I hate reading menus in chain restaurants. I don’t like T-shirts with writing on them. I believe ‘wackaging’ (packaging with ‘wacky’ labels) is not far from a cult. And then there are brands being silly on social media.
Digital media seems to have afforded marketers the chance to joke around in the margins. But few marketers are funny. So now consumers are resigned to at least a dash of bullshit in a good proportion of their marketing messages.
(I don’t think I’m necessarily exaggerating, though I am finding it harder to separate the part of me that writes about marketing from the tired parent who shouts at the television.)
The irony is that among marketers, the buzzword of the past five years has been ‘customer experience’, which if we’re honest should mean that product and service are compelling. Copy is no doubt one part of that, and yet it can still overshadow.
By all means big up your product or service, but don’t try to add personality and end up draping everything in twee triumphalism.
Here’s an SMS chain from Asos, which Yahoo journalist Lara O’Reilly shared on Twitter: “Your Asos order is out for delivery and should be in your hands between 8am to 6pm. RN [right now] it’s in one of our new 100% electric vans, cos we’re into cleaner air.”
This was followed by: “Your Asos order has been delivered *fist bump*. You should feel extra good cos it was delivered in one of our new 100% electric vans.”
Marketers have to get language right
The internet as a whole has been a great thing for language. Social media and meme culture has not just given rise to countless new idioms, it has shown that language is what we make it. Being precious about grammar is no longer a good look, even if you are just trying to be adorably old-timey. Prescriptivists are roundly mocked for being out of touch.
But somehow it’s different for marketers. In advertising, yes, there is artistic licence. I’m completely at ease with a 30-second spot from KFC that leans heavily on youth culture and its language (granted I know nothing of semiotics), or Lexus urging me to ‘experience amazing’, or indeed Deliveroo telling me to eat more of it.
But in more mundane messaging it seems the balance is difficult to get right. We don’t all think of brands as our friends and so informality and experimentation can jar.
Econsultancy deputy editor Rebecca Sentance puts it as follows, in a 2018 article about Procter & Gamble filing trademark applications for some well-known internet abbreviations such as WTF:
“When a brand starts trying to talk and act like a person, it inevitably comes off as a bit creepy – and that disconnect intensifies when they start to use slang or sound like a young person. Even though the person running their social media account may well be young themselves (because many marketers are young people), when coming from a brand, it rings hollow.”
It’s not just social media, as the Asos text message shows.
The marketing industry has endured its own internal problems with language, too. I’m writing this not long after reading Shingy’s goodbye to Verizon – he was the self-styled ‘digital prophet’ of AOL and a totem of inspirational ambiguity.
Now seems like a good time to reflect on whether marketing is still in thrall to so-called futurists and growth hackers. Arguably, the term ‘digital transformation’ has become an albatross, given it implies before and after states.
I recently read an old article by creative director Dave Trott, where he shared a quote from Elmore Leonard. When asked what accounted for his success, he said: “Lots of white space on the page.”
In general I think this reminder about brevity is useful for marketers, whether they are writing a cart abandonment email, SMS reminders, product detail pages or a newsletter.
Use the active voice and get out of the way. By all means big up your product or service, but don’t try to add personality and end up draping everything in twee triumphalism.
As if I haven’t used enough supposition in this article, I’ll leave you with a thought. Perhaps the skills gap in marketing and a focus on youth has led marketers to put too much flavour into workaday copy.
Elegance and understatement are undervalued, and internet culture is overvalued. RN might be the best time to go back to the old skool.