In conversation: Amanda Jackson talks to copywriter Sarah Turner of Turner Ink
In part 1, we talk about tone of voice, what makes good copy and why you should always employ a copywriter.
On copy as part of brand identity…
Amanda: As a designer, I know that the words used in marketing collateral, like websites and sales letters, or on packaging, literally define how customers perceive a business.
Sarah: Absolutely. Copy is a key part of the brand, and your copy’s tone of voice – the words you use, sentence length, grammar and rhythm – is as important as the logo and typeface you choose.
On the importance of a consistent tone of voice…
AJ: And having a consistent tone of voice is key.
ST: Yes, definitely. It’s important for companies – from small start-ups to corporates – to have the same tone of voice across their brand at every touchpoint. This is what some companies really don’t do.
They have their web copy written one way, their social media sounds a different way and the people answering the phone speak another way. It’s important to have that connection between how you sound as a company and who you are. And it’s important to sound distinctive, to sound memorable.
AJ: Yes, most corporate-speak is bland, undifferentiated and hard to read. But successful brands are able to cut through with a distinctive tone of voice.
ST: I’m sure you must see this Amanda: People get very excited about colour palettes and packaging and logos and then it gets to the copy and they say: ‘oh you know what, we’ll just stick any old words in there’. But really, good copy is the final piece of the branding puzzle.
AJ: Yes, I see that. Certainly, when clients come to me – and packaging is a good example – they’ve often written the copy themselves. So, I always recommend to my clients to get professional copywriting because it can really elevate a brand.
On why you should always have your copy written by a copywriter…
ST: Ok, so do you ever get frustrated when you’ve designed something fabulous and the logo is great, and the branding is great and then the client says: ‘we’ll do our own copy’?
AJ: [Laughing] I cringe when I receive copy that hasn’t been crafted or thought through. Typically, it’s long-winded paragraphs or flowery language. Other times we receive copy that’s too vague. But, of course, it’s quite a delicate conversation. I have to say something like: ‘I think we can build on this’. And then I recommend it’s written professionally!
In fact, we always recommend our clients’ copy is professionally written. They only have a few seconds to make a great first impression to potential customers.
ST: I always find it interesting that clients are happy to pay for design but will want to have a go at the copy themselves.
AJ: Yes, we see this in design too. A wordmark typed out of a computer that’s called branding. The problem with this is that the output tends to be bland and uninspiring, with no compelling or unique message about the brand and not even a hint of personality. It seems that most people don’t consider themselves to be bad writers and so will attempt to do the copy themselves.
ST: But by failing to be different, to be memorable, they’ve made themselves forgettable to everyone.
On what makes copy good…
AJ: So, what would you say is good copy?
ST: I think it’s one of those things that people don’t notice so much when it’s good; but they notice it when it’s bad!
There are a few things to think about. You have to hook the reader and persuade the reader. And the copy has to be emotional, engaging and entertaining. But there’s also got to be a rhythm to it. So, when clients say, ‘I know what I want to say so I’m going to do it myself’, what they often don’t understand – and what copywriters do – is the rhythm of copy, about the musical side of it.
AJ: It’s about pace isn’t it?
ST: Exactly. Which is why it just kills us when the client says ‘can you just put a word in there’, because it means I then have to take a word out or rewrite that complete sentence otherwise it’s ruined!
In the same way you think about designing and colours and shapes complementing each other, as copywriters we think about how words go together as much as what they say. There’s a rhythm. And I don’t think a lot people completely understand that.
On the power of good copy…
AJ: I learned really early on in my career the power of words. In a job I had at Hallmark cards designing cards, we had a saying: ‘Design attracts but it’s the words that sell.’ And that has stayed with me all through my design career.
You can have the most beautiful design in the world. And if we’re talking about a greeting card, this might attract someone to pick up the card. But if you open it and that sentiment is not right you will not buy that card. So words are everything and are just as important as how something looks.
ST: Yes. Good copy is really there to sell. Articles and blog posts are there to entertain and inform and all those other things. But copy really is about getting someone to do something whether that’s picking up and purchasing…
AJ: Or changing behaviour…
ST: Absolutely, or downloading, or buying, or clicking on a button. It’s about getting someone to do something and reacting in some way. That’s what it’s about and I never lose sight of that.
On tone of voice for start-ups…
AJ: Ok, another question. What if you’re a new company starting out. How do you find your voice? How do you help young brands, how do you help those clients?
ST: I think with a start-up, it’s important to be your authentic self. The head of a start-up is often the account manager too and they probably answer the phone as well. They are the company. And I say this to small businesses and solopreneurs: sound like you guys. Sound how you are. So whether you’re on social media or on the phone or they meet you in person you should sound the same.
I’ve done loads of tone of voice documents – for start-ups and corporates – and I advise on everything: I say this how you sound when you answer the phone, this is how you sound when you reply to a complaint, this is how you sound when you write an email, this is how you sound on Twitter, this is how you sound on your packaging, this is how you sound on your website. And those things have to be consistent.
AJ: I think it would be useful for a lot of clients to have tone of voice guidelines. Being authentic and consistent is key to the success of a brand. Not only from a design perspective but the copy too.
On what brands have a distinctive tone of voice…
AJ: I like Brewdog. From its website to its packaging, everything is written to sound like somebody you wouldn’t mind going for a beer with. It’s passionate, funny and a little bit surreal. Another favourite brand is Apple. Their copywriters are marketing poets. Rhythm, rhyme, and repetition make their copy smooth and persuasive.
‘Ingenuity makes it thin.
Aluminum makes it strong.’
‘Not just a thinner display.
A better display.’
First Direct, who call themselves the ‘unexpected bank’, add personality where they can and have a surprisingly personal and friendly tone for a financial services organisation. They revert to a factual tone where needed, such as for the necessary financial caveats, but still manage to maintain their lighter tone throughout most of their website, and on social media.
Their current home page has an offer;
‘Join today and get 1.5 nights in a tree house for switching to us…’
‘Also known as £100’
Virgin Atlantic is also a role model. They share the Virgin brand’s cheeky irreverence. ‘Tired by a long flight? Pretend you’re already there.’ ‘Bored by safety announcements? Watch a cartoon instead.’
ST: Yes, I’m often asked to write copy that’s in the style of Virgin Atlantic. I’d have to say I love Claudi and Fin! And brands like the Dollar Shave Club are irreverent and memorable. What I’m completely over is #wackaging. It even has its own hash tag on Twitter. It’s when brands use ridiculously over the top cutesy copy. Innocent was the original and the best. But I cringe when I read ‘23 pixies mixed organic oats and fairy glitter to bring you these crumbly cookies.’ Ugh. Trying too hard.
On writing for different audiences…
AJ: So, let me ask you how you write for different audiences.
ST: Obviously I get the client to complete a copywriting brief and I say who is audience? And sometimes they say ‘everybody’.
But there’s always someone who’s more likely to purchase, there’s always someone who’s a decision maker in a family, who’s more likely to be engaged by this copy. So I try and think about writing for one person.
When I first started out, I used to write one person’s name at the top of the page. I used to write something like, Doris, lives in Sutton, 55, owns a dog and goes to the WI. Whatever. And I would just write for her.
Of course, it is difficult if your audience is a guy in his thirties, or a woman in her sixties or a young person of eighteen. But out of those there’s normally one person that is more likely to buy or more likely to have the cash to buy and that’s the person you write for.
In part 2 of my conversation with Sarah Turner, we discuss writing for the web, working with designers and how to choose a copywriter. Read Part 2 here.