I can pinpoint exactly when the Voice of the Corporation died. It was 28th September 2013. On that day, a blogger called Jamie Jones tweeted that he’d sent a funny letter to webuyanycar.com, asking them if they’d buy his Little Tikes toy vehicle. Webuyanycar, he said, had sent him a humourless corporate brush-off. He posted it. (“After reviewing your request that we value your ‘Little Tikes car’ and viewing the attached photo, we’ve come to the conclusion that you sent your request to simply waste our time...”) It went viral. Ha ha, everyone laughed. Another dumb company, not getting the joke as usual. But then! It turned out that Mr Jones had actually faked webuyanycar.com’s humourless response, and when they got wind of what he’d done, quick as a flash they aced the entire situation: they told Jamie they “loved his hoax letter” and that they thought his Little Tikes car was a really nice colour. Then they set up the website www.webuyanytoycar.com.
OK, so maybe I’m exaggerating the significance a little — but it struck me as a clear example of something that’s been growing for a while: the once-pervasive monotonous dullness of most business writing is being replaced by a more natural, often more playful attitude to language. To such an extent that if you want to mock a brand for being out of touch, you might even need to resort to faking it for them.
Even more impressive was this from O2. In 2013 they suffered a massive two-day network outage, and their Twitter feed was deluged with angry customers tweeting their frustration. O2 kept their wits — and their wit — majestically. Just three examples of dozens:
It’s no coincidence that the brands who do this most impressively — like O2 — are the ones who’ve taken their tone of voice seriously for a long while now, so if you write for them — whether that’s marketing, advertising, or customer service — you have the confidence that you’ve got permission to go for it.
Which is why I particularly like this — one of my favourite ever bits of business writing. It’s from the US data-storage company NetApp. It’s their expenses policy. All of it:
"We’re a frugal company. But don’t show up dog-tired just to save a few bucks. Use your common sense.”
Brilliant. Not only is it a moment of linguistic playfulness in an unexpected and unpromising corner of corporate life, it’s also a hugely effective example of walking the talk of your brand values.
As much as I’d like to claim that this spirit of playfulness is all down to language consultants like me banging the drum about the importance of tone of voice, the fact is that a lot of it is also to do with social media. A client told me recently that 20 years ago, if he wanted to write to a customer, he had to get permission from his manager. Then he’d spend all day agonising over it, and it would end up being an excruciatingly formal epistle, because it was about the only bit of ‘personal’ writing he ever did at work.
Whereas these days, he’s replying to emails from customers left, right and centre. Or tweeting. Or updating his blog where he talks to his customers in the comments threads. He didn’t notice it happening, he said, but he became a writer. These days at work, many people are, in one form or another. We just get a lot more practice. We know how to be snappy in 140 characters. Attention-grabbing in a subject line. Persuasive in a blog post.
But before we declare ourselves all to be 21st-century Oscar Wildes, it’s time for a note of caution: the danger here is that it’s all too easy to get carried away. Whereas the default tone for business used to be stuffy and formal, it feels like the new default is often a sort of glib chirpiness, a bad impersonation of Innocent Smoothies. There’s even a tumblr blog — wackaging — that collects examples of trying-way-toohard- to-be-your-best-mate wacky packaging. And when brands that really shouldn’t be playful at all try it, the results are often woeful.