Can you sum up a brand in one word?
tl;dr: oh yes. As long as it's a helluva word.
Hello hello 👋
Happy New go-round-the-sun. I wasn’t due to send a Tone Knob this week – but yesterday I was telling the story you’re about to read to a client, and it occurred to me youze all might like it. (I first shared it in The Notices about a year ago.) It’s a bit different to the usual nerdy dive into a specific tone of voice. But, well, you’ll see the connection. 🙌
It’s the story of the greatest brand value that never was. Saku Tuominen – entrepreneur, HundrED founder, and one-time creative director of Zodiak Entertainment – originally shared it with a friend of mine. I tracked Saku down to check it was true. He said yup, it was. It goes like this🥁🥁🥁:
It’s just over a decade ago. Zodiak Entertainment is one of the largest TV production companies in the world. The boss decides the company needs a new slogan. So Saku and producer Jan Zachrisson were dispatched to give it some thought.
They instinctively knew it shouldn’t be anything conventional. Zodiak was a creative company. It was full of creative people. They made creative things. If they were going to have a slogan to express and inspire their creativity, it needed to be something fresh, original, unexpected.
In fact, they said to themselves, it needed to be like the start of Little Richard’s song ‘Tutti Frutti’, you know? It needs to be a phrase that has a certain A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!
You can probably guess where this is going, can’t you?
Saku and Jan looked each other. That was it. The slogan shouldn’t just be like Little Richard’s scream. Little Richard’s scream should literally be the slogan.
Zodiak Entertainment: A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!
An instant classic. Totally unforgettable. A pure expression of joy and energy. A slogan with no literal meaning yet one that said everything. It was perfect and they knew it.
Saku and Jan were pretty excited. They instantly saw ways in which A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom! could be used:
They envisaged buying the rights to use Little Richard’s scream and ending every Zodiak TV programme with it when they aired. As credits rolled all around the world, viewers would hear a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!
When developing programmes and content, teams would be able to use it as a guiding principle: ‘yes, this idea is good – but does it have a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!?’.
Zodiak could make it a thing that everyone who worked for them would be able to spell it accurately1. And it’d be a brand thing that everyone should use it in full – no abbreviating – every time.
They kept riffing: perhaps every year at Cannes, Zodiak could hold karaoke competitions, where senior leaders would holler their own renditions? In fact, maybe asking people to do a full-throated a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom! could even be part of people’s interviews and appraisals?!
The possibilities were endless. The search was over. Saku and Jan were very pleased with themselves. They took the answer to their boss.
We have found the slogan, they said.
There was silence.
Their boss said:
‘Hmm. Have you got anything else?’
It’s best we don’t dwell on the deflation, disappointment, and the rounds of increasingly bland whittling. Saku reluctantly remembers ‘it ended up as something like “entertaining the world”.
Let’s just let that sink in.
Zodiak Entertainment: ‘Entertaining the world’.
Or Zodiak Entertainment: ‘A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom!’
I think we all feel the loss.
And yet. And yet.
Perhaps it’s for the best.
Because now it’s immortal.
The greatest slogan, mission statement, and brand value that never was.
The word that means nothing and yet says everything.
It’s the gold standard, the Platonic ideal, the tutti frutti of slogans.
Holding forever the potential that one word can say it all.
We can forever ask ourselves: sure, our words are good.
But do they have a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom?
There are, of course, differing opinions over the ‘correct spelling’. Saku says that he and Jan identified the 25 letter ‘awopbopaloobopawopbamboom!’ as the one used by the original songwriting team, so I’m complicating things here a little by using the spelling-with-dashes form generally attributed to Elvis Presley’s cover. But I find the original awopbopaloobopawopbamboom difficult to scan, and I think seeing it as the more spaced-out A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom! makes it easier to ‘sound out in your head’. Anyway, if you fancy heading down this particular rock'n'roll'n'spelling rabbit hole, check out Nick Cohn’s book Awopboppaloobop Alopbamboom: Pop from the Beginning. (See? Another different spelling!) It’s suddenly occurring to me as I finish this ridiculously long footnote that spelling-related factionalism among Zodiak employees could easily have spiralled out of control, created a toxic work culture and unintentionally bringing the company to its knees. Perhaps it's best they went with a blander option after all?