Unprecedented copy: the best brand writing of 2020

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.

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