To err is content

I recently sent out an email to a mistyped  address, and here’s an excerpt of the very long error message I received in return.


Notice the names of the servers. They’re French for two highly contagious diseases. Somebody was trying to be cute when they named them. I’m sure they thought the names were funny. But these kinds of messages aren’t only seen by fellow IT folks. They sometimes fall into the hands of regular consumers, like me.

Now, this is about as far away from branded content as you can get. But it’s still content. And it’s still branded, because it was sent by the “postmaster” of a huge multinational company. Call me oversensitive, but what if I suffered from one of these diseases? Would I still find it funny? Or what if the names were sexist or racist?


Missed opportunity

A couple months ago I bought a new car and a few weeks ago I was asked to participate in an online owners survey by an independent polling company. I procrastinated, mainly because the first screen of the survey told me it would take around 20 minutes. But early this morning I had some free time, and because I like the brand and the dealer, I went ahead and subjected myself to the survey.

I won’t get into how ugly the interface was or how poorly designed the pages were. Suffice it to say, I would have liked to have had a chance to rate the survey. Because after giving the brand 20 minutes of my time, here’s what it gave me:

Seriously, this was the final screen. That’s it. No nuthin’. Not even a believable thank you. I don’t really feel like I “collaborated” at all with the brand. And as for “beaucoup”, if they meant it they could have at least tarted up the screen and given me a link taking me to, say, the accessories shop. Hell, anything but this.
Lesson: your brand’s strategy for using content extends to the darnedest of places.

Which English for your content?

English is the official working language of many multinational organizations. But all companies have national roots. When these roots are in non-English speaking countries, the choice of what English to write in can quickly become a headache.

What do you mean by “what English to write in”?

It’s very common for international companies to originate their content in English. It’s often stipulated in the briefing document or technical specs. Rarely, however, does it specify anything more than whether to use British or American spelling.

I think most writers would agree that there’s much more to English than spelling. The differences between UK and US English run much deeper than “isation/ization” and “re/er.” And this UK/US split totally ignores our Canadian, Australian or Indian cousins.

Like it or not, when it comes to taking the reins of an organizations content, the task of defining the standard for English often falls on the shoulders of the content strategist. It’s a situation that I encounter frequently. Here are some of the pitfalls I’ve encountered.

Ruffling feathers
In international companies English speakers are the go-to people for writing in English, even though it’s not their day job and they aren’t often trained writers. With this role comes power within the organization—power that they don’t always give up willingly, especially to some new “content person”.

Style and stereotypes
There are real stylistic differences between the various families of English. For writers they are a perpetual source of wonder and inspiration. In my experience, however, discussions about language can turn nasty and nationalistic. People confuse writing styles with national stereotypes. Americans produce in-your-face copy; the British are hoity-toity.

Between the lines
Inconsistencies in English within an organization can be symptomatic of turf wars or skeletons. A British subsidiary of a French multinational that has merged with a US rival may feel under threat from the growing importance of Yanks in senior management. Fighting for British spelling is just one way of making their voice heard.

Foreign twists

Another set of snares exists in companies where English is the working language but the company’s roots are in a non-Anglophone culture.

Non-English speakers have preconceived notions about what is “good” English that depend of how and where they learned their English. For example, young people in France have a soft spot for US English due to movies and TV shows, while British English can be perceived of as too erudite or ironic.

One other challenge is that most multinational companies use some sort of English, but not one that a native English speaker would recognize as “proper” English. There are multiple reasons for this, but here are the four main ones I’ve identified:

  1. Calquing. Many nationalities transpose words, phrases and expression from their native tongue into English by literal, word for word translation. One of my bêtes noires is when French ad agencies talk about the “visual territory” of a brand (a direct calque from the French territoire visuel). It refers a brand’s visual style, and it can be hellishly difficult to get an agency to drop it, because “territory” is perceived as loftier and more strategic than “style”.
  2. Franglais and equivalents. Many languages have adopted English-rooted words that people think have the exact same meaning in English. When you tell someone you cannot “relook” their website but you can redesign it, you run the risk of making them look stupid.
  3. False cognates. Sticking with French speakers for a moment, another pitfall are English words that also exist in French, called false cognates. There are tons of them, and French readers sometimes apply the French definition to the word in English. Some classic examples are “actuellement” (right now) vs. “actually” (in fact) and “versatile” vs. “versatile” (The French word means fickle rather than adaptable).
  4. Neologisms. Be careful when non-Anglophones feel confident enough to start coining words and phrases in English. One that I recently spotted that made me cringe was “powerhousing” as in “our innovation is powerhousing our growth.” These buzzwords are very specific to the organization and totally incomprehensible to outsiders (like customers).

What to do?

  • Remain objective. It’s vital to establish a writing style for an organization that is based on a business case and brand values rather than arbitrary opinions masquerading as fact.
  • Blame the customer. Find ways of measuring customer dissatisfaction with current content. Then put the reader at the center of all decisions about language. It’s a very effective way to take the wind out of internal rivalries and power plays. Justify your decisions by explaining that they make life easier for the reader, which can improve sales and quality of service (rather than pandering to internal stakeholders).
  • Document and enforce. Write a style guide and apply it to everything your write. No exceptions.
  • Spread the word. You’ll never be able to write all the content in a company. So train in-house content authors and make them the evangelists of the new house style.

Speak more better with Nespresso

Before the holidays, Nespresso began running a new TV spot in France, featuring the country’s favorite American: George Clooney. Produced by Lowe Stratéus in Paris, it was the latest installment in a long-running saga of ads. Interestingly, the commercial was in English, and was broadcast with subtitles.

My ears always perk up when I hear English on French TV. But this time a hackle was quickly raised. About 28 seconds into the spot the woman says: “I always imagined you to be much more…” at which point George cuts her off and says: “taller?

“I always imagined you to be much more taller” (my emphasis). Ouch.

But recently a new 30-second version has begun airing. And lo and behold, the problem is gone.

I wonder what happened? Did someone spot the mistake and have it fixed? Or was it inadvertently nixed when they trimmed the spot down to 30 seconds?

I have a theory. According to a press release, the ad was scheduled first to run in 13 European countries (none of them English speaking) followed by Australia and Israel. Could it be that the phrase went unnoticed in the first batch of countries, but when it finally made its way down under someone noticed the verbal slip-up and had it edited out?

Whatever the case, the original version is still on the Nespresso Youtube channel. I wonder when they’ll get around to fixing it?

It’s time to make room for content strategy in branding

Content strategy won’t be considered strategic until it has its own chapter in the corporate brand guidelines. Until then, content will just be web writing and copywriting.

Ok, there, I’ve said it.

Let me explain. I spend a lot of my time with one foot in branding and one foot in content.

One thing I’ve come to realize is that most brand people couldn’t care less about content. Well, that’s not exactly true. They love content. They love hilarious ad campaigns and hip ambient media. They gush over sublime design and yearn for killer web sites.

But they couldn’t care less about a strategy for content, because what they’re thinking about is a strategy for the brand. In their view, the job of content is to express the brand. They leave content up to the creatives, who are more than happy to be left alone.

By the book

If you don’t believe me, open any corporate brand book or brand guidelines or brand standards manual or whatever they’ve decided to call their branding bible.

Take a look at the table of contents. Strip out everything that has to do with the logo, colors, white space, typography, illustration, merchandising, stationery and photos. What’s left? There might be a page or two on the brand’s vision, mission, values and positioning. Maybe a section about copywriting and tone of voice.

And that’s about it. I doubt you’ll find much on content. Which isn’t surprising. Most branding is an exercise in image (hence all the space set aside for logos and colors). Most branding professionals think that if a brand isn’t doing well, it needs a new image.

But image is only part of the equation. Image is superficial – quite literally, what’s on the surface. That’s why brand messaging guidelines often include gutless suggestions like “be impactful”, “be human”, “be benefit-driven”. As if any self-respecting writer would think of creating content that was dreary, inhuman and disadvantage-driven.

Is this seat taken?

This post is a call for a better balance between image and content in branding. If the future of branding is going to be driven by buzzwords like engagement, SoLoMo, thought leadership and conversation, then it’s time that content was given more space at the branding table.

I’d even go so far as to say that perhaps the job of the brand is to express the content, rather than the content expressing the brand. This may be heresy for most branding professionals, but hear me out. Think about your favorite brands. I’d wager that one of main reasons you connect with them (besides the perceived quality and value of the product or service) is their content. In other words, if a brand doesn’t have quality, relevant content it won’t be on your list.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Content is what gives brands relief – and here I mean relief like a relief map. Like the texture of a fabric, the strokes of a paintbrush, the swales and knolls of a terrain. Content imbues brands with contrast, nuance, dimensions, granularity, height and depth. Image may attract us, but content is what we touch, what we interact with. Content plays a huge role in shaping that oh-so-important perception of quality or value that branding is supposed to deliver.

Write a new chapter

So it’s time that brand guidelines included a chapter about content. I’m not talking about a style guide. I’m talking about guidelines for creatives that explain how content should be used to create meaningful experiences for customers and other stakeholders (ugh). A chapter that acknowledges the critical role that content plays in building the brand.

I’m not suggesting that content is more important than image. I’m just saying that a brand book that only talks about image and says nothing about content is a one-legged ladder.

Enshrining content in brand guidelines would indicate to the members of an organization just how important good content is. It would be a sign of organizational maturity. It would help protect content from arbitrary budget cuts, turf wars and “cut and paste” content creation. It would be an important step towards treating content as something fundamentally strategic.

Did anyone reread this?

Yesterday I called my mobile operator Orange to change an option. The sales rep informed that I was eligible for a new service plan that would save me €40 a month. She could send me the documentation if I was interested.

Nice sales funnel, I thought. Not too pushy. The email arrived a couple seconds after I hung up.

The plan is called Performance Pro pour iPhone. The last line caught my eye.

The plan comes with a SAV Echange Flash which promises to replace my phone in under four hours in the Paris region (if lost or stolen, I’m assuming).

What made me laugh was the phrase in parentheses at the end of the line:

hors iPhone and iPad
Translation: excluding iPhones and iPads

That’s right, the Performance Pro plan for iPhone comes with a replacement program that doesn’t cover iPhones. Nice.

Further proof, in case any was needed, that content is made to be read. So before publishing content, make sure it makes sense.


Caution: wet floor can injure your language


I dare any non-French speaker to figure what the English means. Bonus: where did I see it?

Site navigation: Reality check from the underground

The other day, I was walking through an underground parking garage on the way back to my car. I’d just come out of a very interesting client meeting about content strategy and UX innovation.

I was backtracking my way up a pink line painted on the floor, which I’d walked along a few hours earlier on my way to the elevator. The very visible pink went well with the clean walls, bright lights and indoor plants. It was a very nice garage, as garages go.

Someone from the shopping center above ground had obviously put a lot of thought into the brand image. They wanted to extend the brand into the entrails of the garage.

Ahead of me stood a group of three people looking around in all directions. They were talking among themselves. Every now and then their gaze would tilt upwards to a sign hanging from the ceiling.

“Excuse me, can you tell me where the elevator is?” one of the asked.

I aimed them down the pink line, explaining that the elevators were hidden in a small alcove, behind the plants.

As they left one of them muttered to the two others, “they could have at least put up a sign.”

In fact, there was a sign. Here it is.

Unusual elevator symbol

It was hanging over us the whole time. The group had studied it half a dozen times at least, to no avail.

Cute isn’t innovation

I’d spotted the elevator when I’d driven in, so I hadn’t paid any attention to the sign. The group had apparently come in through another entrance and hadn’t seen the alcove. They’d latched on to the sign for guidance, but it didn’t tell them what they needed to know.

International symbol for elevatorNot surprising. It wasn’t the internationally recognized symbol that we see in just about every public place on the planet.

No, no, the owners of this garage were smarter than the average bear. They had decided that they needed a symbol more in line with their brand image. Something friendly and fun.

Problem is: these folks weren’t in the mood for branding. They were lost and needed help.  And this sign looked like some kind of Prozac-induced purse snatching warning.

Extending color schemes to the garage isn’t the same as providing a consistent brand experience from the parking space to the retail space. And inventing a new version of the elevator symbol creates a new and unnecessary learning curve that hurts the overall brand experience.

On scent and semiotics

Take a quick test for me. I’ll say a word and you tell me the first thing that comes into you head. Ready?


What did you think of?

A U.S. state? A sports shirt? A Channel Island? A dairy cow? A knit fabric?

Chanel Jersey

Honey, you smell like Jersey

Well, the luxury brand Chanel is hoping for the latter. It recently released a new limited-edition perfume called Chanel Jersey.

Now, I “get” the reference, but only because I’m married to a French woman with an uncanny knowledge of fabrics and who was raised on the national myth that is Coco Chanel.  The defunct fashion designer apparently caused outrage when she began using jersey to make outerwear (it had traditionally been use to make underwear, according to Wikipedia).

The other fragrances in the collection all have evocative names, ranging from the mappish 31 Rue Cambon to the czarist Cuir de Russie (Russian Leather). I imagine that they all refer to different chapters in the Chanel narrative. And it is true that in France the English word jersey is closely associated with Chanel, at least among the fashion-minded bourgeoisie.

But to to try to stretch French signification of an English word into markets where English is the mother tongue, I’m not so sure. The word already means something in English. It isn’t a blank slate. How much money will Chanel have to spend to overcome the preconceived notions already associated with the word? I wonder how many Americans are going to buy the perfume simply as a joke for their friends from Jersey, the butt-of-all-jokes state. I wonder how long before Jon Stewart gets ahold of it. Will people think it smells like a cow or a locker room? Is it for men or women? Is this, in the end, going to be good for the brand?

Maybe I’m wrong. Knit fabric is the first definition of jersey in the dictionary, after all. Maybe because I’m a guy I don’t immediately think of the fabric (just like when women say “fawn” I think of an animal and not a color). And maybe Chanel aficionados are the market for the product, and they are in the know. I’m just glad that I don’t have to do the storytelling on this one.


Dangerous capitalization


But do Federal Regulations permit the use of added hormones in neighboring countries?

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