The power of language

I have recently developed a new bee in my bonnet (or should that be a “NEW! even buzzier” bee in my “foil packed” bonnet). It’s the overuse of hackneyed expressions on pack. Such is my despair, that I have been moved to form a pressure group to “Free brand packaging of inane and pointless descriptors”.

For years now, many of us have banged the drum saying that design is a brand-building medium on a par with advertising – “a 52-weeks-a-year poster campaign,” as a colleague once described it. The subtle difference is that, in advertising, art directors work with copywriters – equal importance being attached to words and images.

Not so in packaging design. Can you imagine the response from advertising creatives were they to receive a fax from a client dictating copy? Yet this is usually how designers receive pack copy. And, sadly, we have become conditioned to accept it.

It’s time for packaging designers to give copy the serious consideration it deserves. Now I’m not talking about altering a line-break, or changing “Beef Curry” to “Balti-Style Beef”. Rather the question of what needs to be said, what doesn’t and what tone should be adopted. Essentially it’s about understanding how the copy contributes to the overall communication rather than treating it as mandatory information.

The aim of any piece of branding is to express an idea which both sticks in the mind, and adds to the meaning of the brand. I’m sure most will agree that it is usually done to greatest effect with a minimum of information rather than complicating the issue with superfluous messages or attempting to wear strategy on-sleeve. Surely a label carrying an Alpine scene negates the need for the large “Mountain Freshness” strapline!

Similarly, a multilingual back of pack is likely to convey far more about origins and authenticity than a “Taste of Italy” seal on the front. It makes you wonder why we so readily collude in an exercise which patronises consumers.

A cringing example of information overload can be found on an air freshener brand. The descriptor “Odour Destroyer” is closely followed by “Solves Odour Problems” (well, it would do, wouldn’t it, it’s an odour destroyer) and then, presumably for the hard of understanding, “Fresh ‘n’ Clean Air Hygiene”. Perhaps Neutradol should be re-branded Neanderdol!

Descriptors such as “Classic”, “Extra”, and “Plus” (to name but a few), and claims like “Double Action” and “100% Natural” have become completely meaningless through overuse. We are told that the shopper, bombarded with thousands of messages, filters out and prioritises information – couldn’t design consultancies do their bit to speed up that process? If brands are to gain greater credibility perhaps they should establish an ownable vocabulary to complement their ownable look.

When we are treated to language used in an original and effective way on pack, the brand gains greater stature. The passages on Seattle Coffee packs, for instance, are a far more compelling and evocative way of capturing flavour than the usual coffee twaddle. Toblerone changing its branding to To-my-love for Valentine’s day demonstrates the campaign potential of brand packaging. And Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia flavours are as unique to their brand as “Dramatically Different Moisturiser” is to Clinique.

Successful print and literature consultancies have long since embraced the importance of language. It’s now the turn of brand designers. Of course, the transition won’t be easy, it’s difficult to move away from the familiar or even question it. New behaviour is required because designers haven’t traditionally been encouraged to scrutinise or to challenge the written word. We’re more likely to lock horns over the size of type than what it’s actually saying.

The biggest stumbling block will be persuading clients (already fatigued by the battle over budget, brief, and the burning issue of Bembo versus Baskerville) that they should now get a copywriter to rewrite their back of pack.

Or that their “New” flash is not strictly necessary (because, after all, no one has seen the product before). Or that, as the brand leader, they can drop the selling copy and rely on logo alone.

The industry keeps talking about how design should be valued more by clients, and that its status should be greater in the communications mix. If we are to gain recognition as serious communications experts then we must be proactive and create brands which are truly differentiated at every level. Active demonstration that our consultancy stretches to more than just graphics could prove a big step towards the achievement of this goal.

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