When you open a can of Coke, do you sniff it before you take the first sip? Or do you gulp it down, eyes closed, in blind, certain faith? This archetypical moment of consumer satisfaction is also a moment of relief. The only great thing about the taste of Coke, really, is that it is always miraculously like the taste of Coke. Unlike everything else in life, it is exactly what we expect, every time.
To enable this leap of faith we need a label. The label is a manifestation of authority, it reassures and directs. As such it used to have its own language. Its stock phrases are still familiar: ‘best before’, ‘serving suggestion’, ‘use by’. Its natural voice was imperative and, if it wasn’t ordering you about, it was lecturing you on science. In the past, you see, this too was considered to be reassuring.
But if you’ve bought anything in the last ten years you may have noted the emergence of another voice. This voice says things like ‘hello’, or ‘erm’, or ‘oi, nice shoes’. It’s diffident and non-authoritarian. It mentions things that aren’t solely related to the product you have in your hand. In normal social intercourse this kind of non-essential communication is known as chatting. We are living in an age of chatty objects.
Corporate stationery, antimacassars, toiletries, napkins, they all want to chat. It’s cheeky, it’s cheerful and it’s absolutely everywhere.
The voice may be widespread, but it can be traced back, like an outbreak of swine flu, to one place: the smoothie brand, Innocent. If you take their labels’ advice and ‘pop into Fruit Towers’ you can meet the possessor of the original chatty voice, Dan Germain.
Germain has been writing for Innocent since the company opened its doors ten years ago. These days he’s a major industry beard, d&ad judge and branding sage. It all happened by accident. As a friend of one of Innocent’s founders, he signed up to spend a summer holiday driving their van. He noticed there was writing to be done and, like all nascent copywriters, he was sure that he could do
Even now the voice owes something to the special atmosphere of a start-up. By the time they were ready to start production, Germain tells me, writing labels was a relief.
“There was a will to do stuff. The others had got past the biggest nay-sayers, the people that wouldn’t give them any money. Persuading some bloke at the printing factory to let us do eight labels for the same product with different copy on each of them, we kind of thought well, shit, we can do that,” he says.
“At that time we couldn’t afford to get a billboard, so the labels were our only free advertising space,” Germain continues. “It’s a bit arse over tit, people have to pick up the bottle before they’ll read it, but our packaging was different, everyone else’s was all bouncing strawberries and ours was sort of sober. You just need a second to break people’s routine when they’re getting a sandwich and think, ‘hello what’s that?’ and then maybe start reading it and think, ‘oh?’ Just that first five seconds, that’s when the magic happens,” he claims. “In the same way that an ad can inform, or educate or, as I’ve heard ad-people say, ‘disrupt’, I think that there was something relatively disruptive about what we were doing. Just because no-one else had used this space in this way before.”
Innocent disrupted the conventions of labelling. They made what had been generic, personal. “I went through everything that was on the label thinking, ‘But would I say that? What actually are my statutory rights with regard to a mashed fruit drink?’”
Another brand that prides itself on disruption is Malmaison. Its strapline is ‘Hotels that dare to be different’. The door-hangers say, ‘Leave me alone’, their bills come marked as ‘The Damage’. I have in my possession a dry cleaning bag that bears the legend, ‘dirty clothes and thoughts in here’. What is all this for?
“I always say Malmaison’s tone of voice should be as eloquent as Peter Ustinov,” says their creative director, Gary Garnczarcyk, “but it should have the humour of Sid James. What it does is to remind people that we are not pompous. We’re always at pains to point out that we are,” he whispers, “only a three star hotel. A lot of people come into a room with low lighting, hear chill-out music and they assume that they’re going to have to pay a lot of money. But we’re affordable and we don’t let you forget that.”
Talking to these writers I get an eerie feeling of ‘haven’t-we-met-somewhere-before?’ and I’m fairly sure that this isn’t because I’m falling in love with either of them. Dan Germain’s conversation is tangential, full of irony and parentheses. Gary Garnczarcyk in person errs toward the Sid James end of the Ustinov/James spectrum, but still. It occurs to me that what these
two brands have done is to give strong personalities a platform. Both these men are writer/decision-makers. They are both in-house, there is no one to tell them ‘no’, to apply a homogenising filter. They don’t write for the brands, they are the brands, and their brands are them. Dan Germain is, I feel, slightly disingenuous about his contribution. “There’s a version of reality in which we couldn’t be bothered with this. And who knows, it might not be that important. I get the impression that it’s quite important, but there is just no way of knowing.”
Brands that want to copy these successes should take note. To be characteristic a tone of voice has to be consistent, in its flaws as much as its strengths. It takes persistence and nerve and that means you basically can’t employ an ad agency to do it for you. Advertising agencies want everyone to like them. Gary Garnczarcyk has other priorities: “For me it’s like Phil Collins in Buster. He’s not acting. That role is Phil Collins … I write from the heart … to be heard, I think that’s good.”
You can dislike these voices, but by the time you’ve got round to it their job is already done. As Kenneth Tynan once pointed out, at school it is the children of talent who do impressions, but the children of genius are the ones whom they impersonate.
Gordon Comstock blogs at notvoodoo.blogspot.com