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.
In most language guidelines, there’s a bit that goes, ‘Don’t say that, say this instead’. Usually, the don’ts are hideous corporate-speak, which then emerge in the ‘do’ column as gleaming paragons of concise simplicity.
Unfortunately, Deliveroo seem to have got theirs the wrong way round, as the FT reports.
In the don’t column: ‘We pay you every two weeks.’ In the do column: ‘Rider invoices are processed fortnightly.’ This is a no-no: ‘Yesterday you were late to start your shift.’ Instead: ‘Yesterday you logged in later than you agreed to be available.’
To be fair, there’s a reason for it. Deliveroo drivers are technically self-employed, so the company’s language needs to reflect the realities of the ‘gig economy’. Whatever your views on the blurring of that particular line, it’s obvious that these guidelines are making a factual distinction: it’s not quite correct to say ‘we pay you every two weeks’ if it’s more of an invoice setup. And they have to refer to ‘branded clothing’, because ‘uniform’ is what employees wear.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to see what’s happening to the tone in the ‘correct’ examples. Take ‘rider invoices are processed fortnightly’: suddenly they’re using the passive and the third person. They’ve even gone for the more formal ‘fortnightly’. I don’t know the company or how their systems work, but it’s hard to see why they couldn’t have just said, ‘We process your invoices every two weeks’.
At the moment, companies like Deliveroo are facing legal challenges and government scrutiny over whether they can really classify their workers as self-employed when they’re trying to exert so much control over them. It must be making them nervous. And you can see that in their mangled, cautious, shifty language.
I’ve just been listening to a debate on the radio about Gareth Southgate’s approach to managing England. The thrust of it was that his tendency to tinker with his tactics based on who he’s up against is either: a) brilliantly pragmatic, or b) the end of the world as we know it.
At the heart of the debate there seemed to be a tension between flexibility and identity. As in, if you’ve got one, you can’t have the other.
I think those clever football pundits have inadvertently hit on one of the big debates in tone of voice circles. When we’re working on a tone of voice, we’re often asked to build in some flex. And we’re very happy to do that, but there’s a drawback. A flexible tone of voice is an inconsistent tone of voice. And an inconsistent tone of voice isn’t really a tone of voice at all. It’s just some writing guidelines.
So before you put the F-word in your brief, ask yourself what’s most important to you: identity or flexibility?