A new brand for word geeks – it’s Wordnik.com

It’s very seldom I come across a new tool on the Web that jumps straight to the top of my bookmark lists, discount but it happened this morning. I got a tip from Charles Hodgson’s latest post on podicitonary.com on a funky new site called Wordnik.com that had my fast-twitch bookmarking reflexes firing almost instantly. wordnik

How does it DIFFER?

What’s so impressive, drug and how is it better than – or at least different from – any of the excellent reference tools out there? UrbanDictionary.com for example has become an indispensible reference for new slang and jargon. Don’t know what a “beauty booger” is? You’re in luck!

But in particular, how does wordnik compare to the granddaddy of them all: Dictionary.com? I have to admit that as a long-time word nerd (Scrabble, reading the OED for fun, the whole works) and professional brand namer, I’m a big fan of Dictionary.com. It has evolved over the past few years from providing a single set of standard dictionary definitions to providing a huge laundry list of definitions from a cross section different dictionaries, including specialized financial and medical searches, as well as etymology, suggested related searches, and cross references to encyclopedia and thesauri.

Oh and advertising. Loads and loads of advertising. Just scroll down through this definition of the word “brand” to see how exhaustive and exhausting this approach can become. So what could be missing? Well, the simplicity and focus of the early days for one. But more importantly, with this “stream of noise” approach, what gets lost is context – a sense of how the word works in the real world.

That’s where Wordnik comes in.

Screenshot of the wordnik results I got for the word "brand"
Screenshot of the wordnik results I got for the word "brand"

Check out this search on the word “brand” and compare it to the Dictionary.com approach. The first thing you’ll notice is the clean layout, with everything in clearly marked containers. You’ll also see that the first item is not the definition, but examples of the word in the context of an actual sentence. And quite often from unconventional sources like Twitter.

Wordnik claims to have a growing database of more than 130 million examples to go with its 1.7 million words. This actually gets closer to one intent of the first, and still one of the easiest to read dictionaries, Samuel Johnson’s 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language which promises: “a faithful record of the language people used”.

Check out the Wordnik approach to the phrase “beauty booger” – which doesn’t have a formal definition, and which sends Dictionary.com into a fishtail. But which Wordnik allows you to piece together from Twitter usage.

Or try Wordnik for the word fishtail. You’ll see that they also search Flickr tags, and a quick scan shows me that the term “fishtail” can refer to a kind of braided ponytail, something motorcycle-related, and the name of a peak in Nepal – none of which appear at Dictionary.com.

Where Wordnik needs work.

Okay, it ain’t perfect. That’s why they’ve stamped “Beta” all over it – or as they put it in their welcome e-mail “Because we are still in beta, there are almost certainly hiccups and other infelicities.”  In particular, the dictionary definitions themselve quite often fall flat in capturing the whole range of senses for a word.

For example, when you search “branding” the only definition that comes up is “the act of stigmatizing” – which totally misses the sense of the term that I’ve built my business on. On the plus side, there is a bit of Wiki-ness to the Wordnik site, so even if I wasn’t able to add a definition myself, I was able to submit the following comment:

What’s missing here is the modern business sense of branding, which I define as “the process of organizing a company’s products, messages, and corporate identity to help consumers understand who they are and what they do.”

Will this help? Hard to say. It will depend on whether a real human on the other side sees it and does soemthing about it (which is going to be a lot harder when more than 23 people have looked up the word). I’d love to see an open wiki environment moderated by fellow wordgeeks, but that requires a critical mass of users to filter out the type of self-serving editing that I’d love to do on the “branding” entry.

A quick word on the name and logo

Very quick actually: great. Nicely understated on both. It will be interesting to see if the noun-weighted name ever becomes a verb like “Google” – as in ” Wait a moment while I Wordnik that”. Or to use the Twitter / Tweet model: “let me Wordneek that.” Or perhaps I overstretch my point (for the first time ever).

So to sum up: Wordnik is cool for word nerds, and very useful for us in our branding work. With some more tuning and opening the door to deeper user contributions, it could become a killer app for everyone else too.

More coffee with a conscience – Bridgehead opens 10th location

Signage and store design nicely blend warm colours with very contemporary elements. The stores fit equally well into old stone heritage buildings or brand new condo buildings (as here).
Signage and store design nicely blend warm colours with very contemporary elements. The stores fit equally well into old stone heritage buildings or brand new condo buildings (as here).

My favourite coffeeshop brand Bridgehead has just opened a shiny, fragrant new 10th location a short walk from my house. And boy am I excited!

And they’ve done it in bold style – located right across the street from a Starbucks, and just 500 metres West of another Bridgehead in the Westboro area of Ottawa. And I managed to both 1) get a pre-opening tour from store manager Mia and chain co-owner Tracey Clarke, and 2) score the first cup of coffee sold to the public on Friday morning. 

Okay so we’ve established that I’m kind of a fan-boy for Bridgehead. But as a brand strategy guy, I also think there’s a lot brand managers can learn from their success.

Top ten brand lessons to learn from Bridgehead:

Coffeeshop manager Mia Eriksson and Bridgehead chain owner Tracey Clarke
Coffeeshop manager Mia Eriksson and Bridgehead chain owner and local brand hero Tracey Clarke.
  1. Great product consistently delivered – yes the coffee is fairly traded, organic, and shade grown, but Bridgehead puts great care into the quality, variety, and freshness of the product. The rest of my top ten list would matter not a bit if the beverages, treats, and lunch items weren’t top notch. But they are.

2. Great cause with personal passion – Tracey Clarke got into the coffee business after visiting Central America in the 80’s and realizing that the local people were producing incredible coffee, but they couldn’t get any of it because of a) export monopolies, b) prohibitive prices, and c) shamefully low prices for their beans.

So she and a partner bought the original Bridgehead brand from a well-meaning charity that was way over its head trying to run even one  retail store. Then they turned it around, and within a few short years built Bridgehead into the quality coffee brand in Ottawa.

3. Local ownership – I’m an Ottawa boy; they are an Ottawa-based chain, so the dollars you spend here go right back into the Ottawa economy… as opposed to Seattle for example. All good. We need more like this!

4. Committed to walkable urban neighbourhoods – despite the obvious pull from suburban areas, the chain has continued to place new stores in traditional main-street areas throughout Ottawa. And as one of the founders of the Wellington West BIA, I can tell you they have been very supportive and active in street-level retail initatives and issues.

5. Really nice people – the founders are level-headed, approachable folks, and their approach has attracted strong staff in the stores. Employees tend to be older, better educated, and “hipper” than in the other shops around town.

Here's me at the new Bridgehead withthe first cup of coffee served to an outsider and the all-important first Internet ticket.
Here’s me with that first cup of coffee – and the receipt to prove it.

6. Great spaces – real attention to the usability of space. Nice blend of lounging, working, and conversation spaces, Bridgehead has been refining the blend with each new store they build, creating a noticeably more “human” place than the average Starbucks or Second Cup.

7. Family friendly – because of the demographics of many of their host neighbourhoods (and the fact that most of  the management have young children), they’ve proven much more open to non-coffee drinkers in the stroller set, plus toddlers and school-aged children. Creates a lot of noise at times, but on the weekends, my kids love to visit.

8. Business-friendly – after some wrestling over the prevalence of laptop “campers” in some early stores, Bridgehead has struck a nice balance between providing “third spaces” for professionals like me to plug in, meet with a colleague or client, and enjoy free WiFi, but with a one-hour limit.

9. Strong retail branding – their online and social-networking presence could use some definite work, but in terms of creating a brand experience outside and inside their stores, they are hard to beat. This is due to the active involvement of the founders in every aspect of store design, so it will inevitably become increasingly challenging to sustain as they grow further without more formal “policy” work. But the fundamentals are very strong.

10. NO ADVERTISING(!) – this may sound strange on a “branding” blog, but remember this site is about brand strategy, not advertising, so I don’t make my money from media buys or column inches purchased. Bridgehead has managed to accomplish all of the above without spending a penny on traditional advertising. Again, this may have to change as they grow, but by reaching out through social-justice oriented circles, supporting like-minded causes, lots of “in-kind” community contributions, and to reiterate, being incredibly smart about their product and retail fundamentals,  they have succeeded by DIFFERING not by TELLING people they were different.