Baby talkers. We’ve all met them. People – actually, mostly women (sorry sisters!) – who think it’s cute to talk to other adults about biccy-wiccies and tummy pops (farts, for the non-native baby speaker) without even a whiff of irony. People whose bedrooms, you imagine, are lonely shrines to Hello Kitty, whose biros are trimmed with pink marabou and whose sole goal in life is to be a Disney princess.
Not people you really want to spend a lot of time with. And yet a growing number of brands seem to think we do. Why else do they indulge in baby talk?
I believe, it’s in an effort to be friends. But is that a friend or a “fwend”? During a few of this month’s branding workshops, the idea of being friendly has raised its cheerful head a few times. Friendliness has an obvious appeal. But defining exactly what ‘friendly’ means exposed a gulf between interpretations. Our clients meant being understanding. Or polite. Or just simply liked. Not one of them wanted to position themselves as cutesy or babyish.
Some say Innocent are guilty for this friendly, baby-talking boom. That their now ubiquitous tone of voice is to blame. But surely Innocent has more right to sound innocent than the rest? For me, it’s the pale imitators that should be in the dock. The boring brand-waggoners, whose brand strategy hasn’t been thought through, beyond “We want people to love us!”.
In an attempt to be friendly, brands often use sickeningly naïve language and grammatically suspect straplines that make them sound cretinous rather than creative. Sometimes, hunting for lunch on the high street can be like walking into a room full of salesmen, naked but for their nappies and cooing through their dummies. Just a teeny bit creepy, and certainly not going to get me salivating for a sandwich.
A few at least use imagery to create some sort of contrast or conflict. Because if childlike chumminess isn’t paired into an interesting conflict, you end up with Shirley Temple rather than Marilyn Monroe. See how long you can stand this click here for Shirley, compared to this click here for Marilyn. Both will appeal to connoisseurs of silliness, but one is definitely more entertaining. (How often do you get to see Marilyn pole dancing in a fisherman’s jumper for a load of boys in beige terry toweling?)
One guy who is getting his conflicts right is designer, writer and illustrator Jim Smith. Responsible for the chatty, chalk-dry wit on Puccino’s coffee cups, he’s also produced a collection of everyday things that talk to you in his definitely smiley but also slightly sarky TOV. Waldo Pancake stands out as proof that you can be friendly and have an authentic – and adult – attitude.
When I think in terms of brand personality, I’d much rather spend time with Waldo Pancake than many others who want to get matey. I’ve had friends who occasionally use baby voices when they want something, but it’s not a trait I have much time for. It’s their not-so-subtle way of manipulating, and I guess it must work for them to keep doing it. Which is why brands do it too. It gets dark when you consider who’s the baby in the relationship – perhaps instead they think it’s me? That I want to be taken back to my infancy in order to feel warm, good and special? I can’t decide. I’m happy to buy into friendliness, but that doesn’t mean I’m OK with infantile.
So that’s what I want. More friendly brands that don’t goo-goo and gurgle at me, but talk like a clever, characterful, mildly outrageous friend. A friend who makes me laugh and sounds like a real human being. Who speaks to me as a woman, if they must, but who speaks to me as a grown up first of all. Or it’s the naughty step for them, permanently.
Written by Becky Jacobs