Most style guides are useless.
And, no, I’m not talking about visual style guides that specify fonts and logos and CMYK codes for brand colors.
I’m talking about style guides focused on Brand Voice — Copy Bibles, if you will. I’ve seen a few scores of them over the years, and 95% have been utterly worthless.
Because they mainly consist of Brand Voice descriptions along the lines of:
- “Widget Incorporated’s Brand Voice is mainly professional with a hint of humor.” Or
- “Our voice is human and quirky.” Or
- “ACME Corp is always respectful and honest in their communications.”
In other words, these documents are often nothing but an adjective word cloud put into guideline format.
There are no hard and fast rules (or even rules of thumb) in these so-called guidelines. Nor are there any practical directions around how the brand’s “humanity” (or whatever) will be communicated in a commercial, e-mail, or Web page.
And, no, grammar guidelines don’t count. Cutting and pasting various bromides from The Elements of Style into a Copy Bible won’t auto-magically produce a recognizable voice.
None of this stuff will let a professional copywriter (let alone your average employee) create copy that sounds “professional but quirky.” Or that has any kind of distinctive personality whatsoever.
The Road Runner’s Style Guide
Want to see a style guide done right? Here’s Chuck Jone’s style guide for The Road Runner Cartoons:
What’s great about this style guide?
- Notice that these aren’t guidelines; they’re freaking rules. Rules with words like “Never” and “Always” and “All” and “No.”
- Notice also that these rules are all astoundingly specfic.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, these rules are aimed at establishing the internal logic of the Road Runner’s world.
Internal Logic, baby!
Because world building is what real writers worry about. And world building is all about establishing the internal logic, the limitations, and yes, the rules of a given world.
THIS is the stuff that creates a distinct voice and personality. This is the stuff that separates Star Trek from Star Wars from Dune. Different worlds, different internal logic, different ideas about what the characters can and can not do.
It’s why J.K. Rowling spent 5 years establishing the rules for Harry Potter before ever publishing the first book:
“The five years I spent on HP and the Philosopher’s Stone were spent constructing The Rules. I had to lay down all my parameters. The most important thing to decide when you’re creating a fantasy world is what the characters CAN’T do…you can tell with The Simpsons. It’s a work of genius. You can tell that they’ve structured it in such a way that they’re never at a loss for what their characters can and can’t do. That’s why they’re so believable — even though they’re little yellow people.”
If your Brand Voice guide or Style Guide doesn’t fit this profile — if it doesn’t build a world with internal logic and hard and fast rules — then you probably need to get yourself a new style guide, if not a new ad consultant altogether.
P.S. Hat tip to Suzanne Pope’s Ad Teachings blog for the image of Chuck Jones’ Road Runner rules.
P.P.S. After a bit more research, I found out that there were two more rules for The Road Runner:
- Rule 10. The audience’s sympathy must remain with the Coyote.
- Rule 11. The Coyote is not allowed to catch or eat the Road Runner.
Ira’s third video on storytelling is by far the most popular.
So much so that it has been featured on numerous blogs and even been turned into an Kinetic Typography video. Take a look:
Basically, Ira Glass is describing the positive side of the Dunning-Krueger effect.
The Dunning-Krueger effect basically says that the perceptive abilities, sensitivity, and awareness necessary to know that you suck at something, are the same perceptive abilities, sensitivity and awareness necessary to (eventually) become skilled at that very thing.
So if you have good taste — the aforementioned perception, sensitivity and awareness — then you have the potential to become good, or even great, but you’re stuck making stuff that you know kind of sucks until your craft skills catch up with your taste and ambition.
Believe it or not, that’s the positive side of the Dunning-Krueger effect. The negative side is that the totally incompetent lack the ability to sense their own incompetence. They suck like a hoover, but think they’re great.
But the positive side is only positive if:
- You retain your ambition to be great and don’t settle for becoming a hack, and
- You work through that awful feeling of knowing you are consistently creating stuff that’s “not that great,” as Ira puts it.
And while this might have very self-evident relevance for creatives and craftspeople of all kinds, including copywriters and advertising professionals, this video’s relevance to advertisers and business owners might not be so evident.
So I’m going to give you my spin on it…
From an advertisers perspective, I think this video speaks to:
- Linear, no-threshold thinking,
- Minimum Effective Dose, and
- Cumulative Effect
Linear, No-Threshold Thinking
Linear, no-threshold thinking assumes that a function is predictably scalable. That if you do twice as much, or half as much, you’ll get double or half of the result.
But more often than not, there are thresholds and inflection points, and diminishing returns which make linear, no-threshold thinking dangerously misguided. If you buy a ticket halfway to Europe, you don’t end up with a half a European vacation; you just end up stranded at sea. 80% of the parts of an engine don’t get you 80% of the horsepower.
And to borrow an example from my partner, Roy H. Williams, if…
“Reliable data tells us exactly how many motorcycle riders have died trying to navigate an S-curve at 100 miles per hour. The straightforward logic of traditional accounting, with its linear, no-threshold thinking, predicts one-tenth as many deaths at 10 miles per hour.
But we know this is ridiculous. The number of riders that die at 10 or 20 miles per hour is likely to be zero. There is a threshold speed at which the curve becomes dangerous. Any extrapolation that crosses that threshold is certain to be inaccurate.”
These kinds of thresholds are inevitable when dealing with human response. Especially when it comes to advertising. There is a threshold of interest, relevance, and impact for ads: the threshold which moves an ad from background noise into conscious awareness. If any ad fails to reach that threshold, it becomes essentially invisible, and would require nigh-unto-infinite repetition to get results.
And assuming that you have given your ad writer something worth saying, then the factors which determine whether your ad crosses that threshold are what Ira Glass might call the taste, ambition, and honesty of your ad writer.
If your ad writer is a hack — if he accepts adspeak, hype, and advertising cliches, or tries to bluff with fluff on the production side — then your ads are never likely to cross the threshold of impact. And no matter how much frequency you load into your ad schedule, your ads won’t move the needle on sales.
If your ad writer aspires to be great and has a modicum of talent and craft skills, then your ads will likely cross the impact threshold. As Leo Burnett said, “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”
And of course, it’s not only a matter of impactful vs. not impactful. It’s also a matter of how impactful. The more impact your ad carries, the less repetition is required. LBJ’s “Daisy” ad is a classic example of an ad so powerful, it only required one airing to make an impact (pun intended):
And, this is where talent and craft really take over from taste and ambition. The more skilled and talented your ad writer, the more impact he (or she) can bake into your ads.
Minimum Effective Dose
What do you think will happen to your headeache if you take 20 mg of Ibuprofin?
Nothing, right? Because while Ibuprofin can be a godsend for getting rid of headaches, the minimum effective dose is 200mg, with most adults taking 400mg or more.
If you take significantly less than 200mg, you’ll recieve no benefit.
Simlarly, If you go the gym for a day or even a week and complain that it didn’t work, you simply didn’t meet the requirements of the minimum effective dose. You’ll see some benefits at the end of a month, but plan on 90 days for real changes that others will comment on.
And it’s no coincidence that Stephen King compares writing to weightlifting. Want to be a professional writer? Better be prepared to put the time in every day becoming a “stronger” writer. Just like Ira Glass says about doing great creative work.
The same thing applies to Advertising.
Most mass-media branding campaigns require enough frequency and duration—enough of a minimum effective dose—to really work their magic. You might get lucky and see some results in 90 or 180 days, but plan on a full year or longer at a high enough frequency of ads to get a minimum effective dose.
And just like with working out (or, in Ira’s case, with doing great creative), there’s a certain level of frustration and chickening out you just have to work through. Be prepared for this chickening out period, and take Ira’s advice: fight your way through it.
Cumulative Effect is the other side of the coin from Minimum Effective Dose. Assuming your ad passes the threshold for relevance and impact, and that you’ve scheduled enough frequency to give the audience a minimum effective dose, the persuasive power of your ad will build over time.
You might just be starting to see results at the end of a year, but those results will accumulate and build. You’re not starting over each year, you’re standing on the persuasive results you gained from the year before.
For Ira Glass, the cumulative effect of doing a lot of ambitious work and working through your frustration period is to breakthrough into the ability to speak in your real, authentic voice, and to do interesting and special creative work that matters.
For advertisers, the cumulative effect of your advertising is certainly about increasing your market share and moving the needle on sales. But it’s also about finding your advertising voice and hitting peak stride in your ads and campaigns.
Most TV shows, and especially most comedies, get better after a season or two. The Simpsons first season wasn’t as good as what was to come. It took a season or two to really hit its stride. Same thing with Seinfeild. And most advertising campaigns are like that. The results build with time, but so does the authenticity of the voice and the impact of individual ads.
And that folks, is what I took away from Ira’s third video on storytelling. If you saw something else in the video, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Those 4 words are the most opened e-mail subject line most people have ever tested: “You are not alone.”
And while that’s a nice Cliff Claven-esque CRO tip to throw out, it’s asking WHY that’s such a powerful subject line that’ll get you somewhere.
Or if that’s not quite explicit enough, perhaps this will be:
- What is your advertising doing to make the audience feel as if you get “the way it is” and “how they feel”?
- What are your ads doing to show how your company can sweep in and save the situation?
- How are your ads making a promise of future happiness?
Because if your ads aren’t doing any of those things, they’re probably not doing much of anything else, either.
What are the two biggest mistakes in advertising?
Depends on who you ask.
My partner, Roy Williams, has a list of The 12 Most Common Mistakes in Advertising that’s awfully hard to argue with. But they’re the most common mistakes, not “biggest.” Plus, they are 12 of them.
For me, the biggest mistake is creating great advertising for a lousy product. By putting the advertiser out of business that mistake will have the biggest negative repurcussions.
Once you take that off the table, though, then I’d list:
- Not saying anything that’s worth saying (let alone advertising), and
- Boring your audience with ignorable and forgetable ads
Ira Glass’s Two Biggest Mistakes in Advertising
But if you ask Ira Glass, he’d tell you the two biggest mistakes are:
- Using an inauthentic, over-hyped “voice” or presentation style, and
- Keeping the focus on yourself instead of the customer
Don’t believe me? Check him out:
In other words, respect your audience.
Respect them by talking to them like a friend, one sitting right next to you at the bar. And respect them by keeping the focus of the ad on them and what matters to them, rather than on yourself.
Use Real People Language. Talk Like a Friend
Here’s how all-time copywriting legend Bob Levensen says to do it:
“Start off with ‘Dear Charlie,’ then say ‘this is what I want to tell you about. Make believe that the person you’re talking to is a perfectly intelligent friend who knows less about the product than you do. Then, when you’ve finished writing the copy, just cross out ‘Dear Charlie’.“
This is the same guy who told us that most intelligent people ignore advertising because most advertising ignores intelligent people. And he was right.
So skip the hype, the pre-amble, the hemmin’-‘n-hawin’, and just say the thing.
Instead of wasting your creativity on witty, charming, and clever language, save it for figuring out how to be believable and credible and to best substantiate or dramatize your major claim.
Ditch Your We-We: Keep Your Focus on the Customer
Most advertisers try to stay credible by focusing on why they’re better than the competition. Not a bad thing to do.
Unfortunately, they forget to tie those differentiators back to benefits that the customer will actually care about. Instead they just thump their chests and make We-We claims:
- We’re the best at this,
- We’re number one at that,
- We’ve been in business since 1893.
We this, we that, and they we-we-we all the way home, and all over themselves in their ad copy.
Everyone’s Favorite Radio Station
Ditch the we-we and take up the you-you. Make the customer the hero and the focus of the ad. Remember your copywriting basics: always answer “What’s In It For Me?” for your customers.
WIIFM: everybody’s favorite radio statio, playing 24–7 in their heads.
The good news is that ditching the we-we, switching to you-you, and answering WIIFM makes it a lot easier to talk to your audience in a human voice.
And getting back to my list of mistakes, it’ll also ensure you have something worth saying, and keep you from boring your audience. Way to go, Ira. Thanks for your wonderful, wonderful radio show, and all the great storytelling (and advertising) advice.
Now all you have to do is make sure your product lives up to its advertising ; )
P.S. Yes, I skipped Part III. I’ll circle back to that later this week or early next week. Trust me, that lesson will work best coming last.
Imagine you’ve been hired to create a PSA for the local police. Too many people are speeding in residential areas, and the police want a PSA-style radio ad designed to get people to slow down.
What kind of ad do you create?
If you’re like most advertisers, you DON’T dig for the facts and the insights and the logic. You won’t research the issue, and that means it’ll be tough to put real substance behind your messaging.
Instead, you jump right to brainstorming ways to dramatize your safety message: How can we create the most shocking, dramatically powerful ad, built around a “Don’t speed or little johny will get hit by a car” premise.
And because you skipped that essential first step of digging for substance, you’ll never get the chance to create something as awesome as this:
“If you hit me at 40 mph there’s around an 80% chance I’ll die. Hit me at 30 and there’s around an 80% chance I’ll live.”
You wouldn’t create that because you (likely) didn’t stop to ask: why is the speed limit set at that speed to begin with?
In order to say something powerfully, you must start by having something powerful to say.
And that means you have to spend as much time looking for the “stuff” of your ads (or radio drama) as you do writing or producing them. Which is exactly what Ira Glass says in Part II of his video series on storytelling:
“The amount of time finding the decent story is more than the amount of time it takes to produce the story. And that as someone who wants to do creative work, you actually have to set aside just as much time for the looking for stories…
…I think that, like, not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.” — Ira Glass
I concur with Ira on this.
Stop choosing to work the heart with “emotional” ads and great production when what’s required is for you to dig harder for the right insight, fact, product differentiator, or benefit that’s actually worth advertising in the first place.
The key is to start with what Leo Burnett called the “inherent drama” of the product or service itself. THEN you can add in all that great writing and production.
When you don’t start with the inherent drama of the product itself, you get something like this:
No one believed those ads because no one drinks milk as a high-performance sports drink. The advertiser was trying to stick a false drama onto the product and the approach flopped.
Compare that to the “Got Milk” campaign. It started from the truth about — the inherent drama of — milk, as in when, and under what conditions, do real people actually crave milk and only milk? When eating a peanut butter sandwhich, or eating rich cookies. That’s when nothing but a cold glass of milk will do. An inherent drama that led to ads like this:
What about you? Are you setting aside as much time searching for great substance as you do for writing and producing your ads?
Or are you still trying to bluff with fluff?
P.S. I’d like to provide proper attribution and credit for the radio ad, but… I can’t seem to remember or re-find wherever it came from. My apologies to the ad group that created that PSA
Well… not specifically, but he did do an amazing four part series on storytelling, and I thought I’d translate his advice to advertising, starting with the first video in the series.
The first video covers Ira’s two basic building blocks of storytelling: the anecdote and the moment of reflection. And in advertising terms, I think these are roughly analogous to Relevance and Credibility. But sticking with storytelling for a moment:
- The anecdote is the narrative that presents action in real-time, pulls people into the “world” of the story, builds suspense, and generates interest, and
- The moment of reflection is the part that helps raise questions and frames the meaning of the story
You can see Ira explaining these two building blocks here:
Anecdote = Meaty Factoid or Reality Hook = Credibility
In advertising speak, the narrative is often some interesting factoid or product feature that can then be tied to a benefit, need, or desire.
- “Our product uses a better grade of X, so it [provides this benefit].”
- Or, “We spend twice as long doing Y as the other guys, and that means you get [this benefit]
- The coakroach you see in the morning is the straggler behind hundreds of others that were in your home last night.
Or it’s a reality hook that’s tied to an immediate moment of need:
- You hit your garage door opener and hear this [sound effect of Garage Door spring breaking], leaving your car trapped in your own Garage. Now what?
- That roach you saw scurrying away when you opened your pantry…
In the case of the factoid, the Anecdote is providing credibility and, with the associated benefit, some degree of relevance.
In the case of the dramatization, it’s 100% relevance, framed in terms of a recall cue. As in, when this event happens to you, remember [our brand promise]
Moment of Reflection = Raise Questions, Frame Meaning of Ad Campaign
Branding and positioning (almost) always involve theft and warfare.
The meaning of your brand and the “position” you want in the minds of consumers is usuallly already occupied, or at least contested, by another brand. Somebody else owns, or is trying to own, what you want because there are only a few positions worth owning. If you want to plant your flag on that piece of mental real estate, you’ve got to remove their flag first. Either steal the land out from under them or fight for it: theft and warfare.
Take regular old batteries: the only three qualities people care about are:
- reliable, and
And of those three, the only two suitable for branding are “long-lasting” and “reliable.” That’s why Energizer spent gazillions of dollars on that bunny that just kept going and going and going… until it had stolen “long-lasting” out from under Duracell. They could have owned some other attribute with far less effort and expense, but it wouldn’t have been worth owning.
So now Energizer owns “long-lasting” and Duracell has switched to advertising reliability, simply because it was the only thing left to take that was still worth owning.
The point to all of this is that it’s almost never enough to position your brand; you have to de-position (aka unseat) your competition as well.**
And that positioning-de-positining dance is what the moment of reflection is all about.
When you mention the fact that your brand does X (and the other brands don’t), you get to frame the meaning of that fact:
We do X because we’re committed to delivering, [this benefit]—which means that the other guy simply doesn’t care.
Now the tag end of that statement doesn’t always have to be explicitly stated. In fact, it’s often better to have the audience draw that conclusion themselves. Sometimes, though, it helps to openly call out the competition and rhetorically punch them in the face. But regardless of which way you accomplish it, that bit of de-positioning should be part of your ad.
“When your garage door breaks, call us, because we’re [the only service center in this area that is] open 24–7 and have fully stocked trucks capable of fixing your door on the first visit, even at night and on weekends. We’re here when you need us, not just when it’s convenient. [Unlike the other jerks that are only open during business hours]
But that’s just for one ad. When you start talking branding and positioning, you’re really talking about campaigns.
Chances are, if you do X because you’re committed to Y, then X isn’t the only thing you do.
In fact, you’re probably doing an entire alphabet full of things differently or better than the other guy. Actions that point back to the values that drive your company. And a good ad campaign will frame all those factoids to consistently establish and support the position you wish to claim in the mind of the customer.
So each ad, you raise a factoid (or an Anecdote in Ira Glass terms) and you frame it in terms of this value, or brand position (through a moment of reflection).
And your ads should do all of this while raising questions about why your competition doesn’t do these things and whether or not they really care about the customer at all. Position yourself; de-position your competitors.
Where Most Advertisers Go Wrong
Most advertisers go wrong in three places:
1) They provide no facts, reality hooks, or dramatized moments of need. There is nothing to establish credibility or relevance. They have no anecdote or story, so they come off as boring, irrelevant, and/or unbelievable. In the words of Roy H. Williams, the ad is all cheese and no meat. What most advertisers want to skip to is the framing part, the moment of reflection, where they just openly state what they believe and stand for, and so it comes off as so much solipsistic blah-blah-blah.
2) They try to cram all the facts into a single ad, rather than stringing them out into a campaign. When you just list the facts, they lose their dramatic impact, and you’re back to blah-blah-blah land.
3) They state a feature or function—what should be an anecdotatl bulding block—but don’t contextualize or dramatize it. There’s no interest or dramatic force in the fact they give the audience, so it doesn’t translate into relevance or even all that much credibility, either.
4) They attempt to position themselves, without deposition the brand that already holds that position in the minds of customers. If you claim a quality or position that another brand already owns, you’re really just paying to advertise them—unless you deposition them in order to reposition yourself.
And that’s Part 1. Stay tuned for part 2 later this week.
* Yes, eco-friendly or green is another quality people might care about for batteries, but then you’re into the land of rechargeables rather than regular old alkaline batteries. Different market.
** Sometimes you are lucky enough to have no meaningful competition in your cateogry, allowing you to simply claim what you want for a brand position. And that’s a very good thing. Take advantage of it! Also, I’m aware that “deposition” is a legal term, which is why I’m hyphenating the word so as to mean un-position. Thanks for indulging me in this : )
P.S. I’m usually wary of talking about marketing or advertising in terms of war, simply because the analogy doesn’t hold: in war you can attack the enemy directly, in marketing you usally can’t; all you can do is persuade the customer. Walmart didn’t kill Kmart, we did when we stopped shopping at Kmart and started shopping at Walmart instead. But the analogy is useful when describing a zero-sum competition. There is only so much market share, customer dollars, and brand positions available. Either you get them, or the competition does. Just keep in mind that the only way to beat the competition is to win the customer.