The poets of packaging

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.

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