Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Political brand language

Winning the war of words is key to winning votes in British politics. But how do once-benign terms crystallize into divisive political vocabulary? We investigate contemporary political language games and show how they aren't all that different to company branding.


What does the word ‘progressive’ mean? Chances are, your mind has gone straight to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party. They’re always claiming their policies are ‘progressive’. In branding terms, they ‘own’ the word. And what a word to own! No one is against progress.

The term originally referred to taxation that progresses – i.e. the percentage of the tax you pay increases the more you earn. It could have easily been called something unpleasant like ‘loaded taxation’ or ‘ratcheting taxation’ but George Bernard Shaw was advocating the approach in a booklet published in 1889. So he chose an appealing word.

First mover advantage
Just like brands who use their first mover advantage to seize certain properties for themselves, once you own a word, it’s very hard for a competitor to take it off you or change its meaning. Believe it or not, the Conservatives tried to position themselves as the progressive party back in 2009. It didn’t work. Similarly, amongst a certain generation of car owners, Volvo is still associated with safety even though Mercedes invented the crumple zone and Ford invented the airbag.

Going negative
The flip side of taking ownership of an appealing word is going after a term your enemy uses and displacing its neutral linguistic definition with a politically toxic one. David Cameron popularized the term ‘austerity’ in a 2009 speech, and the then Chancellor, George Osbourne, was happy to use it to describe his budget over the course of the parliament. The Left seized on the term, making it the focus of opposition to Conservative economic policy. It worked.

'End living within our means now' doesn't sound quite so good

Now even the Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Austerity’ as ‘difficult economic conditions’, a far cry from its original, apolitical meaning, ‘severity or sternness, plainness or simplicity’. Even independent journalists on the BBC use it to describe the policy, despite its politically charged connotations. It is now rare to hear Conservative ministers use the word but they waited too long. Its meaning is set and its negative association with the Conservatives is locked.

Spinning toffs and spending luvvies
The Conservatives may not have been on form recently, but they are past masters at political language. When you take total government expenditure divided by the number of years in office since 1946, the Conservative party have borrowed more than any Labour government for the past 70 years. So why is Labour always perceived as the party of reckless borrowing and relying on the ‘magic money tree’? 

Since the financial crisis, Conservatives have repeatedly insisted they are ‘paying down our debts’ and ‘reducing the deficit’ as Labour got us into ‘this mess’ by ‘bankrupting the country’. Labour has all but given up trying to convince voters they can handle their pocket money: they lost that linguistic skirmish in spectacular fashion. It doesn’t matter how many times they bang on about the consequences of cutting public spending: few people in Britain believe Labour when it comes to sound economic management.

Don’t get spotted
The tarnishing of ‘austerity’ and the polishing of ‘progressive’ are examples of another law about brand and political language: people shouldn’t notice you at it. If they do, and the critical faculties come into play before a definition is set, you can face a backlash.

Post-crash, Labour’s Gordon Brown became a laughing stock for trying to repackage public spending as ‘investment’. Brown should have realised: the damage was done and trust in Labour’s fiscal management was shattered.

This wasn’t the issue with Theresa May’s mantra ‘strong and stable’. She looked just that in April. Come June the prime minister and the phrase were objects of ridicule. Why? Well, politics is complicated. But many found the repetition of the phrase, in answer to pretty much any question, just drew attention to the manipulation. It was also an overpromise, which is always a bad idea in branding as it undermines trust. When the evidence – capitulation to protests about a tough social care policy – proved the phrase wasn’t true it was abandoned.


 
Don't get rumbled...


What’s being fought over now?
Fighting fire with fire, Labour successfully created phrases like ‘pasty tax’ and ‘bedroom tax’, both proving damaging to Tory policy. More recently, ‘dementia tax’, a gift to Labour from none other than former Conservative speechwriter Will Heaven writing in The Spectator, was adopted by the Left with glee. Its entrance into public debate was widely believed to have been a turning point in the 2017 general election. It was a hot topic on doorsteps nationwide.

One ongoing battle is the tug-of-war over ‘hard-working families’ (in politics, there are no lazy families). Both the main parties use this term liberally. To the Left, it probably means something like, ‘poorer working people oppressed by the Tories’, whilst to the Right it signifies, ‘people trying to get on in life without the state getting in the way’. What you take it to mean is probably decided by which box you cross on polling day. Neither has won this phrase, nor seems likely to, as each side realises they need to fight for it.

Word up or go down
Brands can learn from all of this. At the moment, most tone of voice guidelines are a rather innocuous assemblage of basic tips on writing well an afterthought of the brand review process. (If you don’t believe me, ask how many in-house writers your brand consultancy has and compare that to their designer count.) Tone of voice guidelines should map out the words brands want to appropriate. They should set out the meaning the brand wants to invest in those words. And they should give examples so everyone writing for the brand gets it and starts using the new words in the right way, day in day out, so their new meanings and associations become the norm.

Don’t jump the gun
The future of the Conservatives’ other election neologisms, ‘magic money tree’ and ‘coalition of chaos’, remain in the balance. They have all but disappeared in the fallout following the general election. That reveals other truths: you can’t invest phrases and words with the meaning you want without time and authority. If either run out, you should stop and wait until your fortunes change.

Great brands understand this. They figure out what meanings they can own, capture them in words, and never stop reiterating them: Vorsprung durch technik, The Ultimate Driving Machine, Never knowingly undersold. That’s what straplines are for, but few brands have the focus and foresight to get the line right and stick with it for years. It’s a process that requires enormous ingenuity, discipline and perseverance. But, just like wily politicians, smart brands can see big rewards for making language central to their positioning. 

Friday, 15 September 2017

Coach, don't commission

You’ve got communications that need writing. Do you have a go in house or pay a copywriter to write it for you? Sometimes the best solution lies in a bit of both: hiring a writer to coach your staff.


Remember the Chinese proverb “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime”?

Pretty good advice if you want to stop people pestering you for fish, but what’s that got to do with copywriting?

No train, no gain
Well, we recently worked with a large recruiter who wanted to craft the perfect 'first approach' email. That's the one they send out cold to people who don't know them. They were getting a 25% response rate. They wanted to do better.

Hiring a copywriter to write these wasn't really practical. The six consultants in the team were sending ten or so a day each: there were simply too many. So we taught them to fish.



Not every pupil gets it...

We ran a day's training in the dark art of this sort of email writing (there's more to it than meets the eye).  A mix of theory and practice ensured the techniques were understood and assimilated. Everyone took away some writing tasks for the next couple of weeks to encourage practice and the formation of new habits.

The team's response rates doubled - up to 50%.

That was specific training, for a team, on site. But often coaching can be more general. And it can be one to one and conducted by email and phone. This is ideal when you have an individual struggling with a writing project. Especially if they'll need to do more of that type of writing in the future. We've helped individuals write sales brochures and email campaigns this way.

Each medium requires particular writing techniques. Emails are different to web pages; a product brochure is different to a flyer. And then there's the communications objective and sector. Each one tends to require a distinctive approach.

So, we can design a bespoke training module that takes into account the needs of the individual, the medium and the company.

So much writing to do; so little time
Today's businesses need a lot of copy written. Some of it will be genuinely mission critical, where improvement can dramatically improve profitability.

If you're in sales, you have to produce bid documents that differentiate your company and communicate how your proposals will be effective. Retailers need product descriptions that entice customers. Agency staff need to bring concepts alive or excite colleagues with compelling briefs. Almost everyone needs a blog or a newsletter. With good training, most people's writing can be made effective.

If you need to improve the writing of a team or individual, drop us a line. Just don't ask us how to fish.


Thursday, 20 July 2017

Why I would rather be on Instagram right now

Discover the ins and outs of the ever-expanding kingdom of social media through the eyes of someone in the middle of the rush - a teenager


“We don’t have a choice whether we do social media, the question is how well we do it.” – Erik Qualman, author of Socialnomics

Teenagers are superior creatures when it comes to social media, so don’t feel embarrassed if you feel a little frazzled. This guide introduces you to the major social media platforms millennials love, and why. At the bottom, there’s a glossary of the most important vocabulary you’ll need to stay afloat when the topic comes up in conversation. Let’s dive in.

1. Instagram (in-stuh-gram)

Now one of the current social media giants, Instagram has rightfully earned its place on our phone screens. With over 500 million active monthly users, including 28% of adult internet users, the image sharing platform has monumental reach. So, what’s the big deal? Instagram is all about popularity: how many followers[i] you have and how many likes[ii] you can get. If you haven’t already guessed, we’re obsessed with being the best. More dedication and effort is put into one post than a whole night’s worth of homework, as each upload must maintain your personal image and validate how perfect your life is.


One wrong move and...


The ultimate aim of Instagram is personal branding – whether you are popular, a party-hard, a hippy, or an edgy outcast, your Instagram profile[iii] is your proof. There are a variety of profiles dedicated to hobbies such as travel, food, art, as well as celebrities and famous brands, which are useful ways to survive maths class on Monday morning.


Thursday, 13 July 2017

When to start (word)playing around

Copywriters can't resist playing around with words. But when is wordplay right for a brand? Here's what works - and what doesn't.


O what a punderful world

Us copywriters are paid to be smart with language. It's our job to manipulate words, fusing, refining and cross-fertilising meaning to compel, provoke and persuade. Wordplay might (okay, definitely will) elicit groans at the dinner table, but some of the finest writers in the English language have leaned heavily on the humble pun: Shakespeare, Pope and Joyce to name three of the best. Even Alfred Hitchcock reckoned that the pun was the 'highest form of literature'.

It's not a bad marketing tactic either - if you tread carefully.

Making people smile

A good play on words communicates two pieces of vital information for the price of one and makes audiences smile while it's at it. Take Tesco, one brand that knows a thing or two about two for the price of one, and their recent van sides. They use a clever piece of copy to communicate the convenience of online shopping and the fact that shoppers needn't compromise on quality or freshness. There's an informality in the message that helps humanise a supermarket giant, but the wordplay isn't laboured, so it doesn't become tiresome too quickly. A Tesco van is a moving billboard, used as much to market their brand as to deliver your weekly shop.

Low hanging fruit - but charmingly effective
Making people feel intelligent

Flattery will get you everywhere
From fruit that makes you think to food for thought. The Economist's now legendary ad campaign targeted intellectual decision makers and ambitious professionals. Clever wordplay is used extensively as it's aimed at intelligent, critical thinkers. But no less an authority than Paul Arden (for a long time, Saatchi & Saatchi's creative head) warned all copywriters, "Do not put cleverness in front of the communication". Whilst that's a good general rule, The Economist wanted to reach people who were just that: clever.

If audiences 'got' the adverts, the magazine was right for them. These ads work so well because the wordplay communicates a range of powerful emotional benefits: people who read The Economist are smart, important and witty, just like you. It also promised that the magazine's writing would be witty. It's not wordplay for wordplay's sake.

Making people remember

The best wordplay communicates as much as possible in as few words as possible - and makes it unforgettable to boot. The Saatchi & Saatchi poster for the Conservative party during the 1979 general election was so powerful, many commentators credited the advertisement for the Tory's landslide election win. In 1999 Campaign dubbed it the 'Best Poster of the Century'.


This one certainly worked a treat
Contained in the phrase 'Labour isn't working' are two distinct, but interconnected meanings that both make the reader think voting Conservative is a good idea: 'the Labour party isn't doing a good job' and 'unemployment is spiralling under Labour'. The fact that both messages are wrapped up in a smart pun - the word 'labour' means 'working' - makes the ad superbly memorable.


When to stop (word)playing around

Wordplay isn't always best. Those terrible puns you see adorning the fronts of hair salons the world over might be harmless. But if you're a big brand, you need to avoid the 'uh' reaction.

What Saatchi & Saatchi got right, Indian got dead wrong. This campaign from the US State, trying to persuade people to people from neighbouring Illinois falls flat - and not just because the pun itself is contrived. This sort of ad, coming from state government, should be formal, trustworthy and professional. That doesn't mean it can't be smart, like the Saatchi ad - but it should be serious. If a state can't take itself seriously, would you really trust it to provide the infrastructure, services and support you need from government? As we've explained elsewhere, it's important to take a long look at yourself before trying to reach out to your audience.

Death, taxes and dodgy puns

Seat again?

Here's another dodgy effort. Like Indiana's groan-worthy 'Illinoyed', Seat's wordplay misfires because consumers should have to mispronounce an existing word to get to your newly minted pun. Think back to Tesco's 'Freshly Clicked' - it should be a seamless blending of two different meanings, not a contrived forcing together of sounds in an attempt to get at something new.


Pun-enjoyable
Harsh criticism awaits for puns that flop or are misplaced: they are a joke falling flat. But ones that surprise by being delightfully adept are justly celebrated. Give it a go. You can always go back to a straight line if your writer has a bad day and can't come up with a winner. 

Thursday, 8 June 2017

The ten commandments of copywriting

Writing copy is an art - but there is method in the madness. Here are ten golden rules all copywriters should follow.


1. "Copy is not written. Copy is assembled" - Eugene Schwartz
'Copyassembler' would be a rubbish job title, but Schwarz is right. A copywriter takes all the materials in a brief - tone of voice, communication objective, product features - and assembles those elements in a way that will make the audience sit up and take notice. And then take action. A strong brief makes this process a lot easier.

2. "A lot of copywriters think they're good judges of their own work. I know I'm not." - David Ogilvy
 By way of illustration, here's a joke a graphic design friend likes to trot out now and then.

Q: How many copywriters does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Copywriter: '*^%$ off! I'm not changing anything'.

Not all writers are protective. But everyone finds it hard to spot weaknesses, let alone mistakes, in their own work. Hence copywriting agencies, who have someone review the work when it's sent, are more popular with big brands than lone freelancers. Find out why it pays to go plural.


If only it was that simple...
3. "You must be as simple, and as swift, and as penetrating as possible" - Bill Bernbach
Even when a copywriter is grappling with a complicated message, the resulting copy should always be as simple as possible. Anything else is a copywriting sin.



Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Anglo-Saxon v Latin: why brands have to choose

The English language is a funny old mix of Anglo-Saxon and Latin vocabulary. But it's serious business when it comes to writing copy. Here's why the difference is vital for brand messaging and tone of voice.


One of the most striking ways you can alter the tone and meaning of what you write is by varying the use of Anglo-Saxon or Latinate vocabulary.

Anglo-Saxon words come from the languages spoken by Germanic settlers arriving in England from the fifth century. Latinate words derive from the British Isles' interactions with the Roman Empire and later medieval France. Today, the English language is a mercurial mix of the two.

It's important for brands to take note of this because a copywriter's choice of words either way can have a big impact, both for messaging (what you say) and tone of voice (how you say it).

Short, simple, brutal
Spot the difference

So what's the difference? In a nutshell, Anglo-Saxon words are short, simple and blunt: 'think', 'pick', 'help', 'eat' and 'drink'. Compare these with their Latinate equivalents: 'imagine', 'select', 'assist', 'consume' and 'imbibe'. Latinates are multisyllabic, cerebral and a bit soft.

Saxon in action

What's that got to do with branding?

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

How to make everyone do what you want: the science of pre-suasion

Any piece of brand or marketing communication seeks to persuade audiences to do something. Now a new book promises to reveal the science behind the art.


As copywriters, persuasion is what we do and language is how we do it. As an agency, we've helped top brand agencies and companies influence audiences and regularly teach a Guardian Masterclass on how to write persuasive copy. We reviewed Robert Cialdini's Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion and found it a proper page turner. It's safe to say we were intrigued when his new book emerged last year promising 'A revolutionary way to influence and persuade'.


Persuasion
But what is persuasion, exactly? William Bernbach was one of the twentieth-century's most successful advertisers, so he knew a thing or two about how to get people to do things. But his much-quoted claim that "advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art," doesn’t ring so true in the twenty-first century.

Does this count as 'guiding preliminary attention strategically'?
The rise of behavioural economics (borrowing liberally from social science and psychology) has supplanted classical economic and theoretical explanations of why people buy stuff. In other words, we’re seeing the rise of persuasion as a science.