Hello hello 👋
How’s you? Why is it still January? Is implicit egotism really at work in brand naming? These, and many other questions, won’t be answered here. Instead, we’re going to revel in the glory of Puccino’s coffee’s tone of voice 🔥
Puccino’s is a chain of little coffee shops found in railway stations in the UK. They have something of a cult following for their absurdist humour. In fact, mention Puccino’s to most British copywriters and they’ll invariably blurt ‘stupid little biscuit!’1 Here’s a pile of them. (Stupid little biscuits, not copywriters.)
That’s classic Puccino’s: taking an invisible moment and making An Actual Thing out of it by adding a few words of self-deprecating daftness. The sugar sachets get the same treatment:
In fact, the sugar sachets feature a lot. Often giving you terrible life advice or suggesting you try dumb things. Here are some older ones.
And the cups. Of course, the cups:
The ‘pretending to be Italian’ theme is a running gag. (I remember an advert in a trade magazine, inviting people to become Puccino’s franchisees that started: ‘Hi, I’m Larry, the fictional head of Puccino’s…’.)
Anyway. Here’s more cups. They do a new batch every year:
Notice the little arrows. They turn up a lot. The voice of Puccino’s has something in common with the ‘off-stage’ commentary you get in old-skool comics like The Beano.
Aside: I first encountered Puccino’s in the early 2000s. My morning train passed a station where a faded kiosk sign read: FREE CRYING WOODEN FREAKOID WITH EVERY MILLIONTH COFFEE. One evening I even got off the train at that stop, just to check it out. But enough about me. First, some half-baked zeitgeist commentary:
Now, posters. A common theme is faint bemusement at their own products:
…sometimes directly on the products themselves:
Oh! Water! Check this out. I saw this about 10 years ago, and I still refer to mineral water in this way:
Another theme is making customers the butt of jokes. It’s often done so stealthily you almost don’t notice. Like how these two sachets force you to identify as either a ‘commoner’ or a ‘snob’:
And, well, this is kind of savage. Notice also the meta-commentary about brands and branding:
A key thing to know about Puccino’s is that it’s all created by just one person: Jim Smith. (There’s loads more examples on his website). For nigh-on 20 years, he’s been doing pretty much everything: the writing. The lettering. The graphics. Often he’ll spot the opportunity to add something daft while doing the design. You might also recognise Jim’s Waldo Pancake merch which was everywhere a few years back. And he’s also the author of the brilliant Barry Loser children’s books2.
So, me and Jim had a Zoom. I asked him loads of questions and he was very funny. As a result, my notes are indecipherable. As a result, I can only tell you three things Jim said:
How it all began thing: Jim had made a life-size cut-out MDF Santa for outside his dad’s lighting shop. The owner of Puccino’s saw it and asked him to make similar things for his small chain of coffee shops. That led to a stint being a sort of in-house art department, creating art and signs and stuff, which turned into putting words on things, which evolved into a brand.
Jim’s origin story thing: As a child, Jim was obsessed with Coca-Cola cans. He had a set of them which he carried round in a metal case, carefully protected with cotton wool. He particularly liked all the little bits of writing on them. Sounds like he fulfilled his destiny, tbh.
Insightful thing he said about ‘wackaging’ thing: ‘It’s when the products start talking to you in the first person, that’s when it usually goes wrong. But it’s only ‘wackaging’ if it’s not funny enough. Some people are annoyed by the Puccino’s stuff. I’m not trying to annoy people, I’m just trying to make people laugh. OK, maybe sometimes I’m trying to annoy people. A bit.’
Three things to love and learn from:
First up, this is real handle with care territory isn’t it: meta-commentary; making the jokes at the expense of your products and customers; deadpan humour that often feels like a private joke for its own amusement. It really shouldn’t work. But it does, brilliantly. Because Jim Smith is a comedy genius and coffee shop paraphernalia is his canvas. So, please, don’t try and copy the tone, learn from the other stuff:
Embrace serendipity. It all happened by accident. But it still took someone at Puccino’s to spot the potential and get out of the way and let it happen. Surprisingly often I see clients walking past interesting stuff that’s right under their noses. Check under your nose.
Put words on it. Find your smallest, most unpromising thing – product, bit of packagaing, small print, whatever, and make it An Actual Thing by giving it a message to deliver. It doesn’t need to be funny.
Don’t stop. Did you count how many sugar sachets there were? Dozens of them over the years. Part of the joy of Puccino’s is in the sheer volume of stuff – you know there’ll be new jokes every time you visit. Too often, brands will write something funny or interesting on packaging… and then not change it for years. Commit. Every reprint is a chance for fresh words.
Before we wrap, I just wanna say a) thanks for being a subscriber! 🙌 (Do you also subscribe to my other newsletter, The Notices?) If you like Tone Knob, please forward it to someone you think might like it. And b) Know of a brand you think should feature? Hit reply. See you next time. 👋
Inspired by the Stupid Little Biscuit, a bloke called Ben Sword wrote the ‘Stupid Little Biscuit Song’. It has 5 views on YouTube and contains the line ‘Puccino’s may not be / the most famous coffee shop in the world / but you always get a biscuit / a stupid little biscuit’.