So what do I do? I’ve written print ads, social media campaigns, magazine articles, speeches, web ads, packaging copy, and letters from the CEO. I was once hired to write hip-hop lyrics for a political theater production premiering in Rwanda. All this said, over the last several years I’ve been specializing in a handful of disciplines.
As the old cowman said, “the brand is what doesn’t come off in the wash.” Your brand projects your identity. It’s how the world sees you, understands you, feels about you. Marketing departments pour endless resources into visual branding, by codifying colors, typography, design rules. Your written words merit at least as much attention.
Brand voice—also called verbal style, and occasionally verbal design—is about how you say what you say. It’s concerned with everything your tone of voice implies about your company, and about its relationship to the reader. There’s much to think about here. Please see my article, The Shibolethic Function of Language. Brand writing takes place in three stages:
- The strategy stage is about discovering the ideal brand voice. It involves an introspective dive into the company’s core identity and values, as well as research into its market segments and customers.
- The documentation stage is about writing a verbal style guide. This will typically accompany the visual style guide, and serves a parallel purpose: to help everyone who writes or speaks on your behalf adopt you brand’s voice. The style guide needs to be clear and approachable to everyone, whether they’re a professional writer or an assistant kicking a project out the door; whether they’re under your roof or at an outside ad agency. And in many cases, whether they’re writing in English or Spanish or Flemish or Mandarin.
- The stewardship stage is everything that follows. Dropping a style guide into a thousand in-boxes is only the first step. Your senior creatives need to be educated. They need fluency in your brand voice, not mere familiarity. They must be empowered to educate everyone else, to uphold your standards in perpetuity.
Verbal style is trickier to teach and execute than visual style. The rules are more ambiguous. While it’s straightforward to learn to learn your Pantone color palette, or to leave X amount of white space around the logo, tone of voice is less easily quantified. Copy editors can work from generic style manuals (AP, Chicago, etc.) to enforce punctuation and abbreviation conventions, but brand voice will be in the hands of writers. They’ll need education and guidance.
A note on style guides and scale: branding agencies have formed a habit of writing megalithic, back-breaking style guides—documents literally hundreds of pages long, describing rules for every imaginable use case. Brand ideals are frequently described in endless paragraphs of flowery, abstract language; guidance is given for using the logos in obscure media, from laser shows to blimps. These documents seem designed less to inform than to intimidate. Few creatives have time to search them for relevant information, much less read them cover to cover. I believe in creating concise, inviting style guides. The style guide should be a useful tool, one that ministers your company’s presence in the world—not be a dead monument to the millions you’ve paid a branding agency.
Please take a look at some of my brand writing work.
Back in Madmen days, ads did the heavy lifting. They established your presence, reinforced your brand, informed, sold. Today ads are typically short blurbs that strive for little more than an impression or a click. It’s the content—on your site, your app, your blog—that does everything else.
Your content needs to be on-brand (see above). It needs to serve your strategy (see below). And it needs to be good.
Woe to the company that thinks content is all about keeping to your refresh schedule and packing every page with SEO terms. You must consider the Google bot, but you must serve customers and potential customers. They are not stupid. They know the difference between valuable information and click-baity fluff. If you’re not offering the good stuff, they’ll seek it from someone else.
Great content engages readers. I don’t mean engagement as a buzzword, a euphemism for clicks and likes. I mean true involvement—readers reading because they care, because you’ve given them what they wanted, needed, were curious about, were surprised by, were moved by. In this business we all stress the power of storytelling—and who could deny it. But sometimes content that merely offers valuable and approachable information is what a reader wants most. It’s more rare than you might think.
Please take a look at some of my content writing work.
What content do you need? How do the different pieces relate to one another? What’s the hierarchy? When someone lands on your site, do they immediately know where they are? Who and what you are? How to find what they need?
These questions relate broadly to content strategy. It’s part analysis of your mission, part information architecture and UX guidance for your developers, part roadmap for your writers.
Increasingly I’ve been consulting on content strategy in addition to writing the content. Content strategy is higher level work. It demands analytical skills, the ability to understand a range of businesses and markets, and comfort with interviewing (sometimes interrogating, sometimes grappling with) executives at all levels of a company. It requires getting deep into the heads of every kind of customer. It requires not being a sycophant.
Social Media writing. We’ve all done plenty of this—populating Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts, digging deep for engagement, keeping to a post schedule, keeping up with the ever-changing specifications, avoiding gaffes of presidential proportions. In a perfect world, this is a job for a junior team member. They should have guidance from someone senior, to keep them on-brand, on-style, on-strategy, and on-point—which is where I can make the most valuable contributions.
Content Marketing. This is a subset of content writing, specifically content that offers readers value, without any direct sales or promotional content. An early example is the Michelin guidebooks, which made travel easier and more rewarding by helping people find meals and accommodations in distant towns. Michelin’s idea was to get people to drive more, so they’d buy more tires. Today the goal is generally to make your own website a destination, and to establish yourself as a trusted authority.
I believe content marketing is tremendously important—possibly more than all the advertising you’d ever dream of doing. This is not a self-serving opinion; you should not hire me to write this kind of content. Your ideal content marketing writers are experts who are are probably already within your ranks. Hire me to help develop a strategy. I’ll help find these potential writers, and to empower them to take your customer relationships to the next level. See my article, Ambassadors in the Trenches.
Plain old copywriting. This used to just mean writing ads. Now it’s a catch-all that may include other categories on this page, and ones not on this page. I’m happy anything that falls under the copywriting umbrella. The International Copywriting Collective even named me copywriter of the week. I like to think I’ve had some other good weeks, too. Please take a look at some of my copywriting, in print and digital media.