What can brands learn from Richard Dawkins?

The warning “ a swan’s wing is strong enough to break a man’s arm” is a time-tested meme. Photograph: Max Ellis

Science isn’t the enemy of creativity.

The two mingle happily. Steve Jobs insisted that instead of the original design for Pixar’s studios, which proposed three separate buildings for computer scientists, animators and everyone else, there should be one cavernous space with just two bathrooms. Now, everyone at Pixar has a “bathroom story” of an inspirational conversation they had while washing their hands.

Science inspires creativity.

If you want to make your brand language more memorable, a famous professor’s book and an overlooked scientific paper might provide the answers.

The concept of a ‘unit of culture’ passed from person to person originated in Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene. He proposed that ideas, just as much as physiological adaptations, can be subject to Darwinian principles, being replicated by cultural transmission with only the most useful ideas surviving. A meme, meaning a “unit of culture”, is society’s equivalent of the gene, according to Dawkins.

Internet memes in photographs like “planking” and videos like “Harlem Shake” are well-known.

But memes exist in language, too.

Take a walk along the bank of your local river on Sunday morning and there’s a chance you’ll hear them at work. Parents are busy warning their toddlers to be careful around the swans: “The swans are strong.” “How strong is a swan?” “Strong enough to break a man’s arm.”

Now, I’ve never seen a man’s arm broken by a swan. I’ve never even heard of a man’s arm being broken by a swan.

But this is the same warning I’ve given my own children about swans. And I was told it by my mother, who said it was her mother who told it to her. One meme, four generations, 100 years.

There are plenty of memes in the English language: “i before e except after c”. “Don’t swim for an hour after eating.” And they are there in commercial copywriting too.

“Never knowingly undersold” is a meme: it lives beyond the paid-for posters or the press ads: it’s the phrase John Lewis’s shoppers use to explain why they shop there. Tesco’s internal culture, as much as its customers perceptions, has been steered by the successful little piece of verbal branding: “Every Little Helps.”

Saatchi’s “Double Whammy” and Ronseal’s “Does what it says on the tin” have been transmitted out of their commercial sphere into daily life.

But what makes a phrase memorable?

And what makes it memorable enough to be passed from person to person? An overlooked scientific paper from the July 2012 Proceedings of the 50th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics might provide the answer.

Four linguists from Cornell University spent their time looking at how the way in which a piece of information is phrased — the choice of words and the sentence structure it uses — affects the way in which it enters the public consciousness. They analysed film quotes, comparing memorable (and un-memorable quotes) controlling their analysis for the speaker, the setting of the quotes and the context.

They discovered there were two variables directing memorability.

First, “lexical directiveness”: memorable quotes are built from simple sentences, which are constructed in the normal way (or with “common syntactic patterns” as the linguists call it). But memorable phrases are created when you use everyday words in an unexpected way in those unsurprising sentence constructions. “You had me at ‘hello’.”

Their second finding was that memorable quotes tend to be more generally applicable, and aren’t tied to the particular area in which they were first developed.

Even better, they found strong evidence that these principles apply to non-movie lines, such as advertising slogans and brand language.

For the more technically minded writer, they even observed how some sounds of speech, such as front vowels (represented by the letter i) are more common in memorable quotes than some other sounds.

Perhaps it’s time that creativity and science were encouraged to mingle a little more.

About Verbal Identity

Verbal Identity is a brand strategy consultancy specialising in brand language. Writers work alongside linguistic analysts and strategists, pursuing the magic and mechanics of language. www.verbalidentity.com

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