The Writer :: Q&A

ampersand and-but dates-and-times colons-and-semicolons dashes etc exclamation-marks brackets apostrophes caps-vs-lower-case bullet-points currency BrandNames940 Graphic design is the marriage of the visual and the verbal. As painstaking as picking a colour from your pantone swatch, each word must be carefully selected to craft the appropriate message. Still, so many of us design first and write later. Just say no, to lorem ipsum, kids. Post recession, it’s more important than ever for brands to say what they mean and mean what they say. The consumer bullshit-o-meter has never been so accurate, forcing old tycoons to come clean and new leaders to forge an honest path. Visual and vernacular have to work seamlessly and authentically to compete, much less communicate. But don’t lose hope yet. Business writer and copy queen, Anelia Varela gives us her expert advice on how to tell it, not sell it. Turns out, being yourself goes a long way. Q) Tell us a bit about your gig at the largest language consultancy in the world, The Writer. After eight years in our London office, I moved to New York last year to head up our first US office. As creative director, it’s my job to make sure the quality of our writing, thinking, naming and training is top-notch. Q)  This year you served as a D&AD foreman of the ‘writing for design’ jury judging the yellow and black pencil awards. How do you judge a piece of writing? In keeping with the theme of this year’s awards, I was looking at the work thinking ‘Do I wish I’d done that?’ Often I would see a really great idea or headline and think ‘Ooooh, that looks promising.’ But then on closer inspection, the rest of the writing let it down.  Writing for design is a ‘craft category’ and so, to win a yellow pencil, the whole thing needs to be exceptionally well written, from the headline to the small print. For the black pencils, it’s simple: is it groundbreaking? Q) What separates ground-breaking writing from good writing? It doesn’t stop at the idea. Every word is an opportunity – even the small print on the bottom of a smoothie bottle. It doesn’t have to be quirky, though. Sainsbury’s ballsy annual report cover that said ‘What will it take to make Sainsbury’s great again?’ was groundbreaking for its surprising honesty. And won a black pencil last year for its simplicity – groundbreaking for a public-sector website. There are some more tips in a blog I wrote shortly after the D&AD Awards. Q) How can a brand’s visual language inform its vernacular? They should inform each other. You can tell when a writer was simply asked to replace some lorem ipsum in a ready-made design. Now compare Ben & Jerry’s ice cream: the words are just as playful as the design. Perfect for a company founded on the principle ‘If it’s not fun, why do it?’ Q) In recent years, many brands have stepped back from corporate copy and have embraced a more relaxed tone of voice. Do you see this trend lasting?  Does this reflect greater societal shifts? Absolutely. Brands everywhere are waking up to the need to speak to their customers in more natural language that they can relate to, instead of spouting industry jargon and corporate-speak. Marketers call it being more ‘customer-centric’. I call it ‘a no-brainer’. But of course, there is a line – and some brands do, unfortunately, cross it. Q) Some consumers complain brands have gotten too friendly. Quirky phrases and wacky stories bring products to life when many wish their purchases would remain inanimate. Has packaging really gone the way of wackaging? Innocent blazed a quirky trail, but unfortunately it’s led to a bevy of downright annoying imitations. Humour is incredibly difficult to get right, and both times I’ve judged the D&AD Awards, the more wackaging-y packaging has divided the jury. One person’s belly-laugh is another person’s face-palm. It’s a very fine line. Q) What’s the biggest mistake most brands make when they talk to their consumers? Being boring. A good writer can make even the driest, most serious subject interesting. Your reader is giving up their time to listen to what you’ve got to say. Respect that by making it worth their while. Q) How can start-ups use language to propel their businesses? Start-ups are in the best position to do just that, because they don’t come with brand baggage. The secret is to have a distinctive voice from the start. Dan Germain of Innocent attributes the company’s stellar rise to its tone of voice, which has been consistent since it was a little start-up. Q) Do you think the recession, along with general distrust in big business, has affected the way brands talk to their consumers? Definitely. Banks, especially, are actively trying to be more open and natural in their communications in an attempt to reassure people and win back their trust. Here in the US, the major tech companies are having to do the same after the National Security Agency scandal. Q) Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have allowed brands to interact with consumers on an increasingly personal level at little to no extra cost.  We talk to brands as often as we talk to our friends. Are there spaces brands should stay out of? Not as long as you’re honest about your intentions, and authentic to your brand. I’m personally not a fan of ‘native advertising’ that tricks me into thinking a marketing message is something else. And it can be cringeworthy when an otherwise serious brand tries to be ‘down with the social meedja (lol)’. But done properly, social media can be a very effective way of starting a dialogue with your customers that just wasn’t possible before. Q) What happens when brands have a twitter #fail? Can they come back from it? This is where words can make all the difference. When O2’s network went down a couple of years ago, its cheeky responses to outraged customers became a viral sensation, diffusing the situation and winning new fans. It could’ve gone the other way – the company’s initial tweet was an official ‘apology’ in corporate-speak that sounded in no way sincere. Q) What advice would you give to aspiring copywriters and business writers? Make every word count, whether you’re writing for a client or promoting yourself. The small print at the bottom of a poster. Your out of office. Even your CV – actually, especially your CV. Writers have no excuse for resorting to bland, ‘team-player-with-excellent-communication-skills’ blah. Frankly, no one does.]]>

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