None of us are innocent: the impact of copy on a company’s brand

As a writer, the importance of effective copy in helping to deliver a strong brand experience is essential. Alongside visual branding and organisational culture, I think it’s one of the top three elements for what makes a great brand. With Google now taking into account the editorial quality of content when indexing sites, it doesn’t matter whether companies are dealing with websites, social media, product brochures or customer service; they must embrace copy as never before. Getting to the top on Google is no longer just about getting the right keywords. I recently discovered what appears to be the first survey of its kind to poll the copywriting market on the quality of content as opposed to quantitative measures (i.e. the amount of time and money companies are investing in copywriting… it’s increasing, if you’re interested). While this is only the first survey of its kind and – apologies to my US readers – UK-centric (yet still with very useful insights), Sticky Content’s ‘State of Digital Copywriting’ report sets a great benchmark for future surveys and poses some interesting questions around people’s perception of good copy and what effect it has on a company’s brand.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Sticky’s top three

Sticky Content asked their participants to name a company or brand that produces best-in-class copy. Interestingly, even within the top three results, there’s a wide disparity in the type and quality of copy coming from the companies in question. These were: innocent drinks (the UK leader in the smoothie market), Apple and John Lewis (an upmarket UK department store chain). But do these companies really produce best-in-class copy? Or have people just listed brands that they like? Let’s look more closely.

The Good – innocent drinks

innocent drinks has long been lauded for the strength of their brand. They are non-corporate (although recently acquired by Coca-Cola), fun, friendly, have an extremely distinct tone of voice and always stay on message. As a personal subscriber to innocent’s newsletter and an avid follower of their social media, I agree hands down that innocent writes great, attention-grabbing copy. Interestingly, most of their content is anecdotal rather than product-related, aligning more broadly with their vision to ‘leave things a little better than they found them’. By interacting with their followers, making people laugh and refraining from shoving smoothie-related promotions down our throats 24 hours a day, innocent wins brand loyalty and makes me want to buy their products. And that’s what makes best-in-class copy.

The Bad – Apple

Apple are known for their innovation. So when’s the last time you can remember reading something written by Apple that was more than a catchy slogan? When I read Apple’s ads, I don’t hear Apple; I hear Steve Jobs. When I think of Apple; I think of Steve Jobs. Check out this page on their website… What grabs your attention? Is it their content, or their branding? While having one man as the face of Apple worked when that one man was Steve Jobs, Apple now faces the challenge of steering themselves into the 21st century without their captain, and I think their copy is suffering for it.  Apple’s content isn’t terrible by any means. It tells the reader what they need to know, but you can hardly call it best-in-class. They have a strong brand identity, excellent advertising, and yet the majority of product pages on their website are a tone-free zone. Yes, they get to the point, and while they do lean towards the colloquial, they nonetheless reside in the realms of corp-speak. There’s not much which stands out here.

The Ugly – John Lewis

Department store chain John Lewis presents a different problem altogether. They have both a strong brand and strong copy, but like a builder in suspenders; the two don’t match. Ugly is perhaps a little harsh, but an inconsistent brand message is still a problem. John Lewis has a great social media presence. Their tone is friendly and informative, they  use exclamation marks to assure us of their light hearted whimsy (!),  but while their online presence might be ‘fun’ and ‘happening’, this simply doesn’t match the perception of their brand on the High Street. They’re not ‘fun’ and ‘happening’ in the real world… they represent quality, but they’re also high-end and expensive. Essentially, they have an air of sophistication which doesn’t come across in their social media or on their website, good though these are. If a company’s copy doesn’t match people’s existing perception of their brand, people will start to question: are they being sincere? In the case of John Lewis, who have been around since 1864, they are obviously trying to appeal to a new generation. Ok, so they’re hugely successful, but the essence of my point remains the true regardless of whether you agree with this example; any organisation with copy that doesn’t match their brand needs to revise their content strategy – alternatively, they may need to revise their overall brand strategy. Either way, these are expensive and time-consuming tasks and where possible, it’s always safer to plan up front.

Brand or copy… which comes first?

Put simply: brand must come first. Of course, you can’t have a great brand without great copy, but your content can’t lead your brand on its own. Best-in-class content is just one factor that effects people’s perception of a company’s brand. As with many marketing trends, the upsurge in the need for great copy is reactionary; many companies have come to understand that good content is important, but they don’t necessarily understand why. However, as people become exposed to quality, editorial standard copy, which has a clear message and distinct tone of voice, they will start to see through anybody who hasn’t got it nailed. The copywriter’s task is to make sure that copy blends so seamlessly with brand that people don’t notice the joins. So drag your feet if you wish, but don’t do it for long… I predict Sticky’s next survey will show an increasing awareness of what really makes really good content, so you’d better get a strategy and a great copywriter in place before you get left behind. We can’t all be innocent, but we can have a damn good go at getting it right. You can download the Sticky Content Report here (it has lots of cool graphs). To keep up to date with the latest, you can follow me on Twitter.

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