Should’ve, Could’ve, Would’ve

Specsavers attempts to trademark the word “should’ve” made headlines recently for the audacity of the move. While the idea of a commercial entity owning an aspect of our language is enough to make some squeamish, many were quick to point out it’s not a move completely without precedent; Carlsberg successfully achieved the same thing with “probably” in 2010.

An article in Campaign does a great job of highlighting the way that many businesses have managed to link themselves to a single word (even if they might not have the little ‘TM’ sign hovering at the end of it), as well as drawing attention to the potential benefits of such a connection – Carlsberg’s ownership of “probably” enabled them to circumvent a ban on alcohol advertising at Euro 2016 by simply rendering their favourite word in the brand’s typeface and colours on pitchside hoardings, allowing them to reach a market they otherwise would have been shut out from.

It may seem extreme, but perhaps this is the logical end point of all branding exercises. If the purpose of branding is to create a set of principles or ideas in the mind of the consumer that are associated with your product, in order to differentiate it from your competition, surely there is no more efficient way of achieving this than attaching your brand to the smallest possible unit of communication – a single word?

This sort of thinking is nothing new. ~10 years ago Maurice Saatchi promoted the idea of “One Word Equity”(OWE) which touches on similar ideas (there’s a delightfully throwback Flash site that would’ve been clunky back in 2006, let alone now, and has just been left to gather dust). And although the presentation is hilariously dated, it contains some remarkably prescient thinking

“One Word Equity” is the apotheosis of the Saatchis’ “brutal simplicity of thought” mantra; it’s that notion of dispensing with anything superfluous reduced to its purest form. Taking global ownership of a single word, being able to associate your brand and everything it stands for with a regular part of everyday speech is the most effective way of keeping yourself front of mind.

This is vitally important in a media landscape where brands are competing with each other, publications and other forms of entertainment for the fleeting attention of users. Essentially, there’s a tremendous amount of noise for your signal to have to cut through. The OWE site makes the point of reduced ad recall, which has only diminished since then. The simplicity of focusing on one word for your brand underlines the strength of your proposition, dispenses with concerns over recall (how could you possibly be easier to remember than via a single word?) and allows you to cut through the noise of everyone shouting for attention with a distilled clarity.

The OWE concept seems to have been put aside and never really expanded upon, but the thinking behind it certainly has resonance. We’re now assaulted on all fronts by those competing for our attention and we’re inundated with information almost 24/7 due to the ubiquity of social media and mobile culture. People have too much choice and not enough time.

The challenge for the communications industry has always been to find ways to combat this and to differentiate themselves. Specsavers attempts to trademark a single word that’s synonymous with their advertising seems like the notion of”One Word Equity” come to fruition.

Presumably the reason that OWE never really caught on properly is that it’s impossible to boil down some brands and businesses to a single word – it’s easy to see how, in some cases, an attempt to define yourself in one word would skip past simplicity and end up back at complexity due to the ambiguity caused by vagueness.

Still, while a fundamentalist dedication to the idea is probably not advisable, as a guiding principle for establishing a clear, concise and easily accessible message for your brand, it’s certainly useful.

Specsavers clearly see the value of two syllables. Perhaps everyone else should’ve started thinking the same way.



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