What’s branding got to do with copywriting?

Branding is often seen as being all about how a product looks – its logo, packaging, design and stuff like that. But, alongside the designer or art director, the copywriter also has an important part to play. You couldn’t imagine a Coca Cola ad being produced with loads of swear words in it, for example, or a Porsche ad getting down with the kids and being all “street”. Setting the tone of voice is the writer’s biggest responsibility in the branding process but there are many other things s/he needs to do to establish, build and maintain a strong brand.

Set the tone of voice

Every brand has a personality. If I say “Apple” and ask you to shout out the first word you think of it might be “innovation” or “cool” or “stylish”. Try it for any brand: Samsung, Google, Microsoft, Walmart, IBM, GE, Amazon, Coke. All top brands but each with a slightly different character, they need every bit of communication they put out to reflect that distinctive personality.

The copywriter has many tools to set and tweak the tone. Obviously the choice of words is the most important. Apple would use a different vocabulary to Walmart because they want to achieve different effects: the former wants people to feel impressed or awed, the latter wants people to feel comfortable and at ease.

You can also play with tone using different “voices”. Using the first person (“I”, “We”) or second person (“You”) gives a personal and inclusive feel; the third person (“It”, “They” or “The company”) is a lot more formal and stiff. You might find that business to business clients may feel more comfortable with the formal tone as they think it’s more business-like.

This can be taken to extremes though. A recent b-to-b client of mine wanted a brochure writing with no colloquialism, no second person and no imperatives (“Do”, “Buy”, “Look”, etc.). It completely hobbles the writer’s ability to communicate of course but, more importantly, ignores an important fact: even businessmen are humans and will respond better if spoken to as such.

Write the guidelines

The copywriter also has a role to play behind the scenes in the branding game. S/he may be asked to define exactly what the brand personality we’ve just been talking about actually is. Every major company will have a book of brand guidelines which include things like “Brand values”, “Brand proposition”, “Vision statement” and “Mission statement”.

Very often these are virtual gobbledegook made up of strangled corporate-speak that nobody understands and which add nothing to the communication process. But, if written well, they can contribute towards giving focus to what you’re trying to say and act as a constant reminder of how you should be saying it.

You might take this one step further and write your own Editorial Style Guide. This would put down in black and white things to say and not to say in order to maintain the right tone of voice. A large company is going to have more than one copywriter (or even more than one agency) so a style guide helps to get all the copywriters involved singing – or writing – from the same hymn sheet.

Think up slogans

Talk about pleasure and pain. Coming up with slogans (or, more properly, “straplines”) can be fun but it can also be incredibly frustrating depending on your client. We like to pretend there’s a science to the process and a good account team will come up with reams of paperwork with analysis from focus groups and customers to help establish what the strapline should express. Of course, it’s good to take on board as much background information as possible but, at the end of the day, the best ones come out of random brainstorming sessions or frenzied doodling and scribbling till something original and interesting pops up.

There are different kinds of strapline though. They might be descriptive and tell the reader what the company does (BA. The world’s favourite airline). This is especially useful and important when it’s not clear from the company name what they do. They might be emotive (Nike. Just do it). This tells you nothing of what the company produces but gives a feeling or attitude that sums up the brand character. They could also include a call to action (“Don’t just book it. Thomas Cook it.”). Or include a product benefit (“Heineken refreshes the parts other beers can’t reach”).

As with most copywriting jobs there are guidelines and best practices but no set-in-stone rules for slogan creation. Be inspired by some of the best and then let your mind run free. You’ll be surprised at what turns up out of nothing. The biggest problem for me, though, when coming up with straplines is that “Just do it” is so damn good that I’ll never come up with a better one!

Come up with brand names & product names

There are a lot of similarities between slogan creation and naming things and companies. They can be descriptive, emotive, benefit-driven or action-driven. The trick is not to be too prescriptive at the beginning of a job like this: just put everything down on paper and then review and edit ruthlessly.

The trick, actually, is how you present your ideas to a client. First of all, don’t give them too many proposals because it will just overwhelm them and you’ll get into endless very subjective conversations about which one is best. You need to seize control of the process and guide the client toward a decision without too much discussion. Organise your ideas (say, half a dozen) into the categories we’ve talked about (this makes it look like you’ve approached the process in a scientific way). And prepare a short rationale for each one as to why it is a good idea. By keeping the conversation fact-based and rational you’ll come across as a consultant rather than just a bottomless source of random ideas.

What’s your experience as a copywriter of doing branding? Any advice for others?

Patrick is a well travelled freelance writer with a couple of decades of writing experience behind him. These days he combines blogging with writing assignments for The Copywriter Collective and even manages to do a bit of teaching besides.