When write goes wrong

I was visiting my parents’ house the other day and coffee o’clock rolled around. I pulled a new packet of filter coffee out of the cupboard – and noticed it was a brand I hadn’t seen before.

‘Huh’ I thought to myself, ‘that’s some pretty funky packaging’.

Instead of the deep dark reds, browns, golds, purples and green of your average bag of ethically-sourced coffee, typically combined with a thoughtfully intense picture of a farmer, some coffee beans or a handsomely steaming brew, this packet was much bolder, with simple pastel shades and a large, round-edged font.

It looked good. Kind of like a soft-toy my one year old nephew would enjoy throwing up on, but good.

Then I read the copy.

And everything about it became hateful, including the actual coffee. (Seriously, it tasted like that horrific hazelnut-flavoured stuff you buy every few years by mistake. It didn’t say anything about tasting of nuts on the packet, so maybe the branding actually tainted the flavour.)

I can’t remember what coffee brand it was (or, in fact, anything other than the sickly sweet feeling it left me with, which just happened to resonate so well with the stench of its rotten, overly-branded heart), but pick up a dictionary and you’ll probably find it nestling somewhere between ‘smug’ and ‘soulless’.

Here’s my problem. The language on the packet had been copy written to empty excess. Everything – from tagline to body copy to the ‘please recycle’ message – had been perfectly perfunctorily parcelled up and presented. Oh how it tripped along, ever so breezily, urging you to forget your pre-caffeinated struggles and join hands in a land of sustainably-sourced plenty.

It meant NOTHING. It left me cold inside. And it was so bloody forgettable it makes me mad.

In fact, the patronising language (plus that horrible, horrible flavour) made me want to cry out ‘I’m an adult!!’ and stamp on it until it went away. Which, ironically, is very childish of me.

Now, I’ve done my fair share of branding for ethical coffee brands. A lot of people and big companies are working really really hard to make the coffee farming industry (and yes, therefore their businesses), more sustainable. Because at the moment, it’s really not.

That hard work, together with the real, tangible positive difference it’s making to millions of people’s lives deserves and requires clarity, respect and honesty. Trite, over-used, uncreative platitudes don’t just let the side down, they obscure its brilliance.

What’s more, coffee is a bit of a gateway drug to more informed buying decisions, so I think it’s important to get this stuff right. We’re basically asking people to pay a bit extra so that the future of coffee (and the future of millions of coffee farming families) is that little bit healthier. It’s not a hard sell.

What’s that? I can be a better human by paying a few pence extra? Because it’s going to help these guys, and do good things for the environment and and and make me feel good? What! And possibly even make my coffee taste better? WOW!

– Tom, real life human

One way we can make this kind of behaviour become more popular, and feel more normal, is by trying our very best to create a real human connection – by telling the simple story of ‘this is you, this is them, this is how you connect, what do reckon?’. There are other ways, but that’s a good one because most humans care most about other humans.

The way we make this kind of behaviour less popular and less normal is with this kind of marketing. By wrapping it in so many layers of fluffy feel good and caricature I forget I’m buying ethically-sourced coffee because it just makes sense (and, hey I like feeling like a good person), and start to believe I’m doing it so that I can sip from a round-edged beige mug while being hugged from behind by a pair of big, strong, approving arms. (I think Brand X did actually use the words ‘hug in a mug’ somewhere. Unforgivable. I could’ve just said that and be done with it).

Before I do myself out of the job completely, I should say that copywriting has a role to play in all of this. Real, raw writing can be as hard to pull off as a finely wrought tagline.

A professional copywriter will understand the job their words have to do – and know how to make them do it. In this instance, that would mean communicating clearly why this product is a good thing, and connecting with the audience through creative and authentically characterful language. (Actually, that’s pretty much always the job that needs doing.) And they’d probably make sure the coffee wasn’t hazelnut surprise too.

Mondelez International

Mondelez International is a multinational confectionery, food and beverage conglomerate, employing around 107,000 people around the world. You might know it better as Kraft Foods Inc.

Working closely with Mondelez’ sustainability department, I helped devise and then create a company-wide newsletter – which went out in print and online to thousands of employees. The purpose of The Voice was to raise awareness of all the amazing work Mondelez is doing around sustainability.

As the key contact at every stage of the newsletter’s creation, I devised the theme of each quarter’s edition, interviewed contributors and then drafted, wrote and finally proofed the finished article.

Our client was so happy with the finished product they commissioned several further issues.

The big story

“‘So we conceive of ourselves and everyone around us as volitional beings. We treat everyone as if they did things with a purpose in mind, instead of because they’re being pushed from behind. We punish criminals. We reward altruists. We plan things and build things together. We make promises and expect each other to keep them. It’s all a made-up story, but when everybody believes that everybody’s actions are the result of choice, and takes and gives responsibility accordingly, the result is civilization’
‘Just a story.’
– Chapter 13, Free Will

“‘I’ll tell you what I think,’ said Wiggin. ‘I think you don’t grow up until you stop worrying about other people’s purpose or lack of them and find the purposes you believe in for yourself.’
– Chapter 14, Virus Makers

Both from book 3 of the Ender Saga – Xenocide. So good.

Wabi Sabi Life

I’ve been in Bulgaria for a couple of months now. I’m staying with Kimberly and John – two friends who moved out here about five years ago. Their home is called Wabi Sabi – a Japanese phrase that sees authenticity and beauty in imperfection.

Wabi Sabi is on a hillside. It takes about 10 minutes of some fairly steep climbing to get from the bottom gate to the tree-lined top. Somewhere roughly in the middle is Kimberly and John’s white washed wattle and daub house, and next to it their lovingly nourished and abundant vegetable garden.

Right now, we’re enjoying courgettes, carrots, beetroot, the first crop of tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers and lots of herbs. Yesterday John gave me a young runner bean to snack on, which I ate within a minute of it being picked from the plant. Tender, sweet and very tasty.

Kimberly is a phenomenal cook. I’ve enjoyed some of the best meals of my life here. As much as the ingredients, it’s the time and love that she puts into everything that makes it so damn good. We eat incredible salads nearly every day. Then there’s the gazpacho, the ‘bob’ soup, the pesto, the simple tomato pasta, the beetroot hummus, the dahl and flatbreads, the shakshuka and … oh, just so much goodness. The day before yesterday, we were treated to a beetroot and cranberry cake, topped with strudel, icing, flaked almonds and tiny purple borage flowers. My goodness it was heart-meltingly good.

My tent moves once a week to stop the grass dying underneath, but is always to be found on one of four or five flattish spots within a stone’s throw of the house. With two carpets, a table, a trunk for my clothes and a very comfortable double mattress to sleep on, this is camping Wabi Sabi style. I’ve only been scared a couple of times in the night: once when I felt like my bed was moving (we thought there was maybe a mole underneath, but the mystery is still officially unsolved); and the first time a cat jumped on the tent. I go to sleep to the chirping of crickets and wake to the chirping of birds.

This place is full of life. Yesterday, I was on my back pretending to do yoga while actually empathising with a lazy flying bug circling above me. Suddenly, a huge dragonfly – the size of my hand – buzzed out from somewhere and snapped up his dinner. Higher up, three eagles were cawing, circling and dive-bombing each other – we think they’re a young family, getting their practice in. Eagles are actually a real life threat at Wabi Sabi: one took a dive for Otic (the smallest cat) last week, and yesterday one tried to make off with the black chicken until John ran it off.

And as for what I’m actually doing out here… we’re building a treehouse, of course. I’ll write all about it the next time a thunderstorm stops us working on it.

Riding High


We hired a freakin’ quadbike! And it was the greatest. To be honest, we would have struggled without it. Our accommodation (the wonderfully named Summer Paradies) was about five kilometers more remote than I was expecting.

We arrived late Saturday night. Leonie and I walked the 10 kilometres to Prinos Skala on Sunday. It was hot and we took one of those shortcuts (you know, one of those). A couple of times, striding along the dirt track – kitted out with suncream, sunhats and sunny dispositions (yes, I went there), Leonie jumped, screamed a little and grabbed my arm. I’m the man in our relationship. The biggest and most justifiable jump, scream and grab was due to a long, fibrous snakeskin stretched out by the roadside.

We found Mike’s Bikes on the outskirts of the town. We checked out the prices and settled on a 50’cc. But Mike, much to his chagrin, didn’t have a 50’cc quad bike available for us; we’d have to settle for a 150’cc. Mike put Leonie in charge of driving, and me in charge of luggage. My father would be proud. We took the sturdy blue beast for a lap of the carpark and came back grinning.

And thus began our five day love affair with a shiny shiny quad bike.

Words I like

A Swedish colleague recently asked me to share some words.

We’ve had some fascinating conversations in the past about the subtleties of certain words. Usually doing what I’d call a ‘sense’ translation of Swedish into English. Looking for those words – or often phrases – that capture the spirit as much as meaning.

Anyway, Liv asked me to share some words “on any theme, words you love, hate, never would use, don’t understand your self, blooming, describing, moving ones…”

This is what I sent her.

I like:

urgent – it’s powerful, clear and important. You get it on letters from places like the bank. It can’t be ignored; it demands a response, but that comes at a cost because it also has negative connotations (so use sparingly).

better – I often use this as an alternative to sustainable – everybody understand the idea of living in a ‘better’ world (as a opposed to a more sustainable one)

smart – I often use this to talk about efficiency – it means a certain level of thought and effort has gone into something, and people are automatically attracted to it because the ‘smartness’ might rub off of them. I think it also has connotations of the future.

because – people love to see the connection between an action and a result – to understand why something has happened. The word ‘because’ shows this link. In English, lots of people use the words ‘as’ and ‘since’ instead of ‘because’, but these are connected to time-related conditions, so they’re not as good. For example, ‘I went to the bank as I needed some money’ vs. ‘I went to the bank because I needed some money’.

thriving – I use this all the time to show how there’s something better than a system that simply does the job – eg. The community isn’t just working, it’s thriving

Those eyes

It isn’t ‘natural’, I know,

To be this close and, bending low,

Inhale, exhale, and match her breath,

Without the glass, that’s likely death.


And yet, meeting those eyes, sunk deep,

Breathing in, out, it’s no great leap

To feel like we were born the same

And just grew up with different names.


Some daft mistake at birth, we’re told.

The glass is gone – so, feeling bold,

I step into those ancient arms

And all at once, it’s all so calm.


A heart that’s beating just like mine

Starts thumping faster as we climb.

The ropes are branches, walls are trees –

It’s not just her who’s been set free.


With our long-limbed dexterity

We eat, and rest and simply be

Together, triumphant, we are here.

And all glass walls will disappear.


What’s this? I’m gently nudged aside.

I’ve had my time on this fair ride.

But deep and true I know I can

Believe in an orangutan.