever were.

But it’s one that we very rarely ask ourselves.

Instead, we tend to be much more instrumental. As modern comms people, we ask questions like:

  • What are the people we’re talking to already like?
  • How do we want to change their behaviour?

We take who they are as fixed. Then we look at some small aspect of what they do, and try to change that.

Perhaps we try and get them to choose our fruit drink over someone else’s, or switch to a new bank account, or feel a little more enthused about a particular kind of tea.

Having read about ‘The Family of Man’, that doesn’t really seem like enough.

What kinds of selves do modern brands create?

Every piece of comms implies a certain kind of reader or viewer. By talking to that kind of person, it supports the growth of that kind of self. Generally, it’s not a very impressive kind of self. It certainly doesn’t match up to the kind of person that the visionary thinkers of the 40s and 50s wanted to seed.

Of course, some brands push against that.

I’ve written before about the excellence of the Weber BBQ brand. They’re very clearly trying to do more than create people-who-buy-BBQs. They’re looking to help people who might not have seen themselves as food preparers become highly-skilled BBQ chefs, confident, thoughtful and inventive users of a very sophisticated set of cooking tools.

That new understanding of the cooking process can be transformative, changing how people see each other’s roles and shifting domestic relationships accordingly. I’ve seen it happen myself.

In fact, the Weber self is something close to the democratic self. The brand helps you freely choose from a wide range of options to assemble your own response to the world in an open, democratic fashion. Along the way, you gain a wider respect for expertise and experiences you might not have previously thought or cared too much about.

And of course, Weber aren’t the only brand working like that.

What about your brand?

From Which? to Tesla cars, from Innocent Smoothies to Howies clothing, the world is full of organisations that want to support better ways of being human rather than just modify some short term consumer behaviours.

In these challenging, divisive times, it’s a question worth asking about your own brand communications too. Rather than thinking about reaching the consumer types most likely to buy your product or service, imagine the kinds of people you’d most like to build relationships with.

Ask yourself what they’re like at their best. And then think about how your brand can help them become an even better version of themselves. Go back to that very important question that all those Bauhaus refugees and US deep thinkers asked back in the 40s and 50s:

  • How can we help people build up the best in themselves?

And then start to make that change happen.

Digging into ‘The Democratic Surround’

You can find out more about ‘The Democratic Surround’ and move on to Erik Davis’ and Clay Shirky’s podcast interviews with Fred Turner over on his website. And here he is being interviewed by the ever fascinating Doug Rushkoff on the highly recommended Team Human podcast.

Talking brand storytelling


So I’ve been podcasted – many thanks to Andy from SiteVisibility, who had me on their Internet Marketing Podcast to chat about brand storytelling.

Once you start talking about brand storytelling, it’s hard to stop. We discussed how to give your brand a compelling personality, tell it as a gripping story and show your customers how it can play a crucial role in their own adventures. Oh, and we touched on tone of voice and content strategy too.

So here’s our chat – I hope you enjoy it:

Sizzle your way to better brand language


So we were down at the Garden Centre the other day, buying a goldfish. That was a lot of fun – but for me, the really exciting part of the trip was finding issue 4 of Weber’s ‘Grill On’ barbecue magazine, because their brand language is fantastic.

We have two Weber barbecues – a big gas one and a little charcoal one – and we’re basically barbecue nuts. At the end of a hard day, few things are more relaxing than standing out in the back garden with a cold drink and something delicious sizzling on the grill.

And Weber have transformed what we barbecue and how we barbecue it, because they understand the real purpose of brand language. The best brand writing doesn’t tell, it shows. It helps people understand how wonderful your brand is by showing them how to get the most out of what it does.

Weber’s awesome cookbooks

Weber do that really well. They even publish cookbooks – we have their complete barbecue book and smoking guide. Both are fantastically informative, including deep dives into barbecue theory and practice, all-purpose grilling tips and tricks and of course a small mountain of delicious recipes.

Those books contain some of the most practical, informative food writing I’ve ever read. Weber’s content strategy turns their barbecuing expertise into useful, practical guidance that transforms their users’ brand experience. They pretty much guarantee that you’ll get the best out of your Weber kit.

Oh, and the ‘Grill On’ magazine is excellent too. It’s basically the Weber catalogue – but before you get to any product info, you have fifty six beautifully designed and written pages of barbecue recipes, grilling science and practical info. It’s a great read.

But what’s in it for Weber?

All that content’s great for the Weber barbecuer, because it brings the whole process to life in a way that’s practically, positively relevant to them. After all, they’re the ones paying good money for Weber kit. They have every right to all the help and support the brand can give.

And of course people who know how to get the most out of a brand automatically become excellent ambassadors for it. Whenever anyone sees them using it, they see high quality results achieved in a confident, purposeful way. What’s not to like?

Then they start talking about it.

You’ve had a sample of me raving about Weber above. If we were chatting face-to-face, I’d probably have pulled one of the books off the shelf to show you. You might also be munching away on a delicious recipe from it. So you’d probably end up feeling pretty positive about Weber barbecues.

The big brand language question

That’s what good content does. And it all goes to show the most important question to ask yourself when you’re writing for your own brand. It’s not:

  • How do we tell people how awesome we are?

Instead, ask yourself:

  • How do we help people do awesome things?

Then you’ll be on to a winner.

So why do we need tone of voice anyway?


Well, you can answer that in three words:

Dick Van Dyke

If you’re not British, you probably know him as a tremendously versatile actor and light entertainer who’s still hoofing it up in his 90s. But if you are a Brit, when you hear his name you’ll probably mutter something like ‘Gorblimey Mary Poppins’ in a tremendously bad cockney accent, then wince.

And for us Brits, his disastrous attempt to sound cockney in ‘Mary Poppins’ gets in the way of everything else about him. It completely overwrites his all-singing, all-dancing, utterly charming performance in the film. And it’s overwritten much of the rest of his career too.

Poor tone of voice turned Dick Van Dyke from a comedian into a joke.

Wincing at slogans

The need for good tone of voice struck me again on a recent anti-Brexit march. I think Brexit is a big mistake. So I want to change the minds of people who are pro-Brexit. And so, every time I heard or read the slogan ‘Bollocks to Brexit’, I winced.

Of course, the slogan’s core message – ‘we think Brexit’s a bad idea’ – is entirely sound. It’s a great starting point for a conversation, leading naturally into ‘…let’s talk about why that is’. But its tone is aggressive and patronising. So it repels the pro-Brexiteers it most needs to convince.

Poor tone of voice alienates the very people you need to reach out to.

Reaching the right people

Tone of voice isn’t just about the big public messages. It can have very subtle impacts too. For example, small changes in tone can make a big difference when you’re recruiting. Certain words stop people from even applying for a particular job – here’s a fascinating article on how that works.

Getting job ad tone right increases diversity, which, because (according to McKinsey) companies with more diverse teams are 33% more likely to outperform their peers, increases profitability. How you use language can have a real, measurable impact on your business’ bottom line.

Good tone of voice boosts your business by bringing the right people closer to you.

Evoking the best of you

And of course some brands have fantastic tone of voice. First Direct are my own favourite example. I bank with them, so over the years I’ve had a lot of communications from them. Almost without exception they’ve been easy to understand, practically useful and just the right kind of friendly.

Put more technically, their communications deliver both rational and emotional benefits. And because they so precisely embody the First Direct brand, even the shortest note from them both reminds me of and reinforces all the good experiences I’ve had with them over the years.

Good tone of voice evokes everything your customers love about your brand.

So why do we need tone of voice?

We all need tone of voice because it shapes how we choose words, and the words we choose shape our brands and define our businesses in the minds and hearts of everyone they touch.

Why business writing should come from the heart


There’s a comment that often comes up when I’m training B2B communicators in better business writing. It usually happens when I say something along the lines of: ‘To write well, you have to think about what your audience are feeling as much as what you’re telling them’.

And when I say that, someone usually replies with something like: ‘Ah, but we’re not fluffy and consumer. We’re all about business to business. Everything we do is all about being as rational as possible. So we really don’t need to worry about the emotional side of things when we’re writing.’

I’ve had that comment from finance people, technical types, insurers, charity managers – just about anyone you can imagine. And there’s a specific story I always tell in response to it, from psychiatrist Antonio Damasio’s excellent book on how our brains work: ‘The Feeling of What Happens’.

Where facts can’t go

Damasio describes how one patients suffered a traumatic brain injury that turned off the emotional part of his mind, leaving him unable to feel. All he could do was reason.

And instead of turning him into some Spock-like genius, one who – unhampered by the confusing distractions of emotion – ended up secretly ruling the world, or at least doing pretty well within some important part of it, it broke him. He found making even the simplest decisions impossible.

That’s because he only had reason to rely on. And reason deals in firm, hard facts. And most of the time there aren’t enough firm, hard facts available to know whether or not you’re making the right choice.

Damasio’s patient couldn’t even decide what colour socks to put on in the morning, because he had no way of knowing for sure how the choice of either one might affect his day.

So what do you really feel?

Damasio uses that story to make the point that we decide by feeling as much as thinking.

Reason helps us deal with what we know will happen. But we can’t know everything. So emotion – lovely, fuzzy emotion – helps us fill in the gaps, feeling our way through all the vaguenesses and uncertainties of life, and reacting accordingly. It’s a fundamental part of being human.

And every piece of business writing is written by a human for a human. And that human audience makes his or her decisions by feeling as much as by thinking, because that’s how we’re built. That’s how we make our minds up. That’s who we are.

So, no matter how rational a piece of business writing you’re working on, you always need to stop and work out how you want it to make your audience feel. Because they’re another human, just like you, so how you make them feel is just as important as what you make them think.

Information wants to be far more than free


So that ‘Information wants to be free’ slogan has always annoyed me a little. Partially that’s because of what it’s led to – a world in which services support ‘free’ by turning their users into the product.

More importantly, it gets to me because it’s actually only one part of a much more inspiring statement about information – one that’s very useful when you’re thinking about brand comms, too.

How it all began

Before we get to that, let’s look at who first said it. Stewart Brand was a fascinating person, one of the people who brought together psychedelic philosophy and deep tech savvy to shape our modern relationship with technology and the online world.

He started out by appearing in Tom Wolfe books, producing shows for the Grateful Dead and helping film ‘The Mother of All Demos’, where tech visionary Doug Engelbart introduced the mouse, hypertext, video-conferencing, email, windows, live collaborative editing and much else to the world all the way back in December 1968. It’s astonishing.

Then Brand played a big role in how both personal computing and the online world developed, shaping them through his involvement in the Whole Earth Catalog (a kind of proto-web, sketching out how people would share information and build communities online), the WELL (one of the internet’s first and most inspirational virtual communities), the Global Business Network (which took utopian web thinking into the world of commerce) and many other projects.

In short, he knows what he’s talking about.

What Steward Brand actually said

So, back in 1984, in conversation with Steve Wozniak, Brand actually said:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

That’s a much subtler and more interesting take on information in the digital age. It also has a fascinating message for marketeers.

Comms are made of information

Because comms are made of information, they too want to be both full of value and free.

On the one hand, when they reach the right person, they’re transformative. They should reset their audience’s sense of a particular challenge, and show how the brand can help them overcome that challenge. Brand comms should feel expensive, because they deliver such genuine, positive, relevant value.

On the other hand, they should be accessible at minimal cost in time, effort and money, painlessly reaching their audience at the right time in the right way with the right message. Brand comms should feel free, because they’re so easy for the right people to find, understand and share.

That’s a fascinating balance – and one well worth thinking about next time you’re working on the comms that bring your brand to life.

Brand learnings from ‘Super Mario Bros’


So there’s a lot you can learn about how important good brand writing is from 1993’s failed ‘Super Mario Bros’ movie.

OK, bear with me here.

Dennis Hopper nails it

The reason I’m bringing up one of cinema’s more epic turkeys is this article about its troubled production. The shoot looks tough to live through, but it’s great to read about. In particular, it’s hard to beat Dennis Hopper’s epic two and three quarter hour rant about:

  • the poverty of the script
  • the inexperience of the directors
  • the iniquities of Hollywood in general

I wouldn’t pay to watch the movie, but I’d love to see that rant. Especially because Hopper was surrounded by 300 baffled extras (except when he broke for lunch, still ranting) and dressed as a humanoid dinosaur.

Image result for dennis hopper super mario bros

And also, he nailed the big problem that sunk the movie.

Of course, lots of inexperienced directors have made great movies despite the difficulties of Hollywood. And making a ‘Super Mario Bros’ movie wasn’t actually such a crazy idea. Films like ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ and the various Lego movies have spun cinematic gold from very similar material.

The problem was the script

The script’s first version was by ‘Rain Man’ writer Barry Morrow. But something about his road-tripping mismatched brothers story was a little… over-familiar. After another false start, producer Roland Joffé brought in the Max Headroom team. Their cyberpunk dystopia wasn’t quite right either.

British comedy legends Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (who’d written everything from ‘Porridge’ to ‘The Commitments’) then worked on it. The directors loved this draft, but the film’s financial backers didn’t. So, just before the shoot, they had the co-writer of ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ produce a final version.

Apparently, it wasn’t bad.

Image result for bill ted excellent

Unfortunately, nobody told the directors about this final version. It came as a huge shock on the first day of filming – they almost walked out. Perhaps they should have done, because the shoot was a disaster and the film was one of the 90s’ biggest flops.

And all of those problems began with the script.

No clear vision

After all those rewrites, it didn’t express a single clear, powerful vision for the film. And without that, all those incredible talents – Bob Hoskins, Dennis Hopper, some of the world’s finest special effects people, the producer who’d just made ‘The Killing Fields’ and ‘Chariots of Fire’ and so many others – had nothing to bring them together.

So everything fell apart.

In both film-making and business, words are where a clear, powerful vision comes together in a way that everyone can understand, buy into, and act purposefully and creatively on.

If you can agree on the words that describe what you’re all going to achieve together, and if you can make that story clear, compelling and easy to understand, then you’re off to the best possible start.

And if you can’t – well, just go and watch ‘Super Mario Bros’.

Distraction is the mother of invention


I’ve just been planning out a ‘creative writing in business’ workshop. As part of it, I’m going to be sending people out for a slightly random wander round the neighbourhood. That might seem counter-intuitive – people usually think of workshops as being tightly planned and very focussed – but in fact purposeful self-distraction is key to the creative process.

I tend to think of it as letting your subconscious go to work. Whenever I’ve got a creative problem to solve, I start by gathering as much information as I can. That’s a very conscious, rational process. I want to learn as much as I can about whatever it is I’m looking at, and I want to know that I’ve learned it.

Say, for example, I’m coming up with a new name for a car. I’ll find out as much about the car as I can. I’ll try and understand what makes it unique, and what sort of people are going to be driving it. I’ll dig up information about its competitors, too. And I’ll do some more general reading, to help me get to grips with the way people are talking generally.

All that’s very helpful. But it’s only a starting point. I tend to think of it as a creative brief for my subconscious. Once I’ve briefed it, it needs some space and time to go to work. And that’s where the distraction comes in. It’s there to occupy the more superficial parts of my mind, so the deeper bits get all the time and space they need to do the job.

So, I might noodle around on the internet. I might go and make myself a coffee. I might take a stroll round the block, or go for a run. Anything that stops me thinking too directly about the problem tends to work. That’s when I find that the really good ideas tend to pop up.

In fact, that’s how naming a car worked the last time I had to do it. I’d had a couple of days of research, and I’d blasted out some basic name ideas, but none of them were really doing the job. So, I decided to leave it for a bit and cycle home. And that was the best thing I could have done.

The right name popped into my head while I was waiting for some traffic lights to turn green. I didn’t want to forget it, so I called up my voicemail and left myself a reminder of what it was. And then, back home, for a nice relaxed evening knowing that I could head back to the office the next day and know that the job was done!

Writing speech for brands


It struck me just now that the best way of writing for brands is to see your words as speech, not prose.

That came out of thinking about the difference between writing for brands and writing fiction. I’ve always separated them by saying that, when I write for a brand, I’m trying to sound like someone else, and when I write fiction I’m trying to sound like myself.

But in fact, when I’m writing fiction I’m never just talking in my own voice. Stories are built on characters, and characters spend an awful lot of time talking to each other. So, whenever I’m telling a story, I’m actually working hard to sound like several other people at once.

And that’s what made me think that writing dialogue a lot like writing for brands. In both cases, I’m trying to understand and communicate a coherent personality, one that’s entirely separate from my own. And that, I think, is going to be quite a useful insight, both when I’m writing and when I’m teaching writing.

First of all, it’s a reminder that brand communications are more effective when they’re pitched in a more conversational tone of voice. A formal, blandly corporate tone might share information, but it can’t share emotion like speech can. And – of course – emotional engagement is core to any effective piece of brand writing.

And secondly, it’s a reminder that we live in a world where any brand’s audience can very easily go online and start talking back. Any piece of brand writing can start a new conversation, or become part of an ongoing one.

That means, every time I write for a brand, I need to be thinking about what’s already been said about it, how what I write is going to fit into it, and how I’d like people to reply to whatever it is I’ve just said.

The Matrix, Experience Channels, and THE WINE PACKAGING OF TOMORROW!!!


Andy Warhol said that in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. He was wrong. In fact, in the future, everyone will be an advert for fifteen minutes. That’s because it’s in the nature of experience channels to allow just about anyone to share their impressions of a particular brand in a way that’s very public, very credible, and thus very good for the brand.

Whenever that happens, I’m reminded of ‘The Matrix’, and in particular the way that the men-in-black security agents possess people. Someone perfectly normal is walking down the street; all of a sudden, they get zapped, turn into a man in black, and start chasing their target; all of a sudden, the chase has moved on, and a rather puzzled citizen is left to be themselves again. When you watch that, you’re not watching fantasy; you’re watching a very astute metaphor for the ad agency of the future.

And now it’s my turn to step into the chase and become an advert, because the rather lovely people at FreshCase have sent me a couple of boxes of Hardys Nottage Hill wine to try out – a Cabernet Shiraz and a Sauvignon. Rather than write about it, I thought I’d make a quick videoblog – so, here’s my own small contribution to their rapidly growing experience channel:

And how’s the FreshCase experience channel coming along? Well, if you google FreshCase then the first page you get balances more formal news stories with a number of bloggers talking about the product. It’s not at Red Bull levels yet, but it is an impressive demonstration of just how impactful a well curated web presence – rather than a website – can be. A whole page of positive mentions from varied sources will always trump one or two search results pointing to a single site, no matter how well placed those results are.

What’s interesting, though, is how FreshCase’s experience channel can develop. It’s doing very well on the blogs, but those rather funky wine boxes haven’t yet metamorphosed into the fully fledged social objects that they could so easily become. As a result, the FreshCase experience channel isn’t yet fully mature; the various film and video sites are still waiting to be populated with content that records the social drinking of FreshCase wine, rather than just the more individual testing of it.

There’s a very interesting opportunity there. I’d look to follow the example of Hugh Macleod’s work with Stormhoek; by getting 100 Dinners going, he created an experience channel based on authentic real world fun, that both generated substantial online content for the brand, and helped a lot of people have a really good time so doing. Oh, and increased sales by five in less than two years!

I wonder what the FreshCase equivalent would be? I’m not quite sure, because I’m not really close enough to the brand to judge. If you put me up against a wall and threatened to shoot me, though, I’d be tempted to think in terms of FreshCase soirees / salons; I’d get some interesting folk along, maybe a little performance of some description, lots of conversation, a FreshCase box on every table, make sure there’s wireless, and let the social media generate itself. And of course I’d run them over a very specific six week period, because that’s how long wine lasts in a FreshCase box.

And in the meantime, I’m off to have another glass of wine. One tip, though – the wine doesn’t breathe as well as it could, precisely because the box is so effectively airtight. That’s not a problem for the white, but we’ve been decanting the red and letting it sit for a bit before drinking. Chin chin!