The case against capitalizing
Bigger isn’t always better when making your writing stand out.
Editing content is as much about the small, finicky tweaks as it is about the large, structural changes. The goal is to bring clarity and focus to communication—two essential qualities for brands trying to capture consumers’ limited attention spans. In that sense, most edits in English are created equal; we all follow fairly standard playbooks of grammar and usage, with only a few variations across style guides and countries.
But there’s one kind of edit that drives us bonkers.
When applied strategically, capitalization signals to your readers to pay attention: the all-new MacBook Pro, the limited-time Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Tacos.
A word or phrase we’re used to seeing in lowercase suddenly takes on importance and gravity; a product name you’ve never seen before jumps out at you and wedges itself in your brain.
But excessive capitalization gives off an unnatural feeling, where it’s clear the writer is trying too hard to get your attention by using tricks instead of substance.
Take this example, the kind of which you’ve no doubt seen appended to the bottom of Instagram posts or on the backs of shampoo bottles: “All of our Beauty Products are 100% Natural, made from Certified Organic ingredients and always Crafted with Care.” Such overbaked capitalization can turn even the most straightforward sentence into marketing-ese, breaking the suspension of disbelief that is so important to keeping your audience engaged.
The handmaiden to excessive capitalization is inconsistency. The more words you capitalize, the more opportunities there are for your marketing team to make a mistake. While a house style guide can help you keep your product names, taglines, titles and other capitalized ephemera consistent, each addition to your guide means more time is needed to check—and then double-check—that the word was styled correctly.
That’s why, as a general rule, here at Goods & Services Branding, we advise our clients to avoid capitalizing anything other than what is strictly necessary.
Ok bigshot, what should I capitalize, then?
Your grade-school teachers were right about one thing: you should capitalize the first word of every sentence. Likewise, proper nouns should always be capitalized. For native English speakers, capitalization for many proper nouns is intuitive—most of us could name a few obvious proper noun types, such as a person’s name, geographic place names or published works. But The Chicago Manual of Style (our house style guide) lists an astonishing 17 different categories broken up into another 42 sub-categories, from medical terms to maritime vessels to legal cases, with all kinds of exceptions and suggestions for each.
It can be tough to keep all the proper nouns straight, but, thankfully, we’re talking about brand writing here, not an English lit dissertation.
What about job titles?
Let’s focus on one area of contention rife with confusion (and common to business communications): job titles.
The Chicago Manual of Style only capitalizes the titles of military, religious, civil and professional roles when used as a title followed immediately by the name of a specific person: “Premier Doug Ford,” but “Doug Ford, the Ontario premier.” It is, by the Manual’s editors’ own admission, a narrow approach to capitalization, but one that is relatively simple to apply.
Business writing tends to be a little more relaxed, with many organizations capitalizing not just senior management positions, but also the names of every job category under their employ, in every context. Doing so can be an effective tool in shaping perception of public-facing roles—Subway’s Sandwich Artists, Apple’s Genius Bar—when there is a conscious effort to make such roles a central part of an overall brand position.
More typically, though, businesses capitalize their assorted “Customer Excellence Teams” or “Product Gurus” without much thought nor many resources to properly support these quasi sub-brands. While these tepid attempts at creative naming can occasionally yield a useful internal function, capitalization is too often used as a shortcut to credibility.
Plus, there’s a cascading effect. When one business group has a capitalized title, then it only follows that every department should take one as well, lest anyone feel left out. All those capitals are fine and dandy for the org chart, but when you’re talking to your public, simpler is always better. Don’t distract them with needless capitalization; let your team’s true value do the talking.
Should I capitalize my product names?
The short answer is yes.
The longer answer is still yes, but only if you’ve given your product or service a specific name for which you can claim ownership.
Think of it this way: McDonald’s sells Big Macs and Burger King sells Whoppers. If you’re in the beef-patty-between-two-buns business, you can’t reasonably claim ownership over the concept of the hamburger, so we’d strongly advise against capitalizing “hamburger”—even if you make the best damn burger in the entire country.
If your product lives up to the hype, though, you might want to name it the Best Damn Burger in the Entire Country. Maybe the BD Burger, or the WBB (World’s Best Burger).
Straightforward enough, right? But I often see clients run into trouble, usually when they go down a path of capitalizing components or features of a product. Unless these components are unique—perhaps trademarked, service marked or otherwise patented—there’s no need to capitalize them.
Automakers are some of the worst offenders with this wanton capitalization of components. Take a look at how Ford styles every last component of the seats in their F-150 King Ranch pickup truck on a page that is otherwise written in sentence case:
Standard in the F-150 King Ranch are Full-Leather, Heated and Ventilated 10-Way Power Driver and Passenger Bucket Seats, Memory Driver’s Seat, Flow-Through Console with Leather-Trimmed Cover and Leather-Wrapped Shifter and Heated 2nd-Row Leather 60/40 Flip-Up Split Seat.
The effect on the reader is to be so overwhelmed with allegedly “special” features that, in the end, none stands out as being all that special. Keep your capital letters for the items you need your customers to remember, and you’ll avoid style disasters like the example above.
What about everything else?
For pretty much everything else, keep it lowercase or sentence case.
Your tagline. Your lines of business. Your three-step process to better customer retention. Your “values,” your “mission,” your “vision,” your whatever. Keep it sentence case or lowercase, no matter how strong your attachment to it. I hesitate to call each instance of non-traditional capitalization in your brand guidelines a mistake waiting to happen, but you’re setting yourself (or your trusty editor) up for frustration with each additional term you capitalize.
What’s the deal with “sentence case” and “title case”?
Almost all forms of writing can be broken into two approaches to capitalization, which we call letter cases. Sentence case is what you’re reading now, where only the first letter of the first word is capitalized (along with any other proper nouns). As the name implies, pretty much every sentence you’ll ever read is in this case, and for good reason: it’s next to impossible to get it wrong.
Title case is a little more complicated, yet perennially appealing to those looking to make their writing stand out. While different style guides take a different approach to capitalization within title case, we tend to stick to the rules prescribed by The Chicago Manual of Style:
- Capitalize the first and last word
- Capitalize all nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs, including the “to” in infinitives (to be, to go, etc.)
- Keep all prepositions (above, below, in, on, with, etc.) lower case; some make exceptions for longer prepositions (between, amongst)
- Keep all conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) lower case
Title case gets its name from the fact that it was originally devised exclusively for, well, titles: the names of albums (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness), songs (“Dirt off Your Shoulder”), films (Gone with the Wind), books (My Brilliant Friend), reports (Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism), and other discrete, published works of media or art. Yet, you’ll find title case anywhere word counts are short and impact needs to be made, from digital ads to newspaper headlines to email subject lines to captions.
In the hands of skilled editors, title case can be wielded effectively. For short sentences (up to five words), the added capitalization can add emphasis and emotion, or, when deployed in a thoughtful typeface, allow for a more impactful design.
But getting the rules right every time is a tougher task than it may seem, resulting in haphazard capitalization that can lead to confusion for readers or others writing in the same brand voice. Confusion equals added time and added cost. It’s better to keep it simple and use sentence case, unless you feel confident in your ability to execute it every time.
Camel case involves capitalizing a letter within a word: iPhone, SoundCloud, PepsiCo. The “double humped” version, wherein the first letter and an internal letter are capitalized, has been around for decades, having been used in popular brand names such as PolyGram or MasterCard.
The other kind of camel case, “single humped,” has its roots in computer programming languages, email addresses, domain names and other digital applications that didn’t (and sometimes, still don’t) allow for spaces or hyphens in text.
Brands got a little carried away with the practice, especially in the early 2000s, when it seemed every second tech product followed the iNoun or eNoun construction.
While both camel cases may feel a little overused, they can help readers break up a complex name or other words into components that are more easily read and pronounced—especially when introducing a new brand name to your audience.
And if you feel like your brand name’s camel casing is getting stale, you can always switch things up for a refresh: MasterCard became Mastercard in 2016, and I doubt any of us remembered when they made that change.