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None of us are innocent: the impact of copy on a company’s brand

31 Jan

As a writer, the importance of effective copy in helping to deliver a strong brand experience is essential. Alongside visual branding and organisational culture, I think it’s one of the top three elements for what makes a great brand. With Google now taking into account the editorial quality of content when indexing sites, it doesn’t matter whether companies are dealing with websites, social media, product brochures or customer service; they must embrace copy as never before. Getting to the top on Google is no longer just about getting the right keywords.

I recently discovered what appears to be the first survey of its kind to poll the copywriting market on the quality of content as opposed to quantitative measures (i.e. the amount of time and money companies are investing in copywriting… it’s increasing, if you’re interested).

While this is only the first survey of its kind and – apologies to my US readers – UK-centric (yet still with very useful insights), Sticky Content’s ‘State of Digital Copywriting’ report sets a great benchmark for future surveys and poses some interesting questions around people’s perception of good copy and what effect it has on a company’s brand.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Sticky’s top three

Sticky Content asked their participants to name a company or brand that produces best-in-class copy. Interestingly, even within the top three results, there’s a wide disparity in the type and quality of copy coming from the companies in question. These were: innocent drinks (the UK leader in the smoothie market), Apple and John Lewis (an upmarket UK department store chain).

But do these companies really produce best-in-class copy? Or have people just listed brands that they like? Let’s look more closely.

The Good – innocent drinks

Innocent Drinks Logoinnocent drinks has long been lauded for the strength of their brand. They are non-corporate (although recently acquired by Coca-Cola), fun, friendly, have an extremely distinct tone of voice and always stay on message.

As a personal subscriber to innocent’s newsletter and an avid follower of their social media, I agree hands down that innocent writes great, attention-grabbing copy.

Interestingly, most of their content is anecdotal rather than product-related, aligning more broadly with their vision to ‘leave things a little better than they found them’. By interacting with their followers, making people laugh and refraining from shoving smoothie-related promotions down our throats 24 hours a day, innocent wins brand loyalty and makes me want to buy their products. And that’s what makes best-in-class copy.

The Bad – Apple

Apple LogoApple are known for their innovation. So when’s the last time you can remember reading something written by Apple that was more than a catchy slogan? When I read Apple’s ads, I don’t hear Apple; I hear Steve Jobs. When I think of Apple; I think of Steve Jobs.

Check out this page on their website… What grabs your attention? Is it their content, or their branding? While having one man as the face of Apple worked when that one man was Steve Jobs, Apple now faces the challenge of steering themselves into the 21st century without their captain, and I think their copy is suffering for it.

Apple’s content isn’t terrible by any means. It tells the reader what they need to know, but you can hardly call it best-in-class. They have a strong brand identity, excellent advertising, and yet the majority of product pages on their website are a tone-free zone. Yes, they get to the point, and while they do lean towards the colloquial, they nonetheless reside in the realms of corp-speak. There’s not much which stands out here.

The Ugly – John Lewis

John Lewis LogoDepartment store chain John Lewis presents a different problem altogether. They have both a strong brand and strong copy, but like a builder in suspenders; the two don’t match. Ugly is perhaps a little harsh, but an inconsistent brand message is still a problem.

John Lewis has a great social media presence. Their tone is friendly and informative, they  use exclamation marks to assure us of their light hearted whimsy (!),  but while their online presence might be ‘fun’ and ‘happening’, this simply doesn’t match the perception of their brand on the High Street. They’re not ‘fun’ and ‘happening’ in the real world… they represent quality, but they’re also high-end and expensive. Essentially, they have an air of sophistication which doesn’t come across in their social media or on their website, good though these are.

If a company’s copy doesn’t match people’s existing perception of their brand, people will start to question: are they being sincere? In the case of John Lewis, who have been around since 1864, they are obviously trying to appeal to a new generation. Ok, so they’re hugely successful, but the essence of my point remains the true regardless of whether you agree with this example; any organisation with copy that doesn’t match their brand needs to revise their content strategy – alternatively, they may need to revise their overall brand strategy. Either way, these are expensive and time-consuming tasks and where possible, it’s always safer to plan up front.

Brand or copy… which comes first?

Put simply: brand must come first. Of course, you can’t have a great brand without great copy, but your content can’t lead your brand on its own. Best-in-class content is just one factor that effects people’s perception of a company’s brand. As with many marketing trends, the upsurge in the need for great copy is reactionary; many companies have come to understand that good content is important, but they don’t necessarily understand why. However, as people become exposed to quality, editorial standard copy, which has a clear message and distinct tone of voice, they will start to see through anybody who hasn’t got it nailed.

The copywriter’s task is to make sure that copy blends so seamlessly with brand that people don’t notice the joins. So drag your feet if you wish, but don’t do it for long… I predict Sticky’s next survey will show an increasing awareness of what really makes really good content, so you’d better get a strategy and a great copywriter in place before you get left behind. We can’t all be innocent, but we can have a damn good go at getting it right.

You can download the Sticky Content Report here (it has lots of cool graphs).

To keep up to date with the latest, you can follow me on Twitter.


Playing it safe: 5 tips for successful email campaigns

24 Jun

Today, I received an email. It went something like this:

“Hi Colin, How are you? We hope you’re great! Isn’t this weather nice? Check out our courier services – we offer the best rates for all your last minute needs.”

Well, I thought, how friendly and informative. There are just two problems. Firstly, I’m a marketer and writer; unless I decide to set up a print, publish and distribution service from my flat, I can’t see I’ll ever need the services of a courier. The second minor oversight is that my name isn’t Colin.

Why do companies do this? Why do they insist on invading my privacy, and invading it badly? Being marketed to has become a cultural norm: people expect it. But they also expect it to be done well. In short: they don’t want to be sold something they don’t need, they want to be sold something they didn’t know they needed.

While some organisations have it nailed, many companies out there still misunderstand the concept of social media and are using it in all the wrong ways. Others have misinterpreted it even further, by assuming that the informality brought by social media gives them inexplicit permission to be over familiar with their audience. While fine in the context of social media, this assumed familiarity has started creeping into areas of digital marketing where it is doesn’t belong. One of these is email marketing, and today’s top tips post is focused on those who have got it all wrong… not in my Twitter feed, but all over my inbox.

1. Give people something for free

Sending a campaign to inform somebody of a new product or service is all well and good, but why should they care? Have a little sympathy with your audience… they’re being sold to on the television, via their apps, on the way to work, AT work… whatever you’re promoting, make it worth their while. To a certain extent it depends on what you’re marketing, but a pretty universal rule of thumb is that if people get something for nothing, they will remember you. Whether it’s a voucher or a giveaway; something as simple as a demo of your new product, or even a link to a great case study or website; so long as it’s good enough value for the time they took to click through, you will stick in their mind.

2. Don’t personalise campaigns with first names

Of course, whatever content you’re sending it should be personalised to the audiences’ interests, but including somebody’s name on email is not a substitute for appropriately targeting the content. People aren’t stupid; they can smell a mail shot a mile off, and personalising it with their name only draws attention to the fact that the sender is trying to hide that they have sent this to an entire database of contacts.

As my earlier example demonstrates, personalising an email campaign can also backfire. Your contact database no doubt includes some distribution lists. This means that although the name of your contact was correct at the time of entry, and their job may still exist, the person receiving the emails may have moved on. And that’s when you risk turning your ‘Norman’ into another opt-out. Remember: the less you personalise an email, the less that can go wrong with it.

3. Ensure the tone matches your brand

If you’re adamant that you want to personalise your campaign with the recipient’s name, of course that’s up to you. Nonetheless, I would suggest only doing so if ‘casual’ matches your brand and tone of voice. Opening with somebody’s name immediately informalises your message; so don’t then make the mistake I’ve seen countless companies make, and follow it with corporate spiel. Once again, this looks generic, lazy, and stands out in all the wrong ways. Even the most informal of brands (such as innocent drinks) never personalise their campaigns. But they are well targeted and well written, so when I receive a mail from innocent, I don’t mind that it isn’t addressed directly to me.

Finally, if your campaign tone is informal, does this accurately reflect your brand? This is a very common mistake. If you have a corporate tone of voice, keep your campaign’s tone corporate. I see a lot of campaigns, well written by an enthusiastic marketing executive… however, when I click through to their website, it’s a different story. Yes, you need to grab attention, but not at the expense of giving your audience a consistent experience.

4. Target the right people

This sound obvious, but make sure your content is relevant to the audience you’re writing for. A friend of mine recently told me that the marketing department for the company she used to work for sent every email campaigns to the entire database. Your content may be perfectly relevant and interesting, but if the copy in front of it aims to capture too broad an audience, it will not just dilute it but make it irrelevant. And that means opt-outs.  Instead, take some time to write different copy for different audiences, and to send out different emails. It will take longer, but it will pay. And in case you’re worreid, this isn’t just speculation ; I’ve consistently seen much better click through rates on targeted campaigns and far greater numbers of opt-outs in untargeted ones.

5. Send from the company, not an individual

If you’re an individual, send your campaign from you. If you’re a company, send it from the company. Unless your CEO is Mark Zuckerberg or someone equally notable, nobody cares that your CEO has personally endorsed this message. In fact, it could hurt you as it risks coming across as arrogant. As such, avoid signing off from an individual at all costs. Sometimes I receive emails from a CEO, a Marketing Director, or worse yet; a Business Development Manager. Everybody knows this is code for ‘salesman’, and if you work in Marketing, you’ll probably be wondering why somebody in sales is sending marketing campaigns in the first place.

Essentially, sending from an individual has the same effect as sending to one. You’re trying to say: ‘This message is from us to you’. Unfortunately, what it’s really saying is: ‘We can’t get our marketing right; you probably shouldn’t work with us.’ This may sound harsh, but it’s true. It’s also the reason why good marketing departments don’t deserve the bad reputation brought upon them by people who think they know better… marketing is not about your ego but your audience. Your only job is to stay one step ahead of them so that you can continue keeping them happy.

And finally…

I will end on a perhaps controversial note by saying that you should avoid personalising your email campaigns altogether. Instead of faffing about with mail merges and custom fields, concentrate on targeting your content to your audience. If you can show the reader that you’ve understood their needs enough to get the tone, offering and layout right, then really you’ve done your job, right? It doesn’t get much more personal than that.