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How long does a writing style last?

Andrew Steeds

I wonder how many people buy Ronseal products. Quite a few, I’d guess, from my occasional visits to hardware stores, but I’d wager that more people by far would be able to come up with the company’s strapline when asked to. It’s something the company seems to be proud of, too: it features in most of its TV ads (normally delivered with a neat touch of self-irony) and, just in case there’s any chance that you might forget it, there it is on the Ronseal website, directly below the company’s logo.

I think it’s come to have an application beyond wood treatment, too. For example, we use the term ‘Ronseal’ at times to denote a certain kind of no-frills writing*. (So, for future reference, ‘That’s got a nice Ronseal touch’ is a compliment, not a criticism.) But I wonder if it’s become a bit of an albatross for the company itself or at least for the company’s copywriters, who, however much they may want to break new ground, always have to end up with the eight or nine words that have served the company so well down the years – rather like a band, famous for one or two songs, that has to sign off every concert with a bitter-sweet encore of those two hits, reminding everyone of their past glory but possibly also highlighting their inability to match it since.

I was musing on this the other day when reading the copy on a carton of an Innocent smoothie in a forlorn attempt to distract myself from the ravages of the squirrels in our garden. The Innocent writing style is now widely known and seems to successfully reflect the values of the brand itself: witty, irreverent, youthful, fun but, for all that, quite knowing in its use of language and gratifyingly error-free. I like the way in which it’s always used footnotes (the most obvious one being ‘Please keep me in the fridge and shake* before pouring’ with its associated note of ‘it helps if the cap’s on’) and the way in which it’s tried to prevent particular tropes from outstaying their welcome (such as the ‘none of these’ in the ingredients, featuring chickens and other unlikely elements). And it’s impressive the way in which it’s managed to maintain its brand identity even in the wake of the sale of a stake in its business to Coca-Cola, in many customers’ eyes surely the antithesis of everything Innocent had stood for.

But how long can they maintain the freshness of this approach? For one thing, other people have picked up on the style and have injected an ‘Innocent’ element into their own copy, in that rather bizarre way in which people adopt others’ style in the largely mistaken belief that what worked for them must therefore work in all circumstances. Maybe for Innocent imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but it has the effect of making the brand less unusual. And beyond that, how long before the writing and the writers lose their puff and can no longer find new variations to ring on their established theme? Or before someone decides that a total reinvention suddenly seems the necessary thing?

So far the signs are good. But every morning that I reach in the fridge for one of their cartons, I’ll check the writing with a new anxiety – though nothing approaching the despair I feel for the squirrel devastation outside.

* I realise now, on revisiting our website, that I used it in my last blog! I’d like to think that indicated some measure of forward planning …