Abstract nominalisation never stops

I discovered recently that the official slogan of the British Olympic team (or ‘Team GB’) is ‘Better never stops’. It’s a strange slogan. Partly because, in the context of the Olympics, ‘better’ isn’t a very satisfactory aspiration – why not go for ‘best’? But mainly because it’s another example of the fashion for abstract nominalisation in brand lines.

I call it abstract nominalisation because I can’t find a better term for it.* It’s the practice of taking an adjective or adverb (‘better’) and turning it into a noun denoting an abstract, intangible quality. Other examples include Sky’s ‘Believe in better’, BUPA’s ‘Helping you find healthy’ and Adidas’ ‘Impossible is nothing’.

According to this post by Nancy Friedman, there are plenty of examples on the other side of the Atlantic, including the bizarre ‘The Do Inside’ by Lenovo and ‘Enjoy the Go’ by Charmin. In those cases, it’s verbs that are being turned into nouns, but the effect is similar.

Inevitably, the word ‘brand’ has come in for the same treatment – I notice Wolff Olins has long been talking about ‘brand’ as an abstract concept. This is a slightly different case, as ‘brand’ is commonly used as a noun. But it’s usually with a definite or indefinite article to refer to a particular brand, rather than Brand as an abstract entity.

While looking into this, I came across a post by copywriter Tom Albrighton talking about the disruptive effect of this type of usage. It’s deliberately intended to trip you up and make you take notice. If BUPA’s line read ‘Helping you be healthy’, it would mean the same thing, but wash straight over you. ‘Helping you find healthy’ strikes you as odd, which is at least a reaction. As Tom suggests, it’s debatable whether being deliberately obtuse is a good brand strategy in the long term, but it’s a strategy of sorts.

However, there are many ways to ‘disrupt’ language in order to get attention. What interests me is why many brands are choosing to be disruptive in this particular way – by turning an adjective into an abstract noun. My theory is that it’s the inevitable linguistic outcome of two competing urges among brand strategists.

The first is what copywriter Mike Reed describes as a ‘portentous straining for a big idea/essence’. A common gambit in any branding brainstorm is to elevate a product offering to the most abstract possible level. If you make chocolate, then you’re making something people enjoy. And if they’re enjoying it, that means they’re happier. So the more chocolate you make, the happier people are. So you’re not really making chocolate, you’re making joy. So Cadbury is no longer about chocolate, it’s about joy.

You can go through the same thought process with any brand. Sky may be a broadcaster, but is that all they are? Isn’t it about broadcasting in a better way? Making people’s lives better? Continually improving things? So they’re not specialists in broadcasting, they’re specialists in ‘Better’.

There is some merit to this way of thinking. It’s a more sophisticated form of the old sales maxim about selling the sizzle, not the sausage. Every brand should be aware of the ultimate emotional benefit it offers and its bigger purpose in the scheme of things. But the obvious danger is that, whatever the nuts and bolts of a particular brand, once you start that process of abstraction, you’re always going to end up at something impossibly big and generic – ‘better’, ‘healthy’, ‘happy’ and so on.

Having arrived at that big, generic territory, you’re then faced with the problem of turning it into a positioning line that sounds differentiated and tangible. Which is where the two competing urges come in. How can you be simultaneously generic and differentiated, abstract and tangible? The answer is to turn an adjective into a noun. It’s a verbal trick that allows you to couch a generic thought in language that, even while it remains generic, at least has the feel of something more distinctive. And it sort of works. When you hear new language, your subconscious instinct is to feel there must be a new thought behind it.

I don’t think the people behind these lines are doing it quite that consciously or cynically – it’s more that this particular strain of brand thinking inevitably leads you to that logical impasse where something has to give. It’s like two tectonic plates rubbing up against each other, and eventually rupturing the language to form a new usage.

That’s my theory anyway. I’m sharing it because of a conversation on Twitter involving @reedwords@acejet170@hollybrocks@davidthedesigna@gray@bull
@daninfragments@neilbaker@tomcopy@linguabrand@lateofnewmills and others, which ended with me promising to write at more length about it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed it, because this blog is ultimately about making people feel more informed and content – hence our new strapline: Blog Yourself HappyTM.

* Linguists’ corner footnote
Enquiries on Twitter have led to a number of suggestions. Nominalisation is the practice of turning a verb or adjective into a noun, so certainly applies here. ‘Nouning’ or ‘nounification’ are more conversational versions of the same thing. 

However, those terms don’t quite seem to cover what’s happening in ‘Better never stops’ and ‘Believe in better’. Nominalisation of adjectives happens all the time in language – we talk about supporting the reds, for example. But this is an unconventional type of nominalisation that feels like it needs an extra or alternative descriptor. There's something about the fact that it involves an abstract usage – not just 'the better' of two options, but 'Better' as an entity. The closest parallel is the way we talk about believing in 'good' and 'evil', which are nominalised adjectives, but so common that they don't strike us as odd any more.

Others have suggested ‘modifying adjective for an elliptical noun’ and hanging comparative – in other words, ‘better’ is essentially still acting as an adjective for a missing noun that isn’t explicitly there, but which we read in anyway. For example, when we say Of the two runners, the faster wonfaster’ is still acting as an adjective for a missing 'runner that we read in anyway. So, with Believe in better it’s really ‘Believe in better [things]’. But I’m not sure about this – especially when it comes to ‘Better never stops’ – what would be the notional missing noun there? It seems to me what it really means is ‘Better [as a state of mind in which one permanently strives to improve] never stops [by its nature].

There are also the terms reification and hypostatisation, which refer to the practice of treating an abstract concept as though it were real – which is certainly the case with ‘Helping you find healthy’. Maybe we’re dealing with a hypostatised abstract nominalisation. 

I haven't fully understood what I'm writing for at least the last four paragraphs.