There’s a fine line between playful brand language that makes even mundane messages memorable, and doomed attempts at humour. Has my local train company, West Midlands Railway, struck the wrong note?

When West Midlands Railway took over operating my local train services in December, among the first things they rebranded were on-board information posters. 

The posters caught my attention because it was clear someone had given thought to the language used, and I snapped some photos. (Sorry for the shaky phone camerawork).

At first, I was pretty impressed. Here’s the headline on the obligatory poster about how passengers are expected to behave:

I like it. The phrase “code of conduct” tells you simply and clearly what this poster is all about. And there’s a nice playful use of railway terminology in the subheading: “All the lines you shouldn’t cross.”

Underneath, the different points are made succinctly in everyday language:

“Train tracks are dangerous places, so no trespassing please.” That says it all, doesn’t it?

Much better than the sort of thing you’d typically expect – something like: “It is a criminal offence to trespass on the railway. For your own safety, you are advised to use the bridges and underpasses provided.”

So far, so good. But I wasn’t so sure about the next poster I spotted, this time telling people not to smoke on the train:

For starters, that’s not how you spell snorkelling – it has a double letter l  in British English. It’s a basic mistake that many people won’t forgive, but setting that aside I still have reservations about this piece of writing.

The reference to bog snorkelling seems just too forced – as if the writer was desperately searching for something wacky to say here. It also seems to ape the style of Virgin Trains’ now-famous toilet sign and announcement:

“Please don't flush nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, gum, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex’s sweater, hopes, dreams or goldfish down this toilet.”

Virgin’s words are amusing the first time you read or hear them, and have attracted lots of attention. Quite a few people have even posted videos of the toilet announcement online. But I know of regular travellers who now find it pretty irritating.

Back to bog snorkelling. Imagine you’re pressed up against this poster on an overcrowded and delayed train into Birmingham, a fairly typical experience on this line over the last few years. How would reading this forced phrase yet again make you feel – especially when you're no doubt one of the vast majority of people who wouldn’t even consider lighting up on a train?

“We like to think we have a sense of humour,” it says underneath. Maybe I’m cynical, but I tend to think that people who declare so openly they have a sense of humour usually don’t. And in this line, the brand is focussing on itself, instead of the customer.

The rest of the poster is fine, but by this point I was less sure about the direction things were heading in. And then I saw a third poster:

The headline seems designed to try and sound clever. And, again, it’s all about the brand. As a passenger, my reaction to the headline is: “Well, good for you. How does that help me?” The answer is buried in the body text. The benefit to the customer could be summed up as: “Get the latest news on your journey 24/7 by following us on Twitter or Facebook.”

This would certainly be clearer than the final line as it stands, which is presumably missing the word here. “We're here 24 hours…” would make more sense.

Brand language can be a useful tool to help businesses make a connection with their customers. And it’s nice to see my new local train company giving tone of voice some consideration. But the attention to detail seems lacking – perhaps because they’ve got too caught up in trying to be funny. 

The lesson for business writers is that comedy is a very hard thing to do well. For me, it’s like a peak time train out of Birmingham New Street – something best avoided.

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