It’s that time of year again. Tinsel, turkey and, um, trend forecasting. The number crunchers at Foresight Factory have come up with a corker: in 2018, customers will choose brands that sound more human and empathise more.
Not to blow our own trumpet (well, maybe a bit), but we’ve been banging on about this for years. How talking like a real person and putting your readers’ needs first is good for business.
Luckily there are loads of chances for brands to show they’re run by real people. Face to face (obvs). TV ads. Web chats. Emails. Twitter.
But people often struggle to be their real selves when they write for work. They sound formal. They use tried and tested phrases that show they weren’t really listening. And they miss chances to build relationships.
We’ve found that it’s well worth breaking those habits and trying to write more like we speak. In fact, we once helped BT save £500,000 just by rewriting one paragraph of a call centre script.
Still need convincing? Find out what happened when our Harry challenged Dave Gorman on matters of writing like you speak… and how it helped O2 come out of a crisis smelling of roses.
And don’t wait for 2018 to get started. Next time you write something, try letting your human side show. Change words for ones you’d use when you’re speaking to a customer face to face. It’ll only take a couple of minutes and can totally change the way the reader feels about you.
We’re an opinionated bunch, here at The Writer. If you’ve ever worked with us, you’ll know we’ve got no time for things like buzzwords, or boring, formal writing.
But we know we’re in a bubble. We think about words all day, every day. On the plus side, that means we know our stuff. But on the minus, there’s always a danger that we’ll lose touch with how real people think.
So we teamed up with Nielsen and two well-known FMCG brands, let’s call them Soothe and Sport, to put our theories to the test.
We got our hands on one product concept each for Soothe and Sport. They’d already run the concepts through testing and both had got the worst possible result: ‘probable failure’.
We rewrote them both in three ways: one neutral, one in the Soothe tone of voice, one in the Sport tone of voice.
We wanted to see if good writing could improve a product concept’s performance in testing. And we also had a hunch that Soothe customers would prefer the Soothe tone of voice, and Sport customers would prefer the Sport tone of voice.
What we found
Good writing makes a disproportionately big difference. Our best-performing concept doubled the overall result of the previous version. (And each concept took us about 20 minutes to rewrite.)
Loyal customers prefer writing that’s in the brand’s tone of voice. The concept in the Soothe tone of voice was most popular with Soothe buyers.
Clear writing beats concise writing. Our best-performing concept was actually a little longer than the original. And a version we chopped right down ended up failing the clarity part of the test.
Metaphor works. As part of the testing, people had to click anything they particularly liked. The phrase that got the most love was this: The clay inside acts like a sponge.
People need to know what ingredients are for. The original Soothe concept talked about moisturising cream and vitamin B3, but left it there. In our rewrites, we gave the benefits attached to those ingredients, and took the result for the ‘credibility’ scale from bottom marks to top marks.
You can explain away people’s worries. The Sport product contains clay. After the original test, people were worried it would stain their clothes and clog their pores. In our versions, we named those worries and explained why they were unfounded. Nobody had any worries about the clay.
Walk down the aisles of any supermarket and you’ll be struck by the sheer number of products crowding each other on the shelves. Not only is the visual clutter confusing, but once you try and pick, say a shampoo, you’ll find they’re all telling more or less the same story. Sheen, shine and body are yours if you use this one.
Our job as copywriters is to tell the product’s story. We want to make emotional connections with our readers, the consumers. But all too often packaging copy fails because it sounds ‘samey’.
There’s hope though. There’s a whole group of writers out there who face similar problems – poets and songwriters. They deal with emotions. And they don’t have a lot of space to work with. So if we are poets of packaging, what can poets teach us?
You gotta break some rules
Great poetry (and songs) stand out because of inventive language, new ways of expressing ancient emotions. And maybe new rythyms and sounds. It’s all part of language’s evolution.
So go ahead. Make up new words like Harry’s Razors did with their tag line Shave Betterer. Mess with punctuation if it makes the story you’re telling pop. If you don’t stretch the language you’re using, your stories won’t sound fresh.
Make ‘must-use’ words work harder
We’re trying to tell a story that resonates in maybe 20-30 words. And with so few words to work with everyone of them has to do double, and sometimes, triple duty. As writers of packaging copy, we pay attention to shades of meaning, sound, and rhythm and the emotional connection these words can make. But ‘must-use’ words – like ‘glossy’ for shampoo or ‘bright whites’ for detergents – make that tough.
It’s easy to understand why a vacuum cleaner maker might want to emphasize suction. But if ‘must-use’ words aren’t doing more than one job, then they’ll stand out like a mouse among moose.
Overuse is the other problem with ‘must-use’ words. Sure, consumers want to know how products will benefit them. But we also know that repeating something too often makes it sound hollow. And that people will stop listening. When that happens you’ve lost your chance to make an emotional connection.
Don’t be a slave to the focus group
Focus groups are useful but the way they’re constructed and used means that they tend to be conservative and don’t favour new ideas.
It’s a familiar dynamic. The history of music is full of examples where new performers were criticised for new sounds, techniques and approaches. Mozart used too many notes according to Emperor Joseph II. The establishment dismissed Elvis as incompetent and vulgur. And remarkably both Keith Richards and Prince have claimed that rap wasn’t real music. If focus groups had a say, they’d have probably agreed.
So next time you sit down to write some copy, tell yourself: ‘I am a poet of packaging’. It could help you find the emotional logic that really helps connect product and client.
We talk to a lot of our big FMCG clients about functional and emotional benefits.
Functional benefits tell you what a product does for you. This deodorant stops you sweating. This bleach kills bacteria.
Emotional benefits tell you how a product makes you feel. So if the deodorant stops you sweating, you’ll feel more comfortable. Using the bleach to kill bacteria makes you feel reassured that you won’t get sick.
Brands themselves have emotional benefits too. You might buy a Dove deodorant because Dove stands for beauty and purity. You might buy a Domestos bleach because Domestos stands for power and trust.
This is a phenomenon luxury brands depend on. The liquid in a bottle of Chanel perfume isn’t worth £80, but the name on the side of the bottle is. Buying Chanel tells the world you’re the sort of person who buys Chanel, which in many circles is a positive association.
So what about food?
Basic foods do have functional benefits. Vegetables can help you avoid getting ill. The proteins in meat help your body repair itself. But when you get down to food that’s more for pleasure than health, the picture gets less clear.
Let’s take ice cream as an example. It tastes nice, and that’s basically why it exists. So how do you convince people that yours tastes nicer than all the other tubs on the shelf?
There are five ways:
1. Focus on provenance
Everyone sells vanilla. So how do you make sure they choose your vanilla? Say where it’s from. Madagascan vanilla, Mexican vanilla, Tahitian vanilla.
Some ingredients, like mint, grow just about everywhere. So there’s less power in stating the country of origin. In those cases, just zoom in. Does the mint grow on a mountain-side? Near a stream? In volcanic soil? Paint a picture for your customers.
2. Focus on process
Maybe you pick the mint by hand, or you use a special brush to clean off the dirt, or you crush it in an industrial-sized pestle and mortar to bring out the flavour. Whatever you do, if it helps improve the product then people will want to know about it.
3. Tell stories
If you have processes that don’t improve the product but have their own unique charm, shout about those too. I went on a tour of the Noilly Prat distillery in the south of France recently and they told us about the stirrer. All the other vermouth brands have machinery that stirs all their barrels simultaneously, but at Noilly Prat there’s a man with a paddle who goes from barrel to barrel stirring by hand. It’s more expensive, slower and less effective, but it’s charming. It tells you they care.
Some brands even invent processes just so they can add to their story. Again, a Noilly Prat example: during the 19th century, casks of wine were taken across the ocean on the open decks of ships, exposed to the elements. Today, Noilly Prat has a walled outdoor area at the distillery called L’Enclos where the barrels of wine mature through sun, rain and snow. It sounds great and it’s intriguing. So who cares if it doesn’t actually make any difference?
4. Tantalise the senses
Which makes you hungrier?
Delicious fudge ice cream or Silky ice cream with flaky fudge.
The magic is in the adjectives. Delicious tells you how I feel about it. That’s fine if you know me and trust my judgement, but if I’m a big brand describing my own product you’d be right to be cynical.
What makes it delicious is going to be the way it tantalises the senses. The way it looks, feels, tastes, smells or (rarely) sounds. So describe that instead. In this case, we’ve gone with the ‘feel’ words silky and flaky.
5. Break the norms
People are so used to seeing certain words and phrases that they don’t even notice them anymore. Even Madagascan vanilla probably falls into that category. So shake it up. Say vanilla from Madagascar at the very least, or vanilla from Melaky in northwestern Madagascar.
And that’s it. Now, I think we all deserve a flake.
Our Hannah gave a great talk on language in culture recently. And although she covered a lot in the talk, we've thought it was worth pulling out four quick wordy tips that you can put into action, straight away.
Watch your metaphors
How would your people describe themselves? The pictures we paint can say a lot about our attitudes to work. It’s not hard to see why Enron’s ‘Guys with spikes’ made different business decisions to Ritz Carlton’s ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen’. Language shapes our identity.
Be active, not passive
When you use passive language, no one’s accountable. It might feel easier to say ‘mistakes were made’ than ‘I made a mistake’, but be warned: use too much passive language and you could easily create a culture where no one takes responsibility for anything. Take ownership. Use the active voice.
Keep it simple: cut the corporate-speak
If you want your teams to do things differently, one of the easiest ways to win them over is by writing more like you speak. Jargon and buzzwords set eyes rolling at best - and at worst switch us off completely. They’re less clear, too. What does being ‘operationally excellent’ look like? It’s hard to picture. But ask me to ‘do one thing better every day’ and I can instantly think of things I can improve.
If in doubt, bring in a fresh pair of eyes
The longer you’ve worked somewhere, the harder it is to spot the little things that could be undermining your culture. So if you’d like a second opinion, we’d love to help.