Blog in 07 2017.
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.