Sizzle your way to better brand language

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So we were down at the Garden Centre the other day, buying a goldfish. That was a lot of fun – but for me, the really exciting part of the trip was finding issue 4 of Weber’s ‘Grill On’ barbecue magazine, because their brand language is fantastic.

We have two Weber barbecues – a big gas one and a little charcoal one – and we’re basically barbecue nuts. At the end of a hard day, few things are more relaxing than standing out in the back garden with a cold drink and something delicious sizzling on the grill.

And Weber have transformed what we barbecue and how we barbecue it, because they understand the real purpose of brand language. The best brand writing doesn’t tell, it shows. It helps people understand how wonderful your brand is by showing them how to get the most out of what it does.

Weber’s awesome cookbooks

Weber do that really well. They even publish cookbooks – we have their complete barbecue book and smoking guide. Both are fantastically informative, including deep dives into barbecue theory and practice, all-purpose grilling tips and tricks and of course a small mountain of delicious recipes.

Those books contain some of the most practical, informative food writing I’ve ever read. Weber’s content strategy turns their barbecuing expertise into useful, practical guidance that transforms their users’ brand experience. They pretty much guarantee that you’ll get the best out of your Weber kit.

Oh, and the ‘Grill On’ magazine is excellent too. It’s basically the Weber catalogue – but before you get to any product info, you have fifty six beautifully designed and written pages of barbecue recipes, grilling science and practical info. It’s a great read.

But what’s in it for Weber?

All that content’s great for the Weber barbecuer, because it brings the whole process to life in a way that’s practically, positively relevant to them. After all, they’re the ones paying good money for Weber kit. They have every right to all the help and support the brand can give.

And of course people who know how to get the most out of a brand automatically become excellent ambassadors for it. Whenever anyone sees them using it, they see high quality results achieved in a confident, purposeful way. What’s not to like?

Then they start talking about it.

You’ve had a sample of me raving about Weber above. If we were chatting face-to-face, I’d probably have pulled one of the books off the shelf to show you. You might also be munching away on a delicious recipe from it. So you’d probably end up feeling pretty positive about Weber barbecues.

The big brand language question

That’s what good content does. And it all goes to show the most important question to ask yourself when you’re writing for your own brand. It’s not:

  • How do we tell people how awesome we are?

Instead, ask yourself:

  • How do we help people do awesome things?

Then you’ll be on to a winner.

Why business writing should come from the heart

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There’s a comment that often comes up when I’m training B2B communicators in better business writing. It usually happens when I say something along the lines of: ‘To write well, you have to think about what your audience are feeling as much as what you’re telling them’.

And when I say that, someone usually replies with something like: ‘Ah, but we’re not fluffy and consumer. We’re all about business to business. Everything we do is all about being as rational as possible. So we really don’t need to worry about the emotional side of things when we’re writing.’

I’ve had that comment from finance people, technical types, insurers, charity managers – just about anyone you can imagine. And there’s a specific story I always tell in response to it, from psychiatrist Antonio Damasio’s excellent book on how our brains work: ‘The Feeling of What Happens’.

Where facts can’t go

Damasio describes how one patients suffered a traumatic brain injury that turned off the emotional part of his mind, leaving him unable to feel. All he could do was reason.

And instead of turning him into some Spock-like genius, one who – unhampered by the confusing distractions of emotion – ended up secretly ruling the world, or at least doing pretty well within some important part of it, it broke him. He found making even the simplest decisions impossible.

That’s because he only had reason to rely on. And reason deals in firm, hard facts. And most of the time there aren’t enough firm, hard facts available to know whether or not you’re making the right choice.

Damasio’s patient couldn’t even decide what colour socks to put on in the morning, because he had no way of knowing for sure how the choice of either one might affect his day.

So what do you really feel?

Damasio uses that story to make the point that we decide by feeling as much as thinking.

Reason helps us deal with what we know will happen. But we can’t know everything. So emotion – lovely, fuzzy emotion – helps us fill in the gaps, feeling our way through all the vaguenesses and uncertainties of life, and reacting accordingly. It’s a fundamental part of being human.

And every piece of business writing is written by a human for a human. And that human audience makes his or her decisions by feeling as much as by thinking, because that’s how we’re built. That’s how we make our minds up. That’s who we are.

So, no matter how rational a piece of business writing you’re working on, you always need to stop and work out how you want it to make your audience feel. Because they’re another human, just like you, so how you make them feel is just as important as what you make them think.

Brand learnings from ‘Super Mario Bros’

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So there’s a lot you can learn about how important good brand writing is from 1993’s failed ‘Super Mario Bros’ movie.

OK, bear with me here.

Dennis Hopper nails it

The reason I’m bringing up one of cinema’s more epic turkeys is this article about its troubled production. The shoot looks tough to live through, but it’s great to read about. In particular, it’s hard to beat Dennis Hopper’s epic two and three quarter hour rant about:

  • the poverty of the script
  • the inexperience of the directors
  • the iniquities of Hollywood in general

I wouldn’t pay to watch the movie, but I’d love to see that rant. Especially because Hopper was surrounded by 300 baffled extras (except when he broke for lunch, still ranting) and dressed as a humanoid dinosaur.

Image result for dennis hopper super mario bros

And also, he nailed the big problem that sunk the movie.

Of course, lots of inexperienced directors have made great movies despite the difficulties of Hollywood. And making a ‘Super Mario Bros’ movie wasn’t actually such a crazy idea. Films like ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ and the various Lego movies have spun cinematic gold from very similar material.

The problem was the script

The script’s first version was by ‘Rain Man’ writer Barry Morrow. But something about his road-tripping mismatched brothers story was a little… over-familiar. After another false start, producer Roland Joffé brought in the Max Headroom team. Their cyberpunk dystopia wasn’t quite right either.

British comedy legends Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (who’d written everything from ‘Porridge’ to ‘The Commitments’) then worked on it. The directors loved this draft, but the film’s financial backers didn’t. So, just before the shoot, they had the co-writer of ‘Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ produce a final version.

Apparently, it wasn’t bad.

Image result for bill ted excellent

Unfortunately, nobody told the directors about this final version. It came as a huge shock on the first day of filming – they almost walked out. Perhaps they should have done, because the shoot was a disaster and the film was one of the 90s’ biggest flops.

And all of those problems began with the script.

No clear vision

After all those rewrites, it didn’t express a single clear, powerful vision for the film. And without that, all those incredible talents – Bob Hoskins, Dennis Hopper, some of the world’s finest special effects people, the producer who’d just made ‘The Killing Fields’ and ‘Chariots of Fire’ and so many others – had nothing to bring them together.

So everything fell apart.

In both film-making and business, words are where a clear, powerful vision comes together in a way that everyone can understand, buy into, and act purposefully and creatively on.

If you can agree on the words that describe what you’re all going to achieve together, and if you can make that story clear, compelling and easy to understand, then you’re off to the best possible start.

And if you can’t – well, just go and watch ‘Super Mario Bros’.

Writing speech for brands

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It struck me just now that the best way of writing for brands is to see your words as speech, not prose.

That came out of thinking about the difference between writing for brands and writing fiction. I’ve always separated them by saying that, when I write for a brand, I’m trying to sound like someone else, and when I write fiction I’m trying to sound like myself.

But in fact, when I’m writing fiction I’m never just talking in my own voice. Stories are built on characters, and characters spend an awful lot of time talking to each other. So, whenever I’m telling a story, I’m actually working hard to sound like several other people at once.

And that’s what made me think that writing dialogue a lot like writing for brands. In both cases, I’m trying to understand and communicate a coherent personality, one that’s entirely separate from my own. And that, I think, is going to be quite a useful insight, both when I’m writing and when I’m teaching writing.

First of all, it’s a reminder that brand communications are more effective when they’re pitched in a more conversational tone of voice. A formal, blandly corporate tone might share information, but it can’t share emotion like speech can. And – of course – emotional engagement is core to any effective piece of brand writing.

And secondly, it’s a reminder that we live in a world where any brand’s audience can very easily go online and start talking back. Any piece of brand writing can start a new conversation, or become part of an ongoing one.

That means, every time I write for a brand, I need to be thinking about what’s already been said about it, how what I write is going to fit into it, and how I’d like people to reply to whatever it is I’ve just said.