I’ve long admired James Dyson’s determination. That refusal to give up on his now iconic cyclonic separation approach, despite rejections from all major manufacturers and distributors, is one of the great stories of manufacturing and design innovation. His breakthrough technology was marginalised because it would disrupt the established cleaner bag market. It was only because Dyson had the tenacity and imagination required to manoeuvre around some very substantial hurdles that we customers can benefit from a new and better type of product. Cleaner bags now seem like a dusty relic.
I was expecting to enjoy a reminder of this pioneering spirit when I came across an ad for Dyson’s new Ball vacuum cleaner, in Saturday’s Guardian weekend magazine. The ad featured a large photograph of the handsome Dyson Ball, the headline ‘Engineering Matters’, an introductory standfirst of one paragraph, and then six blocks of copy picking up on separate product points. How refreshingly matter-of-fact this looks, I thought (glossing over the rather peculiar terms ‘Drawing Limited Edition’ and ‘Drawing Number 10129/227’ in the bottom left area of the page).
The first sentence of the introduction read as follows: ‘The limited edition Dyson Ball™ machine celebrates the fascination of engineering.’ At this point I had to put the magazine down and begin the long job of wearying out what this was intended to mean. I understood the pretentious ‘limited edition’ bit, and I rather liked the use of ‘machine’, but I was confounded by the idea that a vacuum cleaner should or could celebrate ‘the fascination of engineering’. It’s an odd thought, in the same way that it would be odd for a product to celebrate people’s enjoyment of great music or appreciation of fine wine. It’s great engineering, music and wine that should be celebrated, surely? And isn’t it the human maker who’s doing the celebrating, not the machine?
Sentence two is bizarre: ‘Dyson spent three years questioning, testing and developing the advanced cyclones and a vacuum cleaner riding on a ball.’ First, let us imagine Sir James questioning an advanced cyclone. What language does one use for such a conversation? Cyclonic? And then there’s the delightful idea of a vacuum cleaner riding on a ball, no doubt surrounded by washing machines on ponies, dishwashers on skateboards and an ironing board on a unicycle.
Sentence three declares: ‘The result is an entirely new type of steering mechanism’. But how does the advanced cyclone affect the steering? And why is the clinching third sentence of the main copy about a steering mechanism, rather than a much bigger, benefit-led idea that captures your interest? Personally, I’m not in the market for a new type of steering mechanism, but I am about to buy a new vacuum cleaner.
The six blocks of body copy are littered with conceptual culs-de-sac. ‘It took 5 years and 5,217 prototypes to develop cyclone vacuum technology – with no loss of suction’. With no loss of suction when – over those 5 years? What or whom experienced no loss of suction? Here’s another: ‘The motorised brush bar attaches to the machine through a yoke designed using FEA – a methodology balancing usage with strength. The inclined angle of the yoke geometry is configured to increase the steering ratio…’ What does FEA stand for? How many potential customers really care about yoke geometry? And isn’t it the case that – rather than owning the qualities of usage with strength – the FEA design methodology helps create good usability and strength in the attachments of the machine? And what of that copy in the bottom left area? ‘Drawing Limited Edition’ refers to the featured product, so is ‘Drawing Number 10129/227’ the illustrated product’s limited edition number or an allusion to the technical drawing-style layout of the ad?
I could go on. I will. ‘Technology has been concentrated’. ‘The articulation was tested 723,000 times’. ‘To test durability the machine was slammed into concrete 5,302 times…’ And that was pretty much the experience I felt I was having as a reader of this nonsense.
So why has the tone of voice of a successful, inventive, characterful, friendly brand come to this? Yes, it makes sense to draw out the clever, well-tested, well-designed elements of this machine. Yes, talking about engineering design helps define a unique position for the brand at a time when many household products talk blandly about usability and price (an interesting argument for features over benefits, perhaps). But if you set out to celebrate engineering you must ensure your copy is brilliantly engineered. The ideas must make sense. The thoughts must connect. The jargon should lead to illumination, not frustration. The benefits should flow from the conversation, not remain obscured by self-satisfied technical babble.
Engineering does matter, and it is wonderful to know that a British manufacturing company has been breaking new ground and commercialising its products so successfully. I just hope this ad doesn’t signal a loss of verve and clarity within the Dyson brand. The copy seems cold and somewhat self-regarding. But, most of all, it feels distinctly customer-unfriendly. I can’t imagine James Dyson talking to me in this way. What’s going on?