Thursday, November 13, 2008

Messing with Words

Waiting for a flight several years ago at Dallas-Fort Worth International, I wander into an airport souvenir shop. With time to kill and a few dollars to burn, it isn't long before the eyes of Texas are staring back at me in the form of a coffee cup.

The message is loud and clear.

"Don't Mess with Texas"

Right away, I'm taken aback by the spirit of bravado. Was this some kind of threat? The words seemed to be packing their own kind of heat, with a lazy drawl dripping from the lip of that menacing mug. As the message sinks in, I'm under the immediate impression there will be dire consequences if any hombre is so foolish as to look the wrong way or cross any native of America's 28th state.

Weeks later, I discover the real story.

And further evidence of the human behaviour-shaping power of words.

In December 1985, a bumper sticker bearing the words "Don't Mess With Texas" began appearing on pickup trucks across the Lone Star State. There was no explanation. Just four words with a small red, white, and blue Texas flag.

Fast-forward more than 20 years to today and the longest-running public service campaign in Texas is also the most successful anti-litter campaign in history, reducing litter on highways by an astonishing 72 percent. The media campaign, premiered with a television advertisement, at the 50th annual Cotton Bowl, January 1, 1986, featuring Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Since then, numerous musicians, athletes, celebrities and other famous Texans have appeared in "Don't Mess with Texas" radio and television ads including Warren Moon, Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson, George Foreman , and Leann Rimes.

More than its immediate success at reducing litter, however, the slogan became a Texas cultural icon and the slogan adopted for general use. "Don’t Mess with Texas" has also earned a spot among the best advertising slogans ever with a plaque on the Madison Avenue Walk of Fame and a place in the Advertising Hall of Fame.

The words we choose to describe our businesses, our brands and how behaviour can be influenced can have gi-normous repercussions - provided they are chosen wisely and handled with care. The first time that became apparent to me was back in the spring of the year 2000, on a 5-hour hockey road trip to Cape Breton. Sitting at the back of the Tim Hortons All-Stars bus, Robbie Forbes hands me a copy of "Secret Formulas of the Wizard of Ads". I soaked it up from start to finish, hooked by the gripping effect of Chapter 1 where author Roy H. Williams articulates why words are electric and should be chosen for the emotional voltage they carry.

"Words start wars and end them, create love and choke it, bring us to laughter, joy and tears. Words cause men and women to willingly risk their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor. Our world as we know it, revolves on the power of words"

What are the words your brand revolves on?

Will the readers of your website discover hollow, polite or sluggish words? Do the people who work with your organization pepper prospects and customers with self-promoting hype, pomposity and puffery?

Or are you open to the possibilities that await by discovering fresh, active and vivid words to electrify and illuminate your brand?

The careful choice of four simple words has inspired millions of Texans to keep 261,797 square miles free of trash.

Have you chosen the right words to unleash the energy of your brand?

"You can go to hell ... and I'll go to Texas" DAVY CROCKETT
p.s... If you're a fan of eloquent phrasing and impeccable writing, The Wizard of Ads trilogy and Roy's weekly memo are highly recommended by TSB. Visit or

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