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There were new words: coronacoaster, furlough, maskne. There were old words: clichés landing in our inboxes quicker than you can say now more than ever. There were frustratingly woolly words from governments, and plenty of brilliant words, too.
To us, language always matters. But in 2020, it felt like every syllable of what brands were saying was under scrutiny. So here are The Writer’s top five business writing picks of the year. From adverts to employment contracts, these are all examples of businesses using tone of voice and language in the right way, at the right time.
1. A message from the CEO, Airbnb
Back in May, Airbnb founder Brian Chesky broke the news to employees that almost 2,000 of them would lose their jobs. And the way he did it is a masterclass in dealing with difficult messages.
He breaks the bad news in the fourth line, rather than making his team anxiously scroll through paragraphs of background and bluster. He avoids the usual euphemistic phrases – restructure, streamlining, realigning resources – in favour of straightforward terms like layoffs and cuts. And he clearly sets out what will happen next. No business wants to write this kind of comms. But if you have to, there are plenty of tips to pick up here.
2. New year out of home adverts, The Economist
It’s strange to think there was part of 2020 where marketing messages weren’t linked to covid, but back in January, it was advertising-as-usual for The Economist. Copy is always the star of the show here, and the publication’s set of out of home adverts in the new year tuned in perfectly to the type of clever, crafty humour their readers want to see. (If we were in the game of categorising types of humour, which we are, The Economist would sit in the ‘three-beat funny’ camp.)
3. Employment agreement, Tony’s Chocolonely
We often talk about the importance of nooks and crannies when it comes to tone of voice – writing terrific, on-tone copy in job ads, cookies messages and Ts & Cs, not just the obvious stuff. This employment agreement from Dutch chocolatiers Tony’s Chocolonely is a shining example. The quirky design, human language (‘we can both break up at any time’) and unexpected touches (‘you’re off to those nerve-racking serious notes’) all give a new starter a sense of the culture they’re joining straight away. It’s proof that legal writing can be compliant and creative.
4. Silence is not an option, Ben & Jerry’s
In the wake of global Black Lives Matter protests in June, plenty of brands scrambled to put together statements showing their support of the movement. But lots of responses used vague, hedging language, and risked sounding like a box-ticking exercise. In contrast, Ben & Jerry’s statement was direct and decisive. They directly called out anti-Black racism and white supremacy, and called for four clear actions. And importantly, it wasn’t just words – the brand has a long history of activism, and supports organisations like the NAACP and Color of Change.
5. We are not an island, part two, HSBC
In 2019, HSBC created a stir with their original ‘not an island’ campaign. It was seen as unusually political and firmly anti-Brexit, which divided opinion.
At the start of 2020, instead of backing down or going in a different direction, HSBC held firm. And we like that. It’s not often that financial services brands take a cultural stance, and HSBC mix a clear point of view with a confident, unapologetic tone of voice here. Just goes to show that you can still touch hearts and spark conversations in the most traditional of industries.
Honourable mention: seven-word lessons, Work in Progress
This one’s from an agency, not a brand – but we wanted to sneak it in. This campaign from Work in Progress saw them ‘taking education to the streets’ after schools closed in the US,with a series of seven-word lessons sourced from real teachers around the country. We love the super concise format (we often get clients writing six-word stories in training sessions). And what’s not to like about a billboard telling you Venus is the only planet that spins clockwise?
Here’s to a brighter 2021 – and another year of clear, compelling brand writing.
We’ve all come across them during “these uncertain times” – tone-deaf, cliché, or generally unhelpful Covid communications.
Anyone who came to our recent webinar on getting your message right during a crisis will remember this example from KFC:
In short, KFC put a lot of time and money into a glossy new campaign that brings their long-running slogan to life. But it couldn’t have come out at a worse time.
Ads, billboards, and social posts. All promoting putting your hands in your mouth right in the middle of a pandemic. Naturally, the response was pretty negative. Ad Standards received over 100 complaints, and KFC got a lot of flak on social media.
We were talking this over at The Writer, and we came up with a new take that keeps to the spirit of the original slogan while acknowledging the new norms of the pandemic:
Finger lickin’. Bad. At least right now.
Our chicken: still really good.
May we suggest a spork?
It got us thinking about other recent offenders, and how they might have been more effective. So, here are a couple examples of what not to do in your crisis comms, with edits from The Writer.
Focusing on yourself instead of the reader
One thing that doesn’t play well during a pandemic? Braggy, self-involved writing.
Hertz: A message about Coronavirus (Covid-19)
Whether you rent a car at the airport or at one of our nearly 3,000 convenient neighborhood locations, Hertz is here to get you there. Be assured as the No. 1 ranked company for rental car Customer Satisfaction by J.D. Power, our focus remains on going the extra mile to get you where you need to be safely and with confidence.
We are closely monitoring Coronavirus (COVID-19) and following the current guidance from the leading government and health authorities to ensure we are taking the right actions to protect our customers, employees and the communities where we operate.
Hertz hit a few wrong notes here. There’s the impersonal “Dear Customer.” It’s all about Hertz – not the customer’s concerns. And there’s the inappropriate bit of self-praise: “Be assured as the No. 1 ranked car company for customer satisfaction…”
Here’s our take on a more empathetic response:
We’re still here to get you there – safely
Hello from the home office.
A lot has changed in the last few months. Vacations might be on hold, or you might need to visit a family member. That flight might have been swapped for a road trip.
One thing that hasn’t changed? We’re still here to get you there, wherever the new “there” might be. In a clean, safe, reliable car.
Contact-free drop off and pick up means you can keep your distance. We’re rigorously disinfecting every vehicle with a multi-step cleaning process. And we’re following all available guidelines to keep our employees and customers healthy.
You have enough on your mind. When you ride with us, you can know that you and your family are safe.
Thank you for your continued loyalty. We hope to see you soon.
The Hertz Team
What’s changed? We’ve shifted the focus from Hertz’s record to the reader’s concerns, gave a nod to the new challenges, and addressed worries directly. While using more empathetic, personal language throughout.
Saying something just for the sake of saying it
Here’s an easy one. Take a look at this email from Barnes & Noble.
What exactly are we learning here? We already know that we’re living through turbulent times, right? It seems they felt they had to say something about Covid, but couldn’t come up with anything useful. At best, it’s time wasting. At worst, you sound opportunistic.
In this case our advice is simple: don’t say something just for the sake of saying it. It’s ok to say nothing.
Or, find something useful to offer. Maybe a book recommendation. (I’ve been enjoying Olga Tokarczuk’s writing lately. What about you?)
If you’ve come across a particularly good or bad crisis comm lately, we’d love to see it. Send it along to us @thewriter. And if you’re reading this at Hertz, Barnes & Noble, or KFC, let us know what you think. And feel free to drop us a line next time - [email protected]
Personalised letters, tick. Approved list of empathetic phrases (including ‘I’d love to help you with that today’), tick. Think you’ve got this emotional connection malarkey nailed?
There’s more to connecting with people emotionally than mail merging their first name into things. And empathy isn’t sounding friendly, or just repeating back what somebody’s already told you.
Still, there’s been a lot of that going on lately, which means customers have got savvy and expect more. So, if your approach to personalisation is collecting data and regurgitating it back to customers at key touchpoints, you’re probably not going to build lasting connections.
Empathy is talking to customers about the things they care about
Not what’s important to you. And it’s about doing it consistently, even when you’re delivering bad news and dealing with complaints.
For example, we helped BT change their approach to handling complaints. We encouraged their agents to step away from templated scripts and stock responses, and think about how they’d feel in the customer’s shoes. And repeat complaints dropped from 28% to less than 20%.
It’s not just a nice to have. It can make and save you money
We helped a big energy company sound the same in their debt letters as they did in their everyday messages. So people didn’t feel like they were suddenly being treated like criminals for falling behind on their payments. And they were less scared to get in touch to sort it out. The result? Ten percent more people got out of debt.
All this from putting the customer first and using words that make them feel you understand them (and are human beings too).
We’ve learnt a few things about empathy over the years
We’ve spent 15 years helping clients make their words more efficient, empathetic, distinctive and consistent. So we’ve seen the good, the bad and the downright strange along the way. Check out our blog on the Ten ways you absolutely, definitely shouldn’t do CX to find out more.
Plus, come and see us at Technova Connected Customer 2018, Tuesday 3rd and Wednesday 4th July. We’ll be on the CX Leaders stage at 2.40pm on Tuesday 3rd, talking about why your language is your customer experience. Or you can pop by our stand for a chat any time.
The General Data Protection Regulation comes in on 25th May and the new privacy rules have got marketers in a bit of a flap. That's no surprise when you read the document itself. It’s opaque and chock-full of jargon.
Here are three tips for doing that.
1. Show people you care
Privacy is a hot topic lately. So GDPR is an excellent opportunity to do things right and earn your customers’ trust. You can do that by writing clearly and focusing on what matters to your reader.
- Keep it concise.
- If you’re asking the reader to do something, make it clear.
- Point out what you’re doing to help.
Facebook missed a trick here in their press ad. (Whoops.)
Notice how it’s ‘the regulation’ that will protect you, not Facebook. There’s a passive remark that ‘you will be asked’ something at some point, which is confusing and vague. And to add insult to injury, the call to action seems to be ‘go and read the full text of GDPR when you’ve got a sec’.
2. Fix the formality
The text of the GDPR itself is heavy going. Take this snippet for example:
The arrangement referred to in paragraph 1 shall duly reflect the respective roles and relationships of the joint controllers vis-à-vis the data subjects. The essence of the arrangement shall be made available to the data subject.
3. Spring clean your content strategy
As marketers contact their mailing lists asking them to re-register, it’s judgement day for repetitive, boring communications. Now’s the perfect time to rethink your strategy so you can send messages of quality, not quantity, to the loyal people who’ve stuck around.
That means thinking beyond the Easter egg gif for cracking deals in April. Instead, start planning your messages around what’s important to your reader. For example, a small business owner will usually be interested in a new government budget announcement. So that could be your cue to get in touch.
Speaking of emails… You can sign up to our semi-regular eThing.
Hello, we’re The Writer, the world’s biggest language consultancy.
We’re looking for people who get nerdy about words to come to our two-day Word Experience (in London) on Thursday 12th and Friday 13th April 2018.
You might be a student, or someone who's always been keen on the idea of a career in writing, but isn't sure how.
If you like what you read, be sure to send us your application by Friday 23rd March. (You’ll see how to get in touch a bit further down.)
What’s ‘Word Experience’?
We get a lot of requests from people wanting to come on work experience. But we’ve always felt work experience was pretty unsatisfactory all round: we can’t help many people in a year; you inevitably end up doing quite a bit of boring stuff; and, if we’re honest, it’s a lot of work to do well. (And who wants to do it badly?)
So we cooked up Word Experience: we gather about 20 people together for two days of creativity, workshops and fun stuff. Along the way we’ll talk to you about how you can make a career out of writing for business, show you how our agency works, and some Writer folk will tell you their own stories of how they got into business writing. All to show you there’s a career for people who like words that isn’t publishing or journalism.
Then we usually pick two people from each year to come back and join us for a short paid internship. (And some of those have ended up working here.)
Keep reading if:
You already write for your course
Maybe you study English, journalism or creative writing. Or maybe you just write a lot of essays. (You don't have to be a student, though - maybe you just love writing.)
You write in your spare time too
You might write for your student paper, a blog, or fiction. It doesn’t matter, as long as you write.
You’re a bit of a word geek
You have a tendency to get excited or properly riled up by all kinds of writing. From tube ads to tubes of toothpaste, Booker Prize winners to Charlie Brooker.
Yes that’s me. What do I need to do?
Head to our application page and send us 300 words telling us why we should pick you (and a way for us to get in touch with you). And get it to us by Friday 23rd March.
Here’s what previous Word Experiencers have said:
‘Word experience is, in a nutshell, the workshop we all should have done ages ago. Finally it feels like there’s a company out there who is trying to show you how to turn what you love, into what you do. Those two days in London opened my eyes to an industry I was surrounded by and yet unaware of, it gave me a whole new appreciation for marketing, for words and for the people who write them.’
‘Hands-on activities included the sorts of word games that seem like harmless entertainment while you do them, but come loaded with Karate Kid-style moments of realisation that detonate later on. The other day I was struggling over an email to a tutor, then something clicked and (wax on, wax off) I realised I could cut out half the words to make it cleaner and clearer.’