The foundation of your empire

Posted on 12 September, 2017 by Paul Walden

Until people have had a chance to experience you or your product for themselves, your marketing IS your brand. It’s only the reality of your prospect customers that counts; it doesn’t matter what you “actually” have to offer if they don’t actually see that when they first find you online, in print or anywhere else.

How people interpret what you say at this point means everything. So how do you go about getting the message right? More precisely, how do you brief your copywriter to ensure optimal results?

Let’s digress for a moment. You might have heard all kinds of terms bandied about among marketing professionals: content strategy, information structure, creative concepts, brand identity, unique selling point, emotional selling point, mood board, tone of voice, user experience, etc., etc. ad nauseam. These terms are convenient for general reference and for planning out projects – and they might make Mad Men fans feel more important – but don’t worry if you don’t know what they all mean. Every last bit of your individual marketing units boils down to two things: the WHAT and the HOW.

The WHAT is the claims you are making about your brand or product. For instance: 1) we sell cars; 2) our cars have padded leather seats; and 3) our cars do 0-100km/h in 5.2s.

The HOW is your particular expression of WHAT you have to say. For instance: “Pole position feels even better in a comfortable padded leather seat, and our cars take you there at a blistering 0-100km/h in 5.2s.” Or whatever. Creativity knows no limits.

In other words, the WHAT is the substance and the HOW is the shape and colour (and, notably, this includes the information structure [the WHERE, if you like], whether it be the rhetorical structure of a short text or site-wide content architecture).

Now back to our original question of how to brief your copywriter. My advice: treat them as Lego Master Builders. You wouldn’t give a Lego Master Builder five measly blocks and ask them to build you an impressive mansion. You would give them buckets and buckets of different parts. You would give them a lot of substance to work with. You would give them numerous options for WHAT to include in their grand design. You wouldn’t worry too much about telling them HOW to put that design together – after all, that’s the responsibility of the Master Builder/copywriter – and you wouldn’t worry that you’re giving them parts that they won’t end up using. Picking the stronger and discarding the weaker arguments is the copywriter’s job. Also, the copywriter will have to read up a lot on the nature of your business and target group just in order to nail the language and tone of voice.

The number one and extremely common issue with copywriting briefs – and this can be a very costly, time-consuming issue – is lack of substance, often combined with an abundance of subjective, HOW-oriented statements. In over 15 years as a copywriter, I’ve only come across a handful of very small projects where I didn’t have to ask for more information to get the creative right.
This is not so strange. As experts in their particular field – whatever it may be – copywriting clients often cannot see the forest for the trees. They mistakenly assume that others share their level of knowledge, and then focus much of their brief on HOW they’d like to come across.

When this is taken to the extreme, it’s like putting the Lego Master Builder/copywriter to work with nothing but a blank sheet of paper and a set of crayons. There are no building blocks. No substance. Nothing with which the copywriter can build a structure and rise above the rest. There are only colours. Decorations.

Don’t let that happen to your copywriting project. Instead, before you brief the copywriter, scrutinize the research material you’re about to hand them. Does it really present the full gamut of WHAT your marketing could conceivably say? Will it provide your copywriter with a smorgasbord of credible and strong arguments to pick from?

Look for tangible, factual statements: “0-100km/h in 5.2s”, for example. Such statements have real substance. A statement such as “fast”, on the other hand, doesn’t really have substance. It’s entirely subjective. So, whenever you use an adjective in your brief, strive to back it up with provable facts that the copywriter can leverage in their own way.

In short: focus on giving your copywriter lots of options for WHAT they could say, and trust that they will pick the very strongest arguments and know HOW to present them in the strongest possible way. Give them buckets of different parts to play with. Then sit back and start looking forward to the moment you receive the first lot of draft copy.

Apart from the sheer strategic and creative skills of your copywriter, they will bring another potent spice to the party: the outsider perspective. Chances are, you will never have seen your business presented in such a powerful light.

For inspiration – and fun – check out just what can be done when you have lots of material at your disposal:

This could be your copywriting project.