A trip to Butlin’s is a funny old thing. On the one hand, it’s guaranteed to keep kids occupied with a frenzied dawn-to-dusk round of consuming and expending sugar-based calories. On the other, it can leave you in a state of profound sensory frazzlement, staring hollow-eyed across a frosty chalice of Stella and wondering if someone – a Redcoat perhaps – might be able to come and put you to bed.
As a sophisticated marketing professional, one obviously seeks out deeper intellectual stimulation than live ‘Superslam’ wrestling and 2p pushers can hope to provide. So on my recent trip to the Skegness holiday camp, I spent a bit of time checking out the copy to be found around the site.
Big site, many tones
With tone of voice, the ideal is that every time a brand speaks, it sounds like the same person. That’s relatively easy if all you’ve got to sort out is four flavours of crisps and a five-page website. But as I’ve written before, it’s a different matter for a major leisure site, where all sorts of people have got good reason to be producing written stuff, all the time, on their own initiative. Word-herding on that scale is time-consuming and expensive – and, on the nuts-and-bolts outskirts of the brand, probably only marginally beneficial anyway.
Like the experience, Butlin’s tone of voice a bit of a mixed bag. It has a ‘high’ register, rooted in its long heritage, that it uses for its leading marketing messages, and some of it trickles down to some of its other comms, with varying results. Let’s have a look.
Command and control
Starting at the bottom, Butlin’s basic informational and instructional signs are written in a standard formal tone.
Here, words like ‘zone’, ‘wish’ and ‘designated’ put us firmly in the realm of the officious bureaucrat. Since you wouldn’t obey a policeman who was wearing a red nose, I don’t have a problem with this, and I wouldn’t go down the road of making grumpy signs sound chirpy. But I would take it down a level or two (‘want to smoke’, ‘signposted area’), if only so more people got the message.
One level up from that, we get some content that is partly formal, partly branded. Mixing command-and-control content and cheery tone produces awkward, passive-aggressive undertones, and the result sounds rather like a middle-class parent trying to control kids on holiday without spoiling the mood.
Cheese and candy floss
When the message is nicer, the copy is free to be nicer too. With the deliberately old-fashioned ‘say cheese!’, we’re beginning to get closer to the nostalgic feel of the main brand.
Butlin’s most elevated tone is infused with the spirit of Billy Butlin’s original mission. He wanted to offer working people a week’s holiday for a week’s wages, and there was much more emphasis on salubrity and recreation than there is today. Today, that hearty vitality isn’t really present in the customer experience, but it still lives on in words.
I don’t know whether this is taken directly from the golden age of Butlin’s, or skilfully written to reflect it. The original Butlin’s huts really were nestled in rose gardens, and the tannoy announcer really did say ‘Goodnight campers’. Admittedly, ‘rediscover your sparkle’ sounds suspiciously modern, and the ‘candy floss clouds’ are maybe a bit twee. But overall, I think this is a pretty nifty way to fill some otherwise dead space with some lovely words.
Our true intent is all for your delight
At the apex of Butlin’s brand language stands its slogan: ‘Our True Intent is All for Your Delight’. It’s not massively prominent on marketing materials (popping up on the blog rather than the homepage, for instance), but appears a lot around the Skegness site.
The line was originally cribbed from a fairground organ by Billy Butlin himself – unlike you, he was unaware that it’s from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act V, Scene i):
That origin obviously makes the usage centuries old, but it also works as an evocation of a more recent bygone Britain, somewhere between the 1890s and the 1950s. The ebb-and-flow iambic rhythm, the unusual language and the sheer length (eight whole words!) give a sense of relaxation, of stepping back to a time when the pace of life was bit slower.
It’s an absolutely magnificent line, and even though retaining it is ‘just’ sticking with the status quo, that decision is still quite brave in its way. After all, the Butlin’s brand has been refreshed, and the sites themselves thoroughly remodelled, so there must have been some discussion about whether or not to keep the tagline. (For a comparison, check out my history of Sainsbury’s slogans: even the formidable ‘Good food costs less…’ bit the bag after three decades.)
What’s more, ‘Our true intent…’ is radically out of step with the way most leisure brands talk these days. It could have fallen flat, but in my opinion it gives a powerful point of differentiation. And I’m glad that Butlins has had the courage to uphold its heritage, rather than updating to ‘We just want to please you’ – or, more likely, a hashtaggable nugget like ‘Find your sunny’.
Aspiration and reality
The only problem with the ‘true intent’ vibe is that it doesn’t quite reflect the actual Butlin’s experience, which (to one camper at least) can seem like being imprisoned in an out-of-town shopping mall. Vending machines confront you at every turn, the food is prepackaged beige and the racket of ‘entertainment’ is never-ending. The facility-less beach lies beyond a forbidding steel gate, and Billy’s rejuvenating tennis courts and boating lakes are long gone, replaced with arcades, cinemas and a Burger King.
Does it matter if Butlin’s is trying to give itself airs? I suppose that depends on whether it’s OK for a brand to reflect aspirational values over reality. Do you gain customers by doing that? Or is it perhaps about gaining a different sort of customer, rather than more of the same? And might that alienate the people who already choose you?
As a poncy middle-class interloper in a mainly working-class milieu, I appreciated the retro and Shakespearian touches to Butlin’s brand language. With the best will in the world, I’m not sure how relevant they are to those of my fellow campers whose true intent was all for chips, e-fags and cider from 10am. But without those verbal flourishes, Butlin’s would sound just like Pontin’s: a doughty leisure factory with not much personality beyond some cheerful red and yellow. So I’m glad Butlin’s is still aiming to give life to its brand through words, regardless of who’s actually listening.