How a brand can blow it with clumsy copywriting

August 23, 2011

I’m one of those sad people that actually reads brochures and catalogues for fun.  Why?  Because I’m fascinated by the tricks that mail order companies will pull in an attempt to separate people from their money.

The romantic fiction that is Boden

Boden is a favourite of mine – I can’t figure out whether their approach is brilliant…or bollocks.  Going back through my collection of their catalogues the approach is pretty consistent (you collect them?!  OK, seriously sad, but, err, ahem, yes, I do have a couple of old ones knocking about…on the shelf near my vintage Mills & Boon library).

Anyway, back to approach – it consists of wholesomely dishy models (I’m talking about the women here) chilling out in a fantasy lifestyle that involves jet setting between Portofino, St Ives, Courcheval, Goa (like you do), with gorgeous and carefree members of the opposite sex, whilst occasionally popping into the office in Mayfair, Bloomsbury or Covent Garden for a spot of lunch with one’s chums.

It’s life Jim, but not as you know it

What’s not to like?  The fact that I have to work while they just gad about having fun, fun and more fun (but hey, there’s a bank holiday coming up, and we might go camping…weather permitting, and if we can scrape together enough for the petrol).  The fact that the clothes are steeply overpriced (unless you run a hedge fund – which most Boden buyers presumably do).  The fact that the women’s wear will look shit on anyone who’s under 6ft, no bigger than size 10, and who has less than perfect hair/skin/bone structure (you could dress those girls in bin bags and they’d still be drop dead gorgeous).  However, I have to admit it’s all beautifully shot and laid out, with lashings of colour and fun, so it seems churlish to focus on these minor personal niggles.

Cheeky copy from that Johnnie chappie

Then there’s the words – chirpy, chatty, flirty:  “Rejuvenating sun, fresh sea air, charming cobbled streets, and your bottom pinched by a swarthy Genoan” (that’s from the Boden Spring catalogue 2010, not my Mills & Boon).   There’s even revealing little snippets from the models themselves.  “Julie. Embarrasing crush.  Yoda”.  Or “Aurelie.  Favourite winter comfort food.  Raclette” and “Kevin.  I always forget to close the fridge door”.  I mean, it’s so reassuring to know they’re, like, real people!  A bit crass, I know, but it’s done slightly tongue in cheek, they’re not taking themselves too seriously – it’s just a bit of harmless fun that sounds like it’s heavily influenced by the likeably blokeish Johnnie Boden himself.

Oh no, they’re going all heavy on me!

But then I buy the Sunday Times (21st August).  There’s a special edition Boden Autumn booklet with 15% off for the newspaper’s readers.  Inside the front cover I’m shocked to discover “THE BODEN MANIFESTO”.  The tongue has slipped from inside the cheek and some serious marketing people have hijacked the project (dangerous!).  The fun has become slightly forced and I find myself wincing at regular intervals.  We’ve gone from Johnnie’s light hearted asides to something suspiciously like a mission statement.

We believe, therefore you will buy

First sentence (they have highlighted some words for emphasis):  “We believe colour makes life happier.”   Someone with a diploma from the Chartered Institute of Marketing has decided that “we need to establish our point of difference” and come up with the idea that “what we’re really selling here is happiness” (See my previous post “From USP to UPS” for further discussion on this emotion-led approach).  Trouble is, when you try to rationalise feelings you end up killing them.  Previous Boden efforts did lift my spirits, but this just makes me feel I’m being taken for a sucker.

Second sentence:  “We believe everything matters even this font.”  What bright spark came up with this twaddle?  Someone who feels the Boden brand has to stand for something, have some values, and become more meaningful.  Everything matters, but some things matter more than others – a global banking crisis, 9/11, the World Cup, even what’s on telly tonight, matters more than a font (unless you’re a luvvie graphic designer in Clerkenwell).  Get real.

Third sentence:  “We love to fly the flag in our own quirky way”.  Oh dear, I know where this is going…and yes, there it is in the fourth sentence:  “We believe everyone should discover their passion.”   Spare me the philosophy – I just want to buy a stripey shirt, not have some self-improvement crap shoved in my face.

Let’s dress our strategy up to look like customer feedback

The manifesto continues in the same vein with 5 more painful platitudes, but let’s skip them.  Subsequent pages have headlines which purport to be from real customers – but did Jaqui, from South London, really say “I get so excited when my parcel arrives that I could kiss the postman”?  Louise in Brighton says “Your customer service is the best ever.  I love how you trust your customers.”  Hmm, that sounds a lot more like Sharon in Marketing to me.  And then there’s up-for-it Sohie in Lincoln who tells us “I feel confident, gorgeous and pullable.”  I never realised Boden girls were so easy.

Come back Johnnie Boden, your brochures need you!

  1. Caroline J August 23, 2011 Reply

    Jim - I've missed hearing your pithy obervations! I enjoyed reading this so much that I'm going to sprinkle it around like confetti! BTW - is there such a word as 'pullable'?


    • Jim August 29, 2011 Reply

      Hi Caroline,
      Glad you enjoyed the rant...please spread it around as much as you can!
      Nb, I've had no response from Boden yet - maybe I should wave it under their nose?

      "Pullable" is probably a word, but I've never heard it being used in real life. I don't hear many men saying "Wow, she's pullable" (I went to see the Inbetweeners movie with Alex and none of the characters in the film used that terminology, despite that being the main topic of their conversation).

      It's not a word I hear many women use either. I hear them greeting eachother with "Hi Sarah, you are looking gorgeous...", not "Hi Sarah, are looking pullable this evening" but then I'm probably not moving in the right circles!

  2. Andy August 31, 2011 Reply

    We believe everyone should discover their passion

    Is there currently any more over-used word in the media than "passion"?

    People don't just enjoy cooking - they're "passionate about flavours." X-Factor contestants give lame Mariah Carey impersonations as evidence of their "passion for music."

    Brands are doing it too - check out the homepage of this swimming goggles manufacturer ( They don't just keep chlorinated water out of your eyes. They "have a passion for swimming and want to share that passion with you!"

    And if you thought Purina just manufactured gloop for consumption by domestic quadrupeds, you were wrong. They actually have a "passion for pets." ( (They even took the trouble to register "Your Pet. Our Passion." as a trademark in case anyone copied it.)

    Does this remind anyone else of those days back in the noughties when everyone - from removal companies to chair manufacturers to pest control firms - was offering "solutions"?

    • Jim August 31, 2011 Reply

      Hi Andy,
      I couldn't agree more - all those passionate people out's getting quite scary for customers who just want to buy something, without committing to some kind of intensely meaningful relationship!

  3. Marc French September 20, 2011 Reply

    Once again Jim, a splendidly contended point. I think that as soon as folk in the fashion business feel they need a manifesto it's game over. Even the most worthy brands can come unstuck when they start writing their values down (I mean if you have to tell someone what you stand for because your actions don't speak for themselves...)
    I hope the silly manifesto was actually tongue in cheek and we've all just missed a daft joke, but somehow it feels so contrived – such hard work! It's a shame that the effortless, affable tone of Johnnie Boden's brochure copy has been usurped by a nonsensical irony. Hopefully all will be put right in due course. However, it's worth noting that Boden has always sold hard and the contrastingly easy tone of voice has worked hard to mask any hint of desperation. Maybe Boden has had its time and cracks are starting to show, I guess only time will tell.
    On a different note, I'd forgive them any number of marketing indiscretions if only their shirts had longer sleeves. Tsk.

    Cheers, Jim.


  4. Yian September 20, 2013 Reply

    Just looking for the Boden font. Found your grant.

    "We believe everything matters even this font." What bright spark came up with this twaddle? Everything matters, but some things matter more than others – a global banking crisis, 9/11, the World Cup, even what’s on telly tonight, matters more than a font (unless you’re a luvvie graphic designer in Clerkenwell). Get real."

    So do you think typography does not matter? It sounds as if you justify botch, because there would be major problems in the world. Each job has to be done as well as we can be. This also relates to a catalog.

    • Jim September 20, 2013 Reply

      Hi Yian,

      And thanks for taking the time to read and comment on my blog.

      I do think that typography matters (because I work with designers, and my words end up as type, so I have a personal interest), but that it's not the most important thing in the world. And that designers who declare their love of type to those that just want to buy a Tee shirt, and have no interest in different fonts, can end up looking a bit silly and precious.

      If you love type, create beautiful typography, then your work speaks for itself.

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