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Writer Deej Johnson discusses why authors need to extend a brand’s tone… AND deliver its promise
Deej, as well as writing for Brands Untapped and Mojo Nation, you’re also the author of The Little Book of Bananagrams. For anyone that doesn’t know the actual party game, how would you describe it?
Bananagrams is tagged as “the anagram game that drives you bananas!” It’s a fast-pace race to make your own word grid using letter tiles.
Some people refer to it as “Scrabble in a bag” – is that about right?
Good Lord, no! The tiles look similar to those you find in Scrabble, and the game comes in a banana-shaped pouch… So I can see why people say that. But Bananagrams is pretty much the exact opposite of Scrabble…
In what way?
Scrabble is slow. Bananagrams is fast. Scrabble needs a pencil, paper and a board. Bananagrams – no pencil, no paper, no board. Scrabble has a communal word grid… Bananagrams has individual word grids. In Scrabble, the grid stays fixed. In Bananagrams, you change your grids as much as you like. They’re completely different games.
And were you a Bananagrams fan before they raised the subject of you writing a book for them?
Absolutely. I’d been given it as a Christmas present and thought it was terrific. I played it enough to come up with a few ways to gain an advantage… For example it wasn’t at all unusual for me to be physically building a word grid while everyone else was still turning their tiles.
Sounds irritating! And is that why you got on the radar at Bananagrams?
Ha! Well… First, that IS irritating! I won’t argue with you. Second, no – I got on the radar because I’d built a chain-reaction machine that used Bananagrams tiles at the end. That’s quite a long story! Suffice to say, they knew me as a creative consultant, writer and Bananagrams fan in that order.
Anyway, after we met, I wrote a script for a promotional video they needed. Then I think I rewrote their sales tag and maybe their instructions… A few bits here and there. But then it turned out they were supposed to be delivering a branded book of hints and tips on how to play.
It was in the pipeline already?
Right – they’d started it ages before. In fact, they’d already got a manuscript from another writer at that point… Unfortunately, it didn’t have quite enough information on how to play the game better. It also had a lot of word puzzles and exercises, for want of a better word. Just as importantly, the tone of that content didn’t quite match the brand.
In what way?
As a brand, Bananagrams has a very playful tone. So when they envisioned a book on how to play the game, they imagined it being smart, but playful – and a bit knowing, maybe. So the promise of the book was to make you a smarter, faster, better player… But the tone of the writing needed to be far more irreverent; as if being better at the game was almost incidental. Because it’s good to say, “This word helps you get rid of such and such letters…”, but it’s better to say it with a fact about Shakespeare, or a pun about goats or yaks or what have you.
So extending the brand tone into a book had already proven difficult… Generally speaking, how might a writer go about addressing that?
Hmmm. For an established brand, I think the only way to do it is to take a good, long look at the language and tone that a brand already has. Because – all things being equal – a brand’s language should represent something of its values and attitudes, as well as its personality. With Bananagrams, as I recall, their website used words like family, passion, wit, wordplay, silliness… That’s actually quite a lot of clues!
I think I also looked at two briefs. One was from the publisher, Harper Collins, who were licensing the Bananagrams name. That was more about pragmatic stuff: the word count, font size, that sort of thing. The other was from one of the co-inventors, Rena Nathanson. That focused on some ‘must-have’ content… Alternative ways to play, a short history of the game; a little about the game’s other co-inventor – Abe Nathanson – who’d passed away.
And with all that in mind, how did you actually start writing? What was the first thing you wrote down?
Well, there was an obvious starting point: I wrote down all the things that I thought would keep the book’s promise: to make the reader a better player… For instance, I had that irritating way of quickly turning over my tiles at the start of the game. I came up with two or three other ways of doing that. Inevitably, there were some tips on playing a Q without a U… As I say, ways to be a better Bananagrams player.
“It started with delivering on the brand’s promise to the reader…”
To answer your second question, I think the first thing I wrote down was about how it helps to use six, seven or eight tiles in your very first word. So I made a note about the letters I, S, N, E, A, T… IS NEAT. If you combine those with any other letter from the alphabet, you can immediately spell a seven-letter word. I say that… There are two exceptions; it doesn’t work with a Q and it doesn’t work with a Y.
I, S, N, E, A and T – plus almost any other letter – anagrams into a seven-letter word?
CINEAST. Like you, Bill; someone who is a huge fan of the cinema!
JANTIES. It’s the plural of JANTY; a master of arms. I also have the feeling, you know, that it’s now a slang word for panties made of denim… Jeans plus panties – janties… I don’t think that definition’s made it to a dictionary yet, though!
Well, that’s worth knowing! About the letters, I mean, not the denim panties. Either way, it started with promise-keeping stuff…
Right. But all the way through that research and developing the material, I was thinking about how the brand voice would communicate it. So I’d be jotting down one liners, puns, cute anagrams, weird etymologies, fun wordplay… Anything like that. Later, I’d look to dress the useful stuff up with the brand-tone content.
Was there anything that you wanted to include but couldn’t dress up?
Oh, yes… Quite a bit. Some of it got discarded entirely… Some of it I cut right down. So, for instance, I’d asked a mathematician to calculate the statistical odds of picking up the letters I just mentioned – I, S, N, E, A, T – at the start of the game…
The working out he came back with was mind-boggling. To me, it looks like a work of art! Beautiful… But – and to my earlier point – it’s far too ‘heavy’ for the Bananagrams tone of voice. So the statistical odds of those letters coming up are passingly mentioned in the book – it’s around one in four – but the equation itself didn’t make it. It just doesn’t serve the brand tone.
And what about the other way? Something that you thought purely served the brand tone that wasn’t necessarily delivering on the promise?
That’s a very good question, Bill… You could do this professionally! One comes to mind… In the second edition of the book, which had a slightly wider brief, I wanted to say something about steganography. That’s the practice of disguising a message so that it can’t easily be seen. So for fun, I hid – throughout the book – 12 references loosely relating to monkeys. In other words, the book has 12 monkey-related words sliced up and hidden in plain sight… The word GORILLA, for example, is in a sentence referring to “a despairing or ill-at-ease feeling”… The G is at the end of ‘despairing’, then ‘or’ gives you the O, and the R…
None of that helps the promise of the book, and doing the work was absolutely painful. It took hours and hours and hours… And to finish my point, I would add that inviting people to FIND those 12 monkey references hidden in the text doesn’t, I don’t think, particularly typify the brand tone… The bit that typifies the brand tone is that we made the effort to HIDE those 12 monkeys in the text. There’s a big difference. Finding them is mildly fun. But hiding them is so silly, smart and playful… It’s a very Bananagrams thing to do.
The reader doesn’t have to find them to appreciate they’re there… Out of interest, what are some of the other monkey words?
Oh, gosh; I don’t remember so well… CHIMP would’ve been in there. BABOON, PRIMATE… This is all in the second edition, I think.
“There’s an easily made mistake that I think applies to all brand-extension books…”
There’s also one easily made mistake that I think applies to all brand-extension books… The question of who does the foreword. Often, that ends up being someone who’s known in a relevant field, or legitimately famous. Weirdly, though, they often aren’t at all representative of the brand! At times, that means the tone of the foreword is somewhat at odds with the content. I don’t like that incongruence. I think brands should aim to have their foreword writer, their author and their message all line up in service to the book’s content.
Who did the foreword for The Little Book of Bananagrams?
Well there, you see, we got the best of both worlds. Through a very happy twist of fate, and a lot of persistence on the part of Lesley Singleton – who did the PR for Bananagrams – our foreword was by Dame Judi Dench. So – you know – hugely famous, but totally authentic. She’s a very vocal fan of the game. And to my earlier point: absolutely congruent with the values of the brand. She endlessly shows qualities pertaining to family, passion, wit, wordplay, silliness… All those things.
Fantastic. One thing I meant to ask about earlier was the chain reaction machine… How did that lead you to being involved with the brand?
Ah! Yes, I always warn people off this story because it’s quite long! But I was working as a creative consultant on a Christmas project for a video production company. They wanted me to design and build a chain-reaction machine – a Rube Goldberg machine – out of classic toys and games…
A Rube Goldberg machine being an over-the-top contraption? Like the game Mouse Trap?
Exactly. And in fact, that particular video started off with Mouse Trap, then things just got bigger and more complex… In any case, right at the end of this ridiculous machine were some Bananagrams tiles. When we put the video online, we reached out to anyone whose product was in it. In response, the Bananagrams PR person, Lesley, asked to meet me at London Toy Fair about making a how-to-play piece for the game itself. Which we then did: I wrote the script and DMI Productions made the promo.
Got it. So you weren’t on their radar as a writer before that?
No, but when Lesley asked about my background, I mentioned a book I’d written a few years earlier, Magic by Phone. As it’s name might suggest, that was a technical book on how to perform magic tricks over the phone…
Is there a lot of demand for magic tricks over the phone, then?!
I can tell you – quite unequivocally – that there is absolutely no demand for that. The publisher must’ve sold no more than five copies worldwide… Two of them to me. But, as I say, it came up in conversation. And I suspect already having done one book told the team that – aside from being able to write – I must be able to organise things, plan, take directions, hit deadlines, meet a brief… All of that. So when the time came to extend their brand with a book of hints and tips, I’m sure they were more or less thinking, “Who do we know that could do a book? Someone who plays the game? Someone that seems to get the brand tone?”
Great stuff, thank you. Finally then, Deej… As someone who does a lot of the interviews at Brands Untapped, you often sign off by asking: “What’s the one question I could’ve asked you today but didn’t? And what’s the answer?” How would you answer that?
Yes, that’s like a get out of jail free card… No matter how incompetently I’ve done the interview, people still get to say something they want to say! I guess you could’ve asked, “What’s the best thing about having worked on the book?” To which my answer would be: “It led me to work in this industry!” Like the chain reaction machine that brought me to its door, one thing’s led to another in toys and games… I’ve worked on some fantastically interesting projects, interviewed fascinating people, discovered amazing brands, written a couple more books, got a few games on the market – and made some remarkable friends. It’s been terrific, really.”
Fantastic. Deej, thanks for sitting in the other chair!
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