A #ProCopyChat on Twitter

Brand language, Brand storytelling, Customers
Someone rather more smartly dressed than I am pontificating

Someone smartly dressed gets interviewed

The ProCopywriters’ Network interviewed me on Twitter, asking about brand personality, tone of voice and content strategy. Here’s what we talked about during our #ProCopyChat:

Let’s start with you telling us a bit more about yourself. What’s your writing background?

Well, I’m a Brand Language Consultant. I help all sorts of different organisations change how they write so they reach their customers more directly and powerfully. It’s a bit like being a brand design agency, except with words instead of visuals.

I’ve been freelancing for about 10 years. Before that I was experiential at Imagination and brand focussed at Corporate Edge. And I started off at Unilever, marketing frozen food and ice cream for Birds Eye Wall’s.

I’m also an SF novelist who learned about storytelling by working in feature film development. Stories are how we make sense of the world – they’re a big influence on how I see brands. And the SF helps me get clients ready for their own futures.

There’s a bio here – https://www.alrobertson.co.uk/meet-al-robertson/

When we think of tone of voice, we initially think about the personality of the brand/client/business. How is this created, and how does it then have an impact on the audience?

Who you are is defined by what you do. So that’s how I look at brand personality. Once I’ve read through all their writing – I ask people ‘what’s the best things your brand actually does?’, then I dig into what that means for their customers.

A brand exists to help its customer solve their problems. So we usually end up discussing things like: ‘What sort of friend is this brand? What vital things does it help you get done? How does it help you do them?’ Then I turn that into a story.

You can understand most stories as ‘Hero wants to do something / Hero can’t do something / Hero does something’. You can use that structure to tell a story where the customer’s the hero on a mission and the brand’s their vital support.

Everybody loves being the hero! So from the word go you’re winning the customer over. And you’re telling them a story about how the brand helps them achieve a vital goal in a unique way. So you’re showing them why they should buy into it.

And it’s also a great way of digging into anything the brand doesn’t quite get right. After all, nobody’s perfect. Getting people talking about how their brand might be a *challenging* friend can be very helpful too.

Here’s a blogpost I wrote a while back that touches on that process – and roleplaying games, because you can learn a lot about storytelling from them – https://www.alrobertson.co.uk/2018/07/12/dungeons-dragons-and-brand-guidelines/

Why is tone of voice an important concept in copywriting?

Writing is where a brand comes to life in real time. A good tone of voice shapes that writing, making sure the brand cuts through the noise to reach people in a direct, instantly recognisable way, with words that have genuine, alluring meaning to them.

A good tone of voice also makes customers feel the conversation’s centred on them by helping brands use their own language to reach them. That’s very powerful too – ‘Me me me’ is a terrible sales pitch, ‘You you you’ is much more effective.

And it’s a live response because writing’s live. Logos, look and feels – they don’t change. But if someone’s grumbling on social media, the brand has to write back live…

If they’re launching a new product, they’ve got to find new words to describe it… everywhere from on the pack to in the instructions to in the press release to on the website…

And even if someone at the brand’s writing a customer email – well, it’s great if that’s on tone as well, because it shows that the people at the brand stand for the same values as the brand itself.

Oh, and it’s where emotion comes in too – very often, particularly in B2B writing, people are all Sherlock Holmes – dry and rational. Tone of voice brings in the Dr Watson – powerful emotive storytelling!

Though actually, you really need to be both Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson – emotional and rational – at the same time – https://www.alrobertson.co.uk/2018/09/13/why-dr-watsons-right-about-good-writing/

Can you give us some good (and bad!) examples of tone of voice?

The classic is Innocent Drinks – they pioneered that cheery, chatty modern conversational brand tone, they’re completely unforced and entirely natural. And their tone is (as I understand it) a very precise reflection of what they’re really like. Perfect!

A tone of voice should never be lipstick on a pig – it should be a direct and honest reflection of what’s best about a brand. Not that I’ve got anything against pigs – rather, tone should match personality, not try and cover it up.

In my first ever job I edited (and sometimes wrote) the jokes on Wall’s ice cream sticks. They set the tone for the brand perfectly – the fun of ice cream brought to life in a very inventive way.

I have a big soft spot for Lego instruction booklets too. They’re so perfectly put together – no words, but sometimes the best language is no language. They’re a brilliant example of show don’t tell, a core storytelling idea.

Oh, and Dilmah tea – their pack writing isn’t always too polished, but they’re so transparently and genuinely enthusiastic about their products it really doesn’t matter. They come across as very honest and authentic.

As for not so good ToVs… actually, my own personal bugbear is the ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ slogan… so confrontational, it’s never change anyone’s mind! It’s the opposite of what its audience needs to hear. None of us need more confrontation just now.

And I find station apologies incredibly irritating. Endlessly repeated robot ‘We’re sorry for your inconvenience’ = Grrrr! Southern Rail, I’m looking at you. Though to be fair making corporate apologies can be a real challenge.

Here’s a blog post about with some more examples. And Dick Van Dyke, because you NEVER want your tone to go all Dick Van Dyke – https://www.alrobertson.co.uk/2018/06/14/so-why-do-we-need-tone-of-voice-anyway/

Once you’ve established the tone of voice, what’s your next step in creating a brand identity?

Well, you know who you are and how you talk – the next problem is working out what you’re going to say! So – content strategy, aka the art of turning what you know into what your audience needs to hear to get them to a place that’s good for both of you.

Oh, and you might end up chatting to the designers too – although I’ve found that brand language definition tends to happen long after any design work’s done and dusted. That’s another bugbear – core words and visuals should happen together!

How do you develop a content strategy around the brand personality and tone of voice that you’ve established?

What really defines it is the brand’s customer – you think about where they start and where you want them to end up, and then you build a customer journey that gets them there.

Imagine you’re driving your customer – the brand personality’s the vehicle you choose, the ToV’s the music, chat and views that makes them love being in it, and the content strategy’s the GPS system that gets you to a destination you’re both happy with.

So you’ve got to understand where your customer’s starting from, where you (and they) want them to get to and how you’re going to get them there. Then you build your content to take them on that journey.

You might have several different kinds of customers. Then it all goes a bit ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ – you set up multiple paths through your content, and let customers choose (or just guide them through) whichever one’s best for them.

And there’s no shame in turning people away. If you can’t help them or they’re not the kind of people you want to do business with, you need to make that clear as soon as possible. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time and theirs.

Wasting people’s time is the greatest content sin. A good content strategy stops you from ever doing that, because it gives every little bit of content a clearly defined reason for existing. It makes sure your audience never shrugs and asks ‘So what?’

Weber BBQs do content strategy fantastically well. They want people to cook awesome food on their BBQs, so they provide every kind of content to help them do that – from all the normal stuff to BBQing courses and some of the best cookbooks I’ve ever read.

Here’s a blogpost on how awesomely wonderful Weber BBQs’ content is – https://www.alrobertson.co.uk/2018/07/05/sizzle-your-way-to-better-brand-language/  and one on plotting customer journeys: https://www.alrobertson.co.uk/2018/10/18/how-to-help-your-customers-change/

Do you go through this process so you can write effectively for on a client’s behalf, or is it more of a toolkit so the client can improve the communications they make themselves?

It depends what they want. Sometimes I’m involved in the whole process, even doing some of the writing and editing myself, sometimes I just give them all the guidance and structure I can, train them in how to use it all and leave them to it.

Both have their plus points. Of course it’s lovely going back to help out over months or years – but I also love the challenge of writing guidance and training people too. It really makes you dig into what you do, so you can help someone else do it for themselves.

What’s the best piece of advice you can offer to someone to help them write more effectively?

Always start with the people you’re talking to. Understand the obstacles they face. Pin down what sort of hero they are. And then tell them a story about how you can help them overcome those obstacles to achieve something awesome.

Finally (and most importantly) – what’s your favourite biscuit?

The US-style cookies my wife makes on special occasions, with stroopwafels coming in second. Both washed down with a strong cup of black filter coffee! As my entire writing career runs on a platform of coffee.

Talking brand storytelling

Brand personality, Brand storytelling, Branding, Content strategy, Narrative branding, Tone of Voice

So I’ve been podcasted – many thanks to Andy from SiteVisibility, who had me on their Internet Marketing Podcast to chat about brand storytelling.

Once you start talking about brand storytelling, it’s hard to stop. We discussed how to give your brand a compelling personality, tell it as a gripping story and show your customers how it can play a crucial role in their own adventures. Oh, and we touched on tone of voice and content strategy too.

So here’s our chat – I hope you enjoy it:

Brand learnings from ‘Super Mario Bros’

Branding, Film

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’.

No brand’s a hero

Narrative branding

For various reasons, the whole narrative branding thing has popped back into my head lately. As someone who’s been intimately involved with brands, worked in feature film development, and written much fiction, it’s something I’ve thought about quite a lot, over the years.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that people tend to want to make the brand they’re working on the hero of its own story. On one level, that’s entirely reasonable. Whether you’re agency side or client side, you’re paid to become unusually obsessed with one particular brand. Because of that, it’s at the centre of your own personal narrative. It’s not surprising that you then want to put it at the centre of the stories people tell themselves about their own lives, too.

But, on another level it’s a complete nonsense. Since when has anyone who isn’t professionally involved with a brand put it at the centre of their own life? Rather, we are ourselves always the heroes of the stories we create about our own lives.

At best, brands are present in those stories as sidekicks, supporting each one of us in clearly defined ways as we go about the complex business of living. At worst, we (quite rightly) scarcely notice or remember them. What brand of washing powder had you used to wash the shirt you were wearing when you asked your beloved to marry you? Who knows? Who cares?

So, I’ve always been much more interested in personal narratives than brand narratives. And I use the term personal very deliberately. That’s because even the word consumer privileges the branded over the personal, defining an individual not by what he or she wants to achieve in life, but by what they consume; by how they interact with brands.

The best way of using narrative techniques to understand brands is to forget about brands entirely. Think about people; think about what they want to achieve in life; think about what motivates them, and what frustrates them. Understand them fully as individuals in their own right.

Only then will you be in a position to ask yourself how your particular brand – the brand that’s at the heart of your working life, that you spend your working days being professionally obsessed by – can help them, or is hindering them. And remember, when you do that, be humble. You’re not dealing with a consumer, who’s defined by brands; you’re dealing with a person, who isn’t.