Posts Tagged ‘communication strategy


Tease, Tell, Lead, Compel

One obstacle faced by advertising copywriters is widespread, passionate disagreement about what the job entails. Within the same agency, from team to team, or week to week, copywriters are asked to uphold any number of conflicting standards. That they must also obey a long-standing edict to write “poppy” headlines and “snappy” copy, makes this a challenge worthy of Rumpelstiltskin himself.

Why? Because neither of these adjectives has intrinsic meaning. It’s a case of:

You say promotional,
     And I say interruptive!
You say authentic,
     And I say too soft!

Let’s call the approval process off!

Action words…
Now, assuming they can squeeze a concise definition of these attributes out of their colleagues, copywriters must still reconcile such abstract standards with the task of communicating to a new generation—who see classic 1960s advertising lingo as a dead language.

Besides, copywriting isn’t about adjectives—or fundamentally about words. A copywriter’s job is to instill motivation through a coherent thought process that can be articulated in immediate, emotional terms. As such, it’s a tough, acrobatic feat requiring maximum flexibility. Restrain a copywriter with arbitrary rules of style and you might as well ask a trapeze artist to execute a straddle whip in an evening gown.

In fact, great copy is much more than a string of words leading up to a codified call to action. Great copy is, itself, a call to action and anything conspiring to drown out that call impedes communication with your audience. Instead of focusing on rules, adjectives or magic headline formulas, copywriters need to focus on the answer to a basic question at the start of each project:

how do we get x to do y?

Everything else is a distraction, born of the absurd notion that certain hypnotic phrases have the power to overcome human will—leaving aside the question of whether that’s an ethical pursuit.

But there’s another delusion, snuggled inside that one, that works just as hard against your prospects for success: The idea that the goal of every communication is necessarily to sell something on the spot. While it may make sense from an ROI perspective, this kind of thinking ignores human nature.

 …and the Art of Seduction.
That’s because human nature thrives on seduction—especially when it’s formulated as an affirmation that we’re special, unique and endowed with our own private chip off the block of divine beauty. So unless you’re banking your entire brand strategy on a Crazy-Eddie-style discount marketing scheme, you’ll need to introduce the art of seduction into your practice.

Keep in mind, however, that what qualifies as seduction changes with time and context. In the 1980s, for example, Crazy Eddie’s campaign succeeded despite the odds by having it both ways.

On one level, the announcer’s manic delivery could be read as an engaging parody of a promotional style that sophisticated shoppers abhor and abjure. As such, it flattered more than a few thousand metropolitan egos. On another level, of course, it worked as pure snake-oil marketing. The point is, an approach like that isn’t written, but conceived from one seamless thought process.

You start with a clear picture of what you want consumers to do and, just as important, how you want them to be affected by your presentation. You may want to:

Tease—because you want consumers to grasp your brand value as part of a larger marketing ecosystem. This has made Apple billions.

Tell—to build the case for a new way of accomplishing a goal that may have nothing to do with commerce, as in a political campaign.

Lead—consumers to reshape their perception of a product, say, from “extravagant” to “essential,” an equation anyone who bought an SUV built like a Bradley armored vehicle in the 1990s is familiar with.

Compel—by creating inescapable emotional appeal, especially in, but not limited to, cause marketing.

By identifying a communication strategy based on clear creative goals, you now have a yardstick against which to measure the copy emerging from it.

This approach takes pressure off individual phrases—whether headlines or bullets—to drive the selling message home. It also scrapes away generations of encrusted marketing-speak. Don’t worry, you won’t miss it. In 2013, advertising isn’t about selling either the steak or the sizzle, but the positive frame of mind that sharing a steak with friends can bring to everyday life.

Try doing that with a roomful of balloons—or a headline announcing your prices are INSANE. Instead, put your dog-eared Marketing 101 phrase book in a drawer and let your creative team earn trust, loyalty and brand advocacy over the long term, by letting a coherent messaging strategy take precedence over vague generalities about copy style.


Messaging Coherence & the Marketing Ecosystem

In a perfect world, brands would launch with a fully worked out messaging platform, a strategy for communicating with the target audience on many different levels. While the perfect world stubbornly refuses to materialize, imagining its properties is sometimes a fruitful way to make real world solutions less blunt-nosed, less bottom-lined and, frankly, less bird-brained.

To be clear, by “messaging platform” I mean the total composite takeaway you want your audience to absorb and—just as important—believe. In its purest form, some part of that takeaway would permeate every communication. Why only part? Because, as we all know, there’s barely enough space-time available in any one advertising or promotional format to convey even one straight-forward motivating proposition.

TV? Zap! Envelope? Rip! Magazine? Flip! 
As a consequence, it’s vitally important that everything you do say ladders up to a unified messaging platform. By the same token, your message to consumers will become garbled in no time, unless its entirety is implicit in every snippet you push out through advertising, promotion, PR or social media. In essence, your messaging platform must, by analogy, be fractal.

Accomplishing this is much easier than it sounds. All that’s required is a firm grasp of the difference between a communication and a communication medium. That is, the realization that a successful communication doesn’t arise spontaneously from a collection of MBA-approved introductory gambits, catch phrases and calls to action any more than it arises from painstaking stock art searches (“I’m not crazy about her outift”) or trend-hopping font choices.

Start with a train of thought…
Effective communication arises from a coherent thought process brought to life by creative talent. It’s that thought process—an intermingling of strategy, empathy, observation and theatrical flair—that’s the basis for a successful messaging platform. Whatever you want consumers to take away, you’ll need to touch all these bases. Otherwise, all those late nights sequestered in a conference room with day-old pasta-salad and warm Diet Coke are for nothing.

As I see it, coherence in this sense contributes much more to the success of your campaign than secondary factors like ownability, style or voice. Yet, so often, marketers mistake the wrapping paper for the present. The result is millions spent on highly polished advertising that reflects a marketer’s motivations very well—and the motivations of consumers not at all.

…reflecting what your audience actually values.
Now, that’s not to say that consistent messaging boils down to repeating the same phrases each and every time. That kind of consistency is, as the poet says, “…the hobgoblin of little minds” and is rooted in anxiety. Like a traveler clutching a phrase book, marketers who fear to deviate from a set script for each campaign transmit only one message,

 “We’re not interested in talking to you. We just want you to buy our stuff.”

It’s a realty no exercise in Consumer Friendly Language can hope to mask. In its worst form, this rigid tag-lining of word and image also constitutes one of the clearest arguments for the obsolescence of the advertising campaign as a communication strategy. Sure, everyone knows every brand is in the business of selling on some level. But we want the same thing from brand communications that we want from the best cashiers at our favorite retail stores—a dash of courtesy, non-intrusive concern and at least a ritualized acknowledgment of our individuality.

Much of the time, however, branded communication—especially in digital space—is a tad too reminiscent of Kristen Wiig’s Target Lady cashier. Like so much digital palaver, Target Lady’s chatter is all and only about herself.

Protect the marketing ecosystem.
What you do want to be is consistent about is what matters most: giving consumers information they can use to decide on their own that it’s time to buy. In a perfect world, each communication would focus on a different aspect of your value. By saying one thing clearly, one thing memorably, one thing that vividly engages consumers’ emotions in each communication, you’ll build a composite picture that makes an indelible, motivating impression.

Regrettably, many brands sacrifice coherent messaging by equating “message” with “offer.”, for example, squanders the emotionally-charged broadcast campaign “I am Unlimited” by making it fight for space with “Save $100 when you switch” and a flotilla of other offers. By splintering its message, Sprint diminishes the product category, thereby damaging the entire marketing ecosystem. Certainly, if I were Sprint or Samsung, I wouldn’t want consumers to equate my product to picking up a two-pound bag of yellow onions at the corner supermarket “Now through Thursday.”

Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY



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