The Way Words Work

Part One of Discussing Brand Copy
06 May 2019   |   by Peter Brooks   |   Articles

Is your marketing copy really working? Probably. Is it working as well as it could? Maybe not.

Copy can illicit emotion, trigger discussion, educate, challenge perceptions, or simply entertain. The words we write and the places we publish them must be chosen carefully if we want to illicit precisely the right response.

In many regards, we have Edward Bernays—nephew of Sigmud Freud and the so-called father of public relations—to thank for the proliferation of modern advertising copy. A hundred years ago, working with President Wilson, he tapped into herd mentality to rally public approval for America’s involvement in the Great War. Much of the ‘western democracy’ rhetoric so fervently pitched by the UK and US in the media today still echoes this early PR work.

Fortunately, you don’t need to be the nephew of a world-renowned psychoanalyst to wrap your head around copywriting. All you need is an understanding of the two main goals of advertising copy: to inspire thought and encourage action.

The Power of Restraint

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of inspiring thought and encouraging action, it’s worth stating that the copy you write doesn’t need to do all of the legwork. Why? Partly because consumers want to read as little as possible and partly because consumer decisions should come from within.

Just like in the movie Inception, the goal is to plant seeds which grow into the desired thought process and/or action. Don’t be too ham-fisted in your approach. Instead, leave breadcrumbs that lead the audience on a journey to water… and let them drink in their own time.

”Nobody reads ads. People read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.”  — Howard Gossage

While it’s all-too-easy to obsess over communicating every last piece of added-value that your products or services might offer each time you write something, the success or failure of your copy will ultimately be determined by how well you engage the reader.

The way you handle pre-conceptions and leverage emotional drivers can only be effective if the reader cares about what you are saying!

Encouraging Action

There are many different types of action you might wish to inspire. Buy, click, call, browse, subscribe, enquire, share, review… one obvious way to encourage these would be to use a traditional ‘call-to-action’ such as “Buy Now” or “Click Here”. After all, why say something in 700 words when you can say it in just two?

Another, more subtle way is to use metaphors, similes, hidden meanings and clever word-play. If you think of all the brand slogans and straplines that have embedded into your memory, they are probably either very direct (i.e. Nike: Just Do It) or they will use ‘richness of meaning’ to convey multiple ideas in a clever way (O2: We’re Better, Connected).

The reason for this is simple – direct orders and lines of copy that tickle our grey matter are more likely to cut through and engage us. Most copy is scanned with a cursory glance. The trick is making sure that the copy registers, either because the reader mulls it over or because it triggers something close to a reflex response. Otherwise, how can we expect the reader to ‘do’ anything at all?

However, it is foolish to think that barking orders at consumers is enough to get sales. People will only respond favourably if they have the right mind-set…

Inspiring Thought

You have to remember that action only ever follows thought. Direct calls-to-action and catchy, memorable straplines won’t work if the customer isn’t in the right frame of mind.

For considered purchases the thought process is conscious, drawn-out and very much ‘in the moment’. However, even where impulse purchases are made because of reflex-like responses, there must undoubtedly at some point have been a subconscious process which primed that impulse.

The question is, can we as marketers take the reins? The answer is yes… sort of, with branded content.

We can challenge or strengthen pre-conceptions. We can ask questions and offer perspectives to steer conclusions. We can align our brand with other brands allowing us to share their loyalty and trust.

The Three E’s

To inspire thought, content must offer one of the three E’s; entertainment, education or ease-of-access. If you can amuse a reader, then they will be engaged. If you can provide information that the reader is hungry for, then they will be engaged.

And finally (this is often the most overlooked despite being easy and effective) you can win a lot of favour with readers simply by pointing them in the direction of other things that might interest them – this is why social media can be such an effective community-building tool.

Not only can you keep your brand front-and-centre in the customers’ thoughts, but you can also steer those thoughts in order to mould readers into ‘primed’ customers. I’m not talking about brain-washing. I’m just suggesting that you can open a reader’s mind to things which they may not have considered otherwise.

For example, a day nursery might write about all of the things a parent could do if they ‘took a few hours off’ from being mum or dad, elevating their services from something a busy parent needs occasionally to something a parent can choose as a means to achieve their personal goals in life. Some people just need their eyes opening to the true potential and value in what you’re offering.

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