Writing as branding

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I was asked to join the advisory board of the UK’s Business Superbrands project. The book just came out and it included this article, which I wrote for them about the use of writing as a branding tool. Regular blog readers will recognise several themes but I enjoyed writing this article for them because it weaves everything together nicely.

Companies lavish great sums on ads, branding and websites. But they give less thought to the everyday writing they create. I’m not talking about copywriting in adverts. That’s poetry. I’m talking about prose. The humdrum stuff of daily business life: press releases, contracts, marketing collateral, website content and the rest.

I believe that writing is a fundamental part of a brand. Finding a corporate voice and using it consistently adds weight and distinctiveness to a brand. Companies that neglect their writing risk short-changing their brand.

Google is a role model. It is no coincidence that it has a very consistent style and that its writing echoes the brand. Google’s home page is nothing but words, after all. Most people concentrate on the button “Google Search.” Those two words define what Google does but the other button, “I’m Feeling Lucky,” is more subtle. It reassures me that I’ll find what I’m looking for. It tells me “I” am in charge. It radiates optimism. These few words tell me a lot about the Google brand.

Google’s word-branding goes deeper than its home page – it permeates everything they do. Its terms and conditions also talk straight to the reader (“Thank you for trying out Google Desktop! Google Desktop is made available to you by Google Inc….”). It tells you what’s important (When you enable advanced features it said “Please read this carefully, it’s not the usual yada yada”).

Reinforcing the brand

Good writing, like Google’s, enhances a brand in different ways. It can reinforce the reader’s idea of what the brand stands for. For example, Virgin Atlantic shares the Virgin brand’s cheeky irreverence. Tired by a long flight? “Pretend you’re already there,” says Virgin Atlantic. Bored by safety announcements? Watch a cartoon instead.

On a more practical level, good writing can increase sales. Amazon’s login screen has a big friendly button which says “Sign in using our secure server”. This reassures me that Amazon will keep my details safe. Similarly, on the penultimate page of the checkout process it says “you can review this order before it’s final” right under the “Continue” button. Amazon has analysed where and why people stop buying and they’ve added these cues to get more people through the process.

Breaking faith

In contrast to Amazon, Virgin and Google’s success, most corporate-speak is bland, undifferentiated and hard to read. Meaning is obscured by jargon, waffle, hype, verbiage, legalese and conventionality.

The cost of bad writing far outweighs the value created by good writing. A typical example is the heavily-promoted ‘free’ online trial that opens with a daunting click-through contract. Another common problem is website copy that just doesn’t answer your questions. Yet another is the pious press release that takes 200 words to clear its throat and get started. My pet peeve is application forms that might as well be written in Medieval Latin. In fact, once you start looking for bad business writing, it’s easy to spot.

It is possible to track the impact of clear product descriptions on sales, well-written manuals on support calls and snappy website copy on traffic. On the other hand, it is very difficult to add up the costs that come from poor marketing collateral, obscure press releases or badly-worded letters.

The cost of bad writing is two-fold. First, you lose the money you spent delivering the words to the reader. Expensive website? Waste of money. 50,000 brochures? Recycling fodder. Second, you lose the hoped-for result. Have you ever read a brochure that bored or confused you? Did you buy the product afterwards?

Once you get past the glossy ads and shiny exterior, most companies sound like a headmaster, bank manager or lawyer. Is this how you want your company to sound to its customers and employees? In a wider sense, a company breaks faith with a reader any time a company’s words don’t match its brand. It’s like a witness squirming under cross-examination. The truth will out.

What is good writing?

Good grammar, punctuation and spelling are necessary but not sufficient. Business writing is about hooking and persuading the reader. The best way to engage a reader is to use stories because human beings are wired for them. We look for believable details, natural speech and a flow from beginning to end. Journalism has evolved ways of creating credible, persuasive and readable stories and books like Donald Murray’s Writing to Deadline have a lot to teach the business world. But journalism stops short of persuasion and that is the objective of a business writer. The ‘call to action’ often comes at the end of a piece but good business copy has a logical thread running through it that persuades the reader as it goes.

Writing for the web

We’re all internet entrepreneurs now. The internet has done what technology always does. It has gone from being gee-whizz to ho-hum, from avant-garde to comme il faut. Business writing – so important in this new medium – has not caught up with the change. The BBC has got it right, though. They know that people don’t read web pages the same way they look at newspapers or books and they write accordingly. Their website uses short paragraphs, short sentences, scannable text (clearly labelled links and headlines), hype-free language (in the journalistic tradition) and crisp micro-content (“Falklands return. How going back 25 years later helps heal veterans’ scars”).

One of the problems with less switched-on websites is the low priority given to web copy during development. A 2006 survey of digital agencies found that over half of them blamed delays on content problems but only 10 per cent said that content was a priority. They thought that design, development and search engine optimisation were much, much more important. To me, this is like building a missile but forgetting the payload. The gap is filled by ‘lorem ipsum’ placeholder copy. If you see this on a development website, consider it a warning sign.

We’re all writers now

Thanks to email, blogs and social networks like Facebook, we’re all business writers now. Microsoft positively encourages its employees to blog. Its thousands of employee-bloggers put a human face on their business. But most companies prefer to muzzle employees rather than develop their writing skills and embed a corporate tone of voice across the business. As these new media burst into life, we have a chance to embrace every written word as a tool that can make a brand strong, fresh and different. Otherwise it’s just the usual yada yada.

16 Responses to Writing as branding

  1. Mat April 1, 2008 at 2:30 pm #

    Matthew

    Great inspirational piece. And just as I was reviewing the ProofHQ site copy. SwissMiss just highlighted how “real” the copy is on the WuFoo site (http://swissmiss.typepad.com/weblog/2008/03/wufoo-ui-that-r.html).

    I made a note to self: don’t be such a stuffy, corporate dullard. Write real words for real people.

  2. Elizabeth McCaffrey April 3, 2008 at 2:58 pm #

    For companies that consider “employees” their best sales people, this article should be required reading. Advancing your business writing advances you in business by reinforcing your company’s brand integrity. Plain English, brand-sensitive, and customer focused.

    Thanks for a great article — want to share with my adult students.

  3. Rebecca April 23, 2008 at 7:05 pm #

    Very interesting analysis on the Google brand. The shift from advertising to online communications and web 2.0 requires good writing skills in order to engage customers. Grammatical errors will dissuade a customer’s loyalty as the business becomes less credible. Take a look at the blog of the PR Writer Extraordinaire who also talks about the significance of good writing when promoting a business. http://www.prwriterextraordinaire.com/blog.html

  4. David Bowman April 25, 2008 at 2:48 am #

    Understanding what readers/customers want, need, and expect helps companies develop a strong brand. Thinking of Google, they have captured what their users want, how they use the “product,” and how people use the name and brand “Google.”

  5. Master Dayton September 7, 2010 at 12:40 am #

    Very good blog post that covers an important part of the freelance writing career. I think you bring up a very important concept when you mention that branding is huge. Fortunately for me, a joke between me and my future sister-in-law ended up giving me a great name and a great story, and a natural in to branding myself online. But this is a step far too many people miss.

  6. khalifa February 17, 2011 at 11:17 pm #

    interesting piece, corporate writing is 100% an important factor for any business if you do not have the correct tone for your audience it can leave you in trouble.

  7. richard pelletier February 28, 2013 at 4:25 pm #

    Hi Matthew,
    Long time since I’ve visited. Never mentioned this before, but you should know that I’ve passed on this piece to a number of clients and I’m about to do so once more. Nicely done, as always. I’ll be in Oxford / London in April for a Dark Angels workshop. My time will be tight but maybe we can get a coffee…

    • Matthew Stibbe February 28, 2013 at 4:40 pm #

      Hi Richard, thanks for the nice feedback. Glad you think this article is useful. Ping me when you get to London and we’ll see if we can set something up. Matthew

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. ProofHQ - Product Blog » Blog Archive » What is a brand? - April 1, 2008

    [...] Stibbe at Bad Language has blogged about the part that great writing plays in branding.  See here.  To quote: I believe that writing is a fundamental part of a brand. Finding a corporate voice and [...]

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    Which matters most actions or words?…

    Up against it today. So, not much time to comment on these stories that caught my eye recently…….

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