Next time you sit down to write some copy, tell yourself: ‘I am a poet of packaging’. And take three lessons from masters of verse.
Life’s tough when you’re Harry Styles. Or a bottle of shampoo.
They both have a very small space to make an emotional connection. For Harry, a four-minute song. For the shampoo, perhaps just two inches of packaging.
From ‘sheen, shine and body’, to ‘romance, parties and, well… body’ – each must make the same old aspirations stand out in the wild.
Singers, poets, copywriters – we share a cause. We tell stories in overcrowded, trope-heavy spaces. And, like a scrunched-up sonnet, packaging copy fails when it sounds too... samey.
So what tips can we – the shopfloor songwriters, the packaging poets – take from our favourite musical and literary muses?
1) Rip up the rulebook
Think of the last great poem or song you heard. It likely stood out because it found new ways to express ancient emotions. Perhaps playing with new rhythms and sounds. It’s all part of language’s evolution.
Maybe the word to do justice to that new kitchen cleaner simply doesn’t exist yet. Try channelling your inner teenager to make up a word to describe it, like the New York Times did. Inventive language goes a long way. From Harrys ‘Shave Betterer’ campaign to Deliveroo’s observation that sometimes, ‘outside looks a bit too outsidey’ – we tend to remember the phrases we’ve never seen written down before.
Mess with words, grammar and punctuation if it makes the story you’re telling pop. If you don’t stretch language, your stories won’t sound fresh.
2) Employ words willing to work overtime
Packaging space is precious. Like a short song or haiku, we need to tell a story that resonates in sometimes as little as 20 words. So each one we choose has to be prepared to work two, sometimes three jobs.
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 emphasise ‘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. Yes, consumers want to know how products will help them. But we also know that some words are repeated so often, they no longer really mean anything. People will stop listening. When that happens you’ve blown your chance to connect.
3) Trust your poetic instincts
Focus groups are useful, to a point. But the way they’re put together means that they tend to err on the conservative and discourage new thinking.
It’s a familiar dynamic. The history of music is full of stories of new performers being criticised for exploring new sounds, techniques and approaches. Mozart used too many notes according to Emperor Joseph II. If you’ve seen Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Elvis’, you’ll have seen how the establishment initially dismissed The King as incompetent and vulgar. And remarkably both Keith Richards and Prince have claimed that rap wasn’t real music. If focus groups had a say, they’d probably have 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.