If you have clients who want you to write about who they are, you probably have clients thrusting a list of attributes in your face.
On the list, you'll find the usual suspects: quality, commitment to service, out-of-the-box this and proactive that. These attributes will be deemed attractive to customers and, indeed, the client may even legitimately embrace them. But while clients would be content, even thrilled, if you were to literally and liberally spackle these words into your headlines and body copy, you're hesitant. With good reason.
Big attributes have little credibility. In any industry or category, the same claims are made by multiple competitors, diluting their impact. Worse, big attributes are large abstractions—foggy, ethereal ideas that don't have the concrete physical presence that evokes emotion.
As a corrective, consider the following three techniques for transforming vague attributes into compelling copy.
1. Look for the "objective correlative"
Let us go then, you and I, to T. S. Eliot. (Yes, the author of poems we were supposed to read in college while we were munching popcorn and watching General Hospital.) In addition to writing poems that plumbed the depths of existential despair and the heights of religious ecstasy, he offered critical insight of great value to copywriters, too:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. ("Hamlet and His Problems, " The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 1922. )
Here's my translation in less lapidary prose: If you want to scare the cloak off Little Red Riding Hood, don't lecture her about the woods and its perils—put the wolf's hot breath on her neck. In copy, that means not saying "excellence," for example, but giving a concrete, specific instance of it that makes the reader feel the presence of excellence.
We can look to David Ogilvy for one of the most famous applications of this principle in action—an advertisement for Rolls-Royce. Instead of writing, "Rolls-Royce has an obsession with quality appreciated by discerning customers," Ogilvy made history (and lots of money for his client) by finding the objective correlative in the dashboard: "At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock."
2. Learn from your customers
Sometimes they send letters, sometimes you solicit their endorsements. Sometimes you find their comments buried in the back pages of an otherwise tedious and misleading market research report under the rubric "unprompted remarks." Mine this material, because nothing you can say for yourself (or for your client) is as valuable as what real customers have to say about you.
These customer comments are not merely an opportunity to see from a fresh perspective—they're usually a trove of "objective correlatives." For example, I have a client in education, a university known for its graduate programs for teachers. These programs have wonderful features: weekend schedules, convenient locations and a focus on effective teaching practices. Yet a review of student feedback revealed a consistent and unanticipated message: These teachers loved the practical advice and lesson plans they could apply in their own classrooms; what they learned over the weekend could be used immediately the following week.
Shazam, there was my theme for the next round of recruiting letters: The Monday Morning Difference. As applied to the outer envelope teaser, it became, "On a future Monday, your classroom will come alive with new energy and ideas. Here's why...." In this one simple application of customer feedback, my client gave recipients a reason to open the envelope—and attend its programs.
3. Speak from the attribute
Truly smart people don't go around telling other people they're smart; otherwise, we'd assume they were idiots. Instead, they do and say things that reflect their intelligence—and by doing so, inspire respect.
Likewise, good copy shouldn't shout out the client's attributes, but should embody them in tone, attitude and point of view. If you were to personify your client or its product with the desired attribute (excellence, exclusivity, caring, etc.), what kinds of things would such a person say?
For example, there was a time when American Express thought it could attract more cardholders by positioning the card as a status symbol, as something exclusive. One of its most famous letters began, "Quite frankly, the American Express card is not for everyone." You can practically see the supercilious upward turn of the nose in the first two condescending words, "quite frankly."
Or for a famous twist, think of Volkswagen's risky "Lemon" headline above a photo of what appears to be a perfectly acceptable Beetle. After the initial shock, it becomes clear that the "lemon" pejorative is really a testament to Volkswagen's high standards; the judgment comes from the point of view of an inspector who discovered a blemish the rest of us would never have noticed.
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Credibility comes with an attention to specifics, customer concerns and careful control of point of view. The next time you have a virtue to tout, set aside the vague immensities in favor of the rag and bone shop of business—the concrete particulars that substantiate your claims and place a real hold on customer emotions.
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