On 5th July at Shoreditch House Library, we gathered a panel of copywriting specialists to share their insights into creating compelling copy.
With an abundance of brands all vying for attention both online and off, it is only those that truly connect with customers in empathetic and motivating ways that get heard above the noise. Creating an engaging tone of voice is essential, but how does this develop? And what are the essential components to making brands resonate effectively with their audiences?
To explore these questions and more, we gathered a panel of copywriting specialists to share their approaches to bringing brands to life, and connecting with customers in new and surprising ways.
We were joined by:
Hayley Redman, Senior Copywriter at innocent drinks. Hayley started her copywriting career in advertising agencies before moving in-house, working on a broad range of global brands and in the charity sector before making the move to innocent to head up the copy team across all international markets. She has been a D&AD Writing for Design and New Blood judge, and is also a member of SheSays where she gets to mentor young female writers starting out in the industry.
Mike Reed, Founder and Creative Director at Reed Words. Mike started out as an ad copywriter in 1993. He co-founded an agency three years later, before leaving in 2002 to work independently. Eleven years ago he opened Reed Words in Soho Square, and began to build the team they have today. Mike’s work has appeared in five D&AD Annuals, and has won the Gold and Grand Prix awards at the Roses, an IVCA Gold, and an ISTD Premier Award.
Harry Ashbridge, Writer at Monzo. Harry started at Monzo in January 2018 after six years at The Writer, an agency that provides copywriting services and training. Monzo is a new banking concept whose transparent, community-focussed approach has helped win half a million users since the launch back in October 2015. Harry splits his time between writing copy and crafting the brand’s friendly and informal tone of voice, and training its three-hundred employees on how to write more effectively.
Here’s what we learned.
Our panelists kicked off with an example of a favourite piece of copy, starting with Harry, who spoke about the importance of “follow through” from an initially impactful headline. He used parking service Park Fast's signage as an example, contrasting their "subversive, funny 'WARNING' signs" with "the actual scary 'WARNING' signs around the corner": "companies tend to write nicely when it's jazzy brand stuff, but fall over hard when it's anything behind the scenes or serious". Hayley chose Spotify’s recent campaign (“a clever use of data with a wink-wink-nudge-nudge charm”) which used consumer data to humorously play on user habits: “Dear person in LA who listened to the ‘Forever Alone’ playlist for 4 hours on Valentine’s Day, you OK?”. Mike also went for humour with ads by Swiss Bank, whose campaign (“Life’s turns and twists”) included slogans like “I never want children are great” and “She’s my everything went wrong”.
Establishing a brand voice with a new startup or product, as Mike pointed out, can be as simple as sitting down with the founders and getting “a sense of brand values”. But with a larger or more established company, there are often bad marketing habits or an out of date image to shake off, and more people to onboard with new practices.
Mike added that, with bigger organisations, there is a tendency to fall back on “generic, meaningless” words that, when rewritten to be “as practical as possible”, can revive a brand. The innocent drinks rhetoric, for example, is rooted in “the language of the kitchen, not the manufacturers”, and has been since it was founded in 1999. Hayley told us how it was co-founder, Richard Reed who said, “we need to do things differently,” and that has remained a core part of the brand. “Our values are really entrenched in what we do. We always think back to how we can do something that’s true to who we are… If our brand was a person, who would they be, and what values would they have?”
Brand values must be agreed on and shared at every level of your organisation
The trick to this, Harry suggested, is to engage with people across a company: if brand values are shared at every level, the potential for inconsistencies is reduced. He warns against tying the brand voice to a single person: it’s not easy to adopt a single personality en masse. At Monzo, the brand identity is defined by a commitment to being as practical and user-friendly as possible (abandoning bank jargon and replacing words like “funds” with “money,” for example) and by creating “a feeling rather than a unified, single identity – Monzo isn’t a person”.
Nor does innocent set out to be “a single person,” said Hayley. The use of “us” emphasises the sense of “community,” while the innocent “personality” is one that accounts for the “different styles of, say, three different writers”. Subjective, often ambiguous ideas of brand identity might work at a small scale organisation but, as Harry pointed out, it’s important to establish a set of guidelines before a company expands to the point where it’s too late: “when I arrived at Monzo there was an intrinsic idea of how we wrote, but no one had ever written it down”. He decided to ask, internally, “what are the three words that sum up Monzo for you?”. These came to “form the pillars for the existing brief and guidelines” which are published on the company’s website. Publishing the guidelines both reflects Monzo’s commitment to “transparency by default” and “forces us to uphold standards and live up to our values”.
Build brand values into your onboarding practices
Ensuring these values live on is a matter of effective onboarding. Hayley recalled receiving feedback like “it’s not very ‘innocent’”, but no one could articulate why that was. Writing the guidelines, by pinning down “what people meant by ‘feeling innocent’” (“not the first idea or the second, it’s always the third or fourth, weirder idea, the unexpected”), means new recruits have a more tangible point of reference.
Don't fall into the trap of recycling company buzzwords
Too much reliance on guidelines, and you risk becoming stale or repetitive. “We don’t have crutches,” explained Hayley. “We don’t always fall back on the same words” or “try to be weird for weird’s sake”. Innocent’s lasting appeal lies in its ability to “make jokes about the relatable stuff”. It’s not just the packaging, either – “people are protective over the tone of voice internally”, so there’s “a huge sense of ownership over the brand voice”, which means there are no jargon-y, overly-formal emails.
Democratise language by training everyone to use it
Equipping people with the “skills, confidence and permission” to create content using company guidelines has been Harry's ambition at Monzo, where he has run workshops with people from different teams in order to “entrench” that sense of communal “tone of voice”. This helps stamp out inconsistencies (“they’re chinks in the armour”) and, as he put it, it’s no good having a fun, friendly homepage if the T&Cs are an unintelligible maze of jargon. Many organisations make the mistake of coupling professionalism with formality; training people to abandon contrived “professional” language can be “transformative", Mike added.
Writing great copy means not settling for the obvious ideas
Our panelists next spoke about their personal approaches to writing. Mike, who tries "to see it as a job" ("the pressure of a deadline helps me”) said he asks himself “what’s the most obvious way to do this? And what’s the opposite of that?”. Hayley agreed that the “power of procrastination” put pressure on her to produce results, advocating the benefits of “bouncing ideas off people" and sharing the advice she was once given to “write down forty headlines. One will be good". Harry stressed the personal nature of writing, pointing out that “the fact that there are so many books writing proves there isn’t one single way”. His own approach is to “push yourself to not just take a first answer”.
Make better use of feedback to iron out the inconsistencies
How do we differentiate between brand tone and personal bias? Harry advised “making better use of feedback”. Question subjective feedback and incorporate the constructive elements back into the guidelines. Hayley agreed that separating “personal preference” from functional feedback is a matter of questioning ambiguous statements like “it just doesn’t sound right to me”. She also pointed out that, in an organisation operating on an international scale, like innocent, there has to be a level of trust in remote teams. Humour, for example, often doesn’t translate: while some approaches work well in France or Germany, they would “flop” in the UK market.
Tone of voice matters most in a crisis
A question from the audience raised an interesting point: what happens to tone of voice when things go wrong? There is a tendency to abandon a carefully curated brand voice in the midst of a PR crisis. Mike referred to a budget airline’s sudden switch from the playful first person to the formal third person after a series of mass flight cancellations, which immediately suggests a lack of accountability. Harry urged brands not to “chuck that tone of voice when things go badly”: “that is the time when your tone of voice is most important,” he argued. That will “make or break your relationship with your customer”.
“Corporate companies can be human without pretending to be ‘innocent’.”
Some companies have even managed to capitalise on crises, turning bad publicity on its head with humour, self-deprecation and a sense of ownership over their failings. A brand that hides behind its ‘identity’ is sure to fail, said Harry. To use an extreme example, a weapons manufacturer should not try to copy the “innocent voice” – all this will do is “alienate” and confuse customers. Hayley explained that innocent drinks have “led the way with brand voice,” simply because they “talk in a human way and do it well,” making sure their “values back that up”. Mike pointed to the Gov.uk website as an example of a “supreme” piece of copy, in terms of functionality and clarity, with “no personality required”: “corporate companies can be human without pretending to be ‘innocent’”. In fact, Harry agreed, “being relatively bland can be an advantage. It’s easy to be consistently bland”.
All photography Sam Bush.