Groovy baby. Can the BBC ever be cool?

Back in the 80s, I had one of the best Saturday jobs in town. Slap bang in the middle of the High Street, in a corner, by the window, was my little kingdom.

Retail is detail

I was the Saturday girl on WHSmith’s stationery counter, a position that provided me with enough wages for my teenage social life, plus a scratchy grey pinafore dress and a skill for changing watch batteries. Kudos, huh?

Even better, I worked in the same shop as my best friend Lindsay. My job on stationery had the geographic advantage: my punk friends would come and hammer on the window, pulling daft faces at me and licking the glass. Normally when I was about to clinch that big Filofax sale.

But even with this plus point, I was a bit jealous of Lindsay. Because Lindsay worked on Sounds.

Fair enough, I could recommend the best model of Casio pocket calculator for any occasion but the Saturday night bragging rights for that were pretty minimal. Lindsay, however, tucked away at the back in Sounds, got to choose music for the shop and unwrapped every new album and single as it arrived.

No-one cool bought their records from WHSmith. That’s what Our Price was for. But still, selling Culture Club cassettes was better than peddling Parker pens for a living.

Trying to be cool?

I’m mentioning it because, as you’re probably aware, the BBC has ditched its iPlayer Radio app in favour of a new product called BBC Sounds.

The idea is to ride the podcast bandwagon, reflect the fact that programming lives on many platforms and chuck speech and music more effectively into the same algorithmic goodie bag. Radio is dead: long live Sounds.

I love a good podcast. Appropriately enough, I was listening to a Stephen Fry piece the other day and chuckled at his thoughts on the migration of the word ‘wireless’. Formerly what your gran called the radio, that meaning has been elbowed aside in favour of a connection for your phone, laptop, headphones… whatever. The plasticity of language is a brilliant thing.

Back at WHSmith, we had a manager who gloried in the name of Mr Bengochea – and we definitely had to call him ‘Mr’. His deputy was very firmly Miss Wright. Not Karen or Debs, or whatever her name might have been.

Admittedly, 30 years ago is a fair old whack of time. But when you remember details like that, it seems like something from Lark Rise to Candleford. It’s a wonder we were in scratchy pinafores and not curtseying to Mr Bengochea in our crinolines.

The sound of Sounds

So it seems odd that the BBC has plumped for ‘Sounds’ as the name of its new app.

I guess that, to them, it doesn’t represent an uncool 80s record department in a slightly stuffy, middle class shop in a dying seaside town.

To the BBC, ‘Sounds’ is a cutting edge kinda word that represents the very latest in aural content, the sort of stuff that’s sure to be greeted appreciatively by the cool kids.

Maybe the BBC has more in common with WHSmith than I realised.

Nigella bites: In the eye of the celebrity endorsement storm

As a cynical old hack, I’ve long been deeply sceptical about the power of celebrity endorsements.

I’ve also pontificated at length about why so-called ‘influencers’ are just the latest in a long line of snake oil peddlers – and I have pretty much lumped the whole lot together in the ‘NO THANKS’ pile.

That was until I personally got a full-in-the-face blast of the raw selling power that a genuinely famous face can generate with one small flap of their butterfly wings

Small business/big exposure

Allow me to briefly bring you up to speed. One of our clients is a tiny boutique called Maude & Tommy. Specialising in ethical clothing and slow fashion, it has a small bricks and mortar shop in one of York’s labyrinthine old shopping streets, plus a website that ticks over, selling a couple of garments per day.

It’s staffed by three part-time ladies, receipts are written out by hand and orders are wrapped lovingly in brown paper. Keeping online inventory isn’t a problem because the turnover is so steady they can spot an out of stock situation looming from a thousand yards.

We look after social media, product uploads and customer newsletters for this client but when the owner was planning a dream family trip to New Zealand, she asked me to take on a light-touch managerial role in her absence, giving the team someone to turn to if they weren’t sure about anything. Not my normal job but no problem for a special client.

Until, that is, Nigella Lawson wore a dressing gown bought from our shop in her new series – and tweeted about it.

The internet makes everyone look big

It’s a nice dressing gown. Maude & Tommy has stocked them for a couple of years, part of a range by a supplier called One Hundred Stars, featuring prints taken from vintage maps of cities.

Nigella rustled up a few brownies, looking splendidly slinky in the Venice gown – and the world went crazy.

Just as when Delia gave it big for cranberries, prompting a festive shortage in supermarkets the length and breadth of the country, our little website instantly became the hottest address among Britain’s middle classes.

Sales soared 20,000% overnight. The team had never needed to put inventory online – but we woke up the next morning to discover we weren’t only sold out, we were sold out of pretty much every map design, several times over.

All hands on deck

The team are skilled at helping customers to find the perfect outfit – not at processing thousands of internet orders. We didn’t have the space, the stock or the equipment to cope and the business owner was somewhere in the wilds of New Zealand, frantically trying to get mobile signal from a camper van.

Of course, we did what any small business does. We knuckled down and set to work. We enlisted friends and even my teenage son to pitch in. We developed systems, borrowed space and started bulk-buying packing materials. We learned new skills and new ways of communicating.

 A glimpse at the numbers

Only now that the craze has died down a little, have we begun to reflect on what it means for Maude & Tommy.

Brand Nigella is clearly a powerful sales machine. Her net worth is estimated at £11-20 million (it’s a comedown from the £150 million she shared with former husband Charles Saatchi, according to the Telegraph in 2013, but I guess she’s not switching to budget baked beans just yet.)

Her cookware range, Living Kitchen, has been valued at £7 million and more than 3 million copies of her cookbooks grace our shelves. She’s been a regular fixture on our TV screens for almost 30 years, oozing her own charismatic blend of attainable capability and nudge-nudge innuendo.

Understandably, her influence on food sales has been significant. Endorsing goose fat for Christmas cooking led to sales doubling at both Waitrose and Tesco. A recipe using prunes saw Waitrose benefit from a 30% rise in sales, year on year. A Nigella Express dish using Riesling wine also led to a 30% hike in sales across the country.

 So what’s the appeal?

Her charisma and physical attractiveness must play a part but viewers and readers also warm to her relaxed approach to cooking – and her evident enjoyment of eating the results. She projects an enviable lifestyle, even in the wake of painful tabloid revelations surrounding her marriage break up.

Thoroughly middle class and no spring chicken, Nigella is a beautiful beacon in an area with, perhaps, few role models.

Why endorsements work

When celebrity endorsements work, there are basically four elements in play:

1. People are reassured by a familiar face on a product

2. People want to be more like the celebrity

3. The celebrity brings the product to a fresh demographic

4. People are more likely to remember products if their favourite celebrity has endorsed them.

The fit has to be right though: the public can sense a forced fit a mile off. And even if they can’t, a poor match is likely to implode when the celebrity is seen using a rival product or service.

Nigella’s stylist bought the dressing gown from Maude & Tommy because it fitted her clear vision and understanding of Nigella’s style. There was no product placement, no incentives, no cynicism.

When Campaign looked at celebrity endorsement in 2014, their study was prompted by high profile controversy about celebrities failing to use the relevant hashtags stipulated by the Advertising Standards Authority when promoting items.

The ad industry bible discovered that a third (33%) of all users follow celebrities, rising to more than half (54%) of younger female users aged between 16 and 24. That’s a big chunk of potential consumers to influence.

Despite the lack of regulatory hashtags, only 10% said they never found it obvious when a celebrity is selling something. However, 54% said they usually knew, compared to 36% saying they always did. In other words, plenty of grey area to contend with.

More than a quarter (26%) had bought an item promoted by a celebrity in this way. Focus on 16- to 24-year-olds and that figure rises to two-fifths (40%) who have purchased endorsed items, with a little less than one in five (18%) doing so on a regular basis.

What did we learn?

To be clear, Nigella wasn’t selling our gorgeous Venice dressing gown. Her stylist bought and paid for it (although we gave her a small discount) and she was kind enough to tweet about @maudeandtommy when viewers asked about it.

But Nige clearly has some clout when it comes to influencing her fans. An uplift in sales of 20,000% is an incredible bonus for any small business.

I’m still deeply cynical about so-called influencers. I’ve seen good money spent on bloggers and instagrammers for no tangible result on the sales sheet. But clearly, when an endorsement is unforced – a genuine, honest fit – it can give you a truly business-changing boost. Just beware false prophets who demand high fees and deliver very little. For a cool, realistic chat about your marketing goals, drop us a line.



Five reasons your marketing needs a dash of punk rock (no matter what business you’re in)

Nothing is punk.

Nothing except a few months of revelry, creativity and attitude that burned phosphorus-brief and bright in 1976 and 1977.

Punk came and went in a gloriously messed up riot of passion and cynicism, idealism and commercialism, talent and hype.

Purists get very uptight about what’s punk and what’s not. They argue passionately about whether you can celebrate punk anniversaries (generally not). They will absolutely hate this article.

But everything is punk.

The rebellion, iconoclasm and sneering rejection of the status quo changed the world forever. The preening rock stars who bestowed their drug-fuelled, self-indulgent anthems on a lowly but grateful public were swept aside by kids on glue and cheap lager – or art school misfits who could smell danger and wanted more.

One of the enduring messages of punk is that anyone can do it. Once punk came along, you didn’t have to be a classically-trained pianist or know all the chords in the book to form a band.

You just got up and put up.

If you’ve ever thought you can’t market your business because you don’t have the right certificates, the right contacts or the right jargon, you’ve been fooled by the self-proclaimed wizards, held back by the men in suits and dazzled by the smoke and mirrors.

Because the internet is coming of age and it’s empowered every one of us. Today we all have the power to reach millions of people, with the minimum of equipment and just a few hints and tips.

Punk knew its audience. In fact, punk was its audience. Punk was angry, young and energetic. The fact that middle England hated it was exactly the point. And the fact that many young people hated it too was also the point.

By pointing itself directly and unashamedly at a niche, it sparked a revolution that caused fall out way beyond its followers, its few months in the spotlight and its urban roots.

Content marketing can provide an injection of that for your business.

Even if you’re running a luxury goods company or a financial services business hidebound by regulations, here’s five reasons your business needs a content marketing approach with the  spirit of punk bursting through it:

  1. Niche

Content marketing is all about engaging a niche. Marketing to everyone means you’re wasting spend on people who don’t care. Don’t try to make the whole world like you: find your tribe and make them love you.

2. Low budget

No big investment in TV spots, bus sides or billboards here. Just as punks spread the word through cut and paste posters and photocopied fanzines, you can fire up a brilliant content strategy through a blog, a smart phone and social media.

3. Emotional

Modern marketing is about creating lasting relationships and that’s only done by making people feel something. Punk made its audiences feel powerful and free. Choose your own emotion according your business: you could be useful, irresistible, relevant, funny or evocative.

4. Community

Because you’re not trying to appeal to anyone and everyone, your focus is on building a community around your product or service. Through content, you’ll find like-minded people who are motivated to chat with you and with each other. It’s about creating a feeling of shared values and belonging.

5. Direct

Modern marketing isn’t about finding people who are happily enjoying something – and then getting in their way with your message. A content strategy is about engaging your tribe directly, giving them something they need, want, or love for its own sake. You’re not interrupting them, you’re making them seek out what you’ve got to offer.

So don’t listen to the men in suits who blind you with buzzwords. Fire up your content marketing strategy today and start building your tribe.

Are you tone deaf? Why you need the right words for your customers

“So the reviewer does nothing but slag it down all the way through, with stupidly arrogant long words. Then goes on saying it’s a OK film. How has this person got a job as a film reviewer??”

“You are not allowed to be a film reviewer unless you are gradually disappearing up your own backside!”

They’re comments from a Facebook group about a review of a film that profiles their subculture. All pretty damning.

The right words in the wrong place

The review wasn’t really aimed at them, to be fair. It was from the Hollywood Reporter, the US film and entertainment industry bible. An insider review of an arty film isn’t in its natural habitat in a Facebook group populated by plain-speaking, working class British blokes.

But the Facebookers’ forthright criticism of the ‘stupidly arrogant long words’ got me thinking. As a writer, words are my currency, my weapons and my friends. I’d read the review without criticism, impressed by its balanced take on the film. But that’s because I spend my days spending, wielding and embracing words.

Not everyone does that.

Brand appropriate

If your customers are more used to wielding welding irons or shifting shovels than admiring elegant passages of prose, content can still be brilliant for your business.

It’s just got to be right.

It doesn’t matter if your clients are dustmen or debutantes, if you don’t authentically speak their language, they’ll run a mile.

It’s not about you

Writing for that Facebook group, I could easily have used many of the same words peppered into that film review, never even thinking that to them, I sound like I’m disappearing up my own backside.

Even when I write social media posts for my scooter club, friends make fun of me, telling me they have to look up my words before they understand what I’m saying.

Conversely, at work, I sometimes cause painful wincing in my more traditional clients who hate the informality of certain sentences. Older people, for example, often can’t shed the (incorrect but hard-wired) school rule that you can’t start a sentence with ‘and’.

Ride the learning curve

I usually work through tone-setting exercises with new clients but everyone has their own quirks, preferences and brand guidelines. When I worked with Wedgwood, ‘crockery’ was, perhaps surprisingly, a banned word. (It’s ‘tableware’, by the way).

Even when we’ve done a ton of exploration about vocabulary, tone and audience, there’s still often a period of bedding in, when we to and fro about certain phrasing until I really understand what’s needed.

Knowing your audience

My journalism tutors used to hold up The Sun’s pithy stories as perfect examples of our craft. Back then, their newsdesk was staffed by gods when it came to finding the angle and telling that story to Auntie Doris and Uncle Fred. I guess Doris and Fred were the olden days equivalent of blokes on Facebook.

I’m not sure the red top still holds the same place in the journalistic firmament but it does still nail a story. Today’s lead yells:

‘JUST SHOOT HIM’ Terrorist kills one and ‘blows up car’ before being shot dead by cops.

Compare that to this intro from Vogue:

Roland Mouret has just published a book about his life and work, Roland Mouret: Provoke, Attract, Seduce, with Rizzoli. The name is an indication of Mouret’s approach to design; just think about that iconic Galaxy dress of his which first appeared in 2005, a glorious form-fitting number that seemed to spring forth from a particularly steamy ménage à trois between fabric, cutting technique, and the female form.

Clunky construction aside, clued-up readers are granted no explanation of who Mouret is – and it’s even assumed that they all remember the ‘iconic Galaxy dress’, designed 13 years ago.

Back when the earth was young, I was news editor of Broadcast magazine, the TV and radio trade paper. Its current splash is:

Disney details SVoD plans

Disney+ will launch in late 2019 with Star Wars and Marvel shows

Baffling to many, but Broadcast’s audience of TV producers and industry insiders can handle the shorthand of SVoD without needing to be told it’s short for subscription video on demand.

But ditch the jargon

Being authentic certainly isn’t carte blanche to drown your content in jargon. It’s about what your readers will understand and engage with, not lazily spouting the buzzwords you chuck around your office or factory.

If your audience thinks long words are for stuck up snobs, keep your articles brief and earthy. Could you share your message through infographics or video instead?

Selling to arty types? Create a compelling visual style and use a typeface they’ll relish.

Working in a highly intellectual niche? Don’t feel compelled to reign in the vocabulary so much – although, beware! The damn thing has to actually make sense. Your message will be lost completely if your reader has to peruse with a dictionary in the other hand.

Get out there. Talk to your customers – and more importantly listen. Keep an eye on social media and take note of what matters to them and how they communicate. Get to know them and what makes them tick. It’s the only way you’ll get them on side and not sniping about you on social media.