Things podcasters can stop saying.

Hey guys!

Just kidding. We would never say that. But podcasters do. Like, all the time. In that upbeat, sing-songy inflection that signifies generic millennial informality. So common is this greeting that it now functions as a kind of verbal hashtag that says, I'm cool and vulnerable and relatable and just like everyone else.

But we don't want you to be just like everyone else. We're coming to you for insight, or wisdom, or entertainment. We want you to have your own way of looking at things. We want Marc Maron, Russell Brand, Katie Couric and James Altucher. The best podcast personalities sound 100% like themselves.

When podcasters and pundits revert to Podspeak, it dampens our sense of their brand. They're doing it practically unconsciously, their mouths full of meaningless words that have been strung together in the same order before, so many times. They're watering down ideas and glossing over points out of habit, in a haze of entranced laziness that keeps them regurgitating rather than creating.

Perhaps it's because they're under pressure to put out so much content that even the best among them find it difficult to stay consistently fresh. Or maybe podcast culture is so voluminous and circle-jerky that its reverberations reach higher concentrations faster than in any other media. Whatever the overarching case, if you're a podcaster or podcast guest, challenging yourself to come up with original thoughts and new ways of expressing them will go a long way toward differentiating your brand and helping you stand out in a sea of copycat content.

If you don't want to sound like everyone else, here are a few phrases to avoid...

 

THAT BEING SAID... It's a virtually meaningless phrase used in transitions that actually makes it tough to know if what follows is meant to be point or counterpoint. It also serves as a subtle disowning of your words because you're not saying you said it, you're saying it's being said. By whom? You.  

IN THAT SENSE... It's more the misuse of this phrase than the overuse that urks the listener. Unless you really are distinguishing between two senses of an idea, this literally means nothing. And yet, pundits will tack it onto a long-ass bloviation on some political issue, and you can't even tell if they're trying to qualify their point or strengthen it. Either way, that's not what this phrase does.

I WOULD SAY... Yeah, you would say, because you are saying. So just say.

GOES TO... Maybe it's a little nit-picky to expect podcasters and pundits to avoid common point-making mechanisms, seeing as it's their job to make points. But this one is just so common, and even when it's used awkwardly, it's passed off as elegant and smart. Which, originally, it was. See, that's the thing with clichés. They were cool before everyone started saying them.

DIVISIVE... This one is for sure Trump's fault, but why play into his grimy hands? Yes, we are a divided nation. Yes, some of the people in power are deliberately trying to divide us so they can gain more power over us. This is all painfully obvious, so there's no need to point it out. And a moratorium on this word would make the debate on how to pronounce it a moot point. (P.S. It's div-EYE-sive.)

IF THAT MAKES SENSE... This is one of those ones like "Sorry but..." and "I just..." that, upon its omission, strengthens arguments. It's an afterthought infused with insecurity, signifying mimsy. If it doesn't make sense, don't say it. If you said something and realized it might sound convoluted, just play it off. We can decide for ourselves if your point is legit.

AT THE END OF THE DAY... We might not even reach the end of the day because we are all going to murder ourselves if we hear this shit one more time. In fact, it makes us wish for the swift coming of the End of Days.

 

Are you allergic to overuse?  THEN WE'LL GET ALONG GREAT

On the losing lexicon of the basification of fashion.

People have long been obsessed with their basics, as anyone who ever wore a pair of Levis will tell you. Gold standards like that are appealing precisely because they aren’t exciting. They’re just cool. And they were easy before we needed everything to be easy.

Somewhere along the way (circa 2010, maybe?) fashion brands started talking about every product as if it were the least complicated item you’d ever own. “Easy pieces” were the thing. Suddenly, you could be shopping for a ball gown online and every selection was made out to be infinitely wearable, like you could just throw it on any old time and look like you found it on the floor because you couldn't be bothered with such a thing as "trying." Alexa Chung was effortless. Behati Prinsloo was effortless. A wedding dress was effortless. Everything was effortless. Timeless. Seasonless. All the less-es. A race to nothingness.

The problem with this kind of talk is not so much that these concepts are now meaningless fashion eCommerce clichés. It’s that they imply extreme convenience, which is no longer a unique selling proposition.

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Two of the best new luxury lipsticks come with product stories that are both sexy and smart.

We’ve never really thought of lipstick as a man-pleaser. Sure, it looks great in photos, and there are balmy versions that help lady faces appear youthful and inviting. But in its purest form, mouth painting is a serious ritual. A full-pigment matte is nothing you’d want to argue with, let alone kiss. It’s more of an empowerment potion, something to smear on your face-hole to make people pay attention to what you are actually saying. It’s a Cleopatra power pose, a Kathleen Hanna siren scream, a dominant female fuck you. It’s not so much “look how pretty I am” as “prepare to have your world rocked, son.”

Hourglass Confession Ultra Slim High Intensity Refillable Lipstick in shade I Desire

Two particularly excellent recent lipstick releases have completely nailed the balance of sexy and smart in their product stories. C. Black Content client Hourglass Cosmetics put out a game changer for the lips this summer. The disruptive brand’s Confession Ultra Slim High Intensity Refillable Lipstick comes in a gorgeous conical applicator that resembles a goldenVirginia Slim, refillable with cartridges of colors like No One Knows and I’ve Never. Each shade is the prelude to a tell-all. And really, is there anything sexier than a secret? One that you might whisper to a priest? To a lover? Or is your priest your lover? Either way, go ahead, we’re listening.

Pat McGrath Labs LUST MatteTrance™ Lipstick

From the woman who suggested you “make your mouth a metaphysical masterpiece” upon the release of last year’s glittery LUST 004 lip kit, there’s the new Pat McGrath Labs LUST MatteTrance lipstick. “Flaunt your fixations orally,” reads the product page copy. Bold, clever and fairly filthy, this line leaves you wanting...more. Then comes the payoff. “Like a good lover,” the description continues, “this lipstick lays down a high impact with a strong finish.”

Say no more. We’ll take two. Except half of them are sold out. Because of course they are.

Copywriting is acting, brand voice strategy is screenwriting and your style guide is your script—and no, you don’t always have to follow it.

Journalists often ask actors if they’re anything like the character they’re most famous for playing. It’s a pretty lazy question, only common because of the tempting assumption that we know the actor just because we know the character. Of course we don’t, because they’re not the same person. Because acting.

When clients ask us how to approach on-brand copywriting, we tell them to think of it like acting. In other words, don’t be yourself. Pretend to be someone else. But make sure you know exactly who that person is. Your brand is the character you’re trying to portray, and copywriting is about knowing what they would say in every situation.

Now, if you’re the founder of a personality-driven brand, then there is definitely some of you in your brand voice. Likewise, your company’s team of writers and content creators probably identify with the brand lifestyle and believe in its products. They get it. They get the audience they’re interacting with and the character they are playing. But they're not the same any more than Jon Hamm and Don Draper—both handsome men with alcohol problems, not the same person.

So how do you know what your brand would say? Same way Matthew Weiner knew what Draper would say. Backstory. Even if you don’t communicate every detail of it to consumers, you need to know who your brand is, where it came from, why it exists, what it cares about. That’s your brand platform, your brand voice strategy. You need to back all the way up and get those underlying themes solidified before you even begin to put words in your character’s mouth. It’s a lot like screenwriting, actually.

Even if you do all the homework involved, inevitably, there are going to be cases where you’re at a loss for words. That’s what your style guide is for. Think of your style guide like a script. It’s a pre-written document that tells you what your brand is supposed to say and how. It can be refined and rehearsed, interpreted for effect. It’s a wonderful tool that takes a lot of pressure off the writer.

But you don’t always have to follow it.

When we create style guides for brands, they sometimes worry that it’ll be too restricting. They don’t want to make a decision now about how to communicate and always be bound to express themselves in that particular way. As the world throws different situations and conditions at a brand, it needs to be able to respond accordingly.

So go ahead, we say. Use your judgment. Some of the best moments happen onscreen when brilliant actors go off script and ad lib their parts. Just because you have a style guide with rules in it doesn’t mean you always have to follow it. That call is yours to make. The style guide is just that, a guide. You have it as a foundation, as a key to what your character would and wouldn’t say, but you can decide who in your company has the authority to go off script and when. And remember, your style guide is a living, breathing thing. It can evolve and change over time. Let that process happen. As your company bends and stretches and grows, so will the way it speaks.

 

Does your brand need a backstory and a script?  LET'S GET TO WORK

 

Why you should make grammar your brand’s bitch.

Grammar. The very word conjures images of schoolroom torture, rule recitation and red marks on book reports. No other subject more perfectly embodies the petty oppression of childhood, professional life and polite society. Being told to “talk right” is a shackle we’ve all wanted to throw off at some point. It's that constricted feeling you’re reminded of when you sit down to do your brand copywriting. Not super fun.

But any good rebel will tell you that rules were meant to be broken. Tom Waits, for instance, would say that deviantism, when done deliberately, systematically, and with purpose, is high art. It is character. It is trademark. It is cool.

Copywriting is no exception. Grammar is a set of conventions that can be bent, broken or shunned altogether. You’re an adult now. You can know the rules and just deadass decide to do things your own way. Innovation in this area is as valid as it is in tech, logistics, design, or any other. The ironic thing is, doing what your teachers told you not to could be the thing that sets your brand apart and leads you to wild success in the business world. You don’t need to ditch school and deal drugs to be bad. You just need to be a little creative with your use of language.

Besides, signature syntax doesn’t need to be super disruptive to be effective. It can be subtle and smart. It’s like meeting a person with a certain something about them that you can’t quite name. You don’t notice it, but you do. Think of Clinique’s periods and Jaden Smith’s title case Twitter feed. (We also really love our client nununu for their no-caps-ever policy—they make clothes for children, so keeping it little makes perfect sense when you see it.) None of these brands seems sloppy or destructive. Quite the opposite. They’re 100% who they are in a tidily distinctive way.

Which is not to say that you can’t go big with it. Take Kendrick Lamar’s recent album, DAMN. Every track on there, like the title, is one word, all caps, with a period at the end. When you call it up on Spotify, before you even listen to one bar, you are already immersed in the brand of the album. You already know that this thing is about making a bold statement. The track list tells you that, just by saying IDGAF to case and punctuation. The key is consistency. If you’re wrong the same way every time, then you’re right.

Hip-hop overall is a deep font of inspiration for using grammar as an arbitrary, ownable element. It’s that explosive combination of highly literary and totally aberrant that makes the art form undeniable. Rappers, some of our finest writers and greatest rebels, are not subjects of the King’s English. They are free to play fast and loose with the rules, to show us fresh ways of saying things that push beyond the boundaries of traditional expression. You can do that too.

 

Are you ready to break the rules? HIT US UP

 

 

Unless your target market is oversensitive idiots, you shouldn't talk to them that way.

A recent piece in the New York Times' excellent Critical Shopper column asked "What Happened to J. Crew?" This kind of breathless inquiry often comes up when an iconic brand takes a nosedive. We asked the same about Abercrombie, American Apparel and Nasty Gal. These are brands that defined our youth, that spoke to us and understood what we needed at a delicate time in our lives. They meant more than we could explain. How could they just...abandon us? 

The answer is almost always that they didn't want to hurt us, they just didn't feel like they could talk to us anymore. Maybe we changed and they no longer knew who we were. Maybe the world changed and they grew up and moved on with their lives and it all just got really confusing and hard. So they just quit talking altogether, or they tried talking to some sanitized version of us that never existed in the first place.

The Times article complains about J. Crew's disastrous aim at the nebulous middle, an imaginary set of boring people who have no clue what they want. "It existed in a hinterland of chintz and misguided aspiration," the piece said about a particularly meh item at the brand's flagship store. "Curiously blank and directionless, neither sophisticated nor appealingly accessible." 

We've been saying this for a while, but it's more true now than ever—being safe is the riskiest thing you can do. Which is why brands come to us and ask us to make them sound edgy. "Like Reformation," they'll say, and then bristle when we suggest throwing an f-bomb into an email. Their qualm is always something like, "Oh, we don't want to exclude anyone."

Except yes, you do. If you started this brand out of passion (and we sure AF hope you did) then why are you trying to speak to the dispassionate masses? Who, exactly, are you addressing here? Oh, your product is for "everybody?" No, it's not. And even if it were, it's 2017. Who is still offended by anything?

Let's talk about defining your target market, a crucial step in any effective brand voice strategy. A lot of people think this is a matter of demographics. Sure it's good to know your ideal customer's age range and income tax bracket, but that is the very, very easy part. Most brands claim to be aiming at "millennials." That's a lot of people. You need to be more specific. 

Go deeper. Create a back story about what your people are doing with their lives and then figure out how your products are going to fit into that story. Are they partying in Tulum, taking selfies at Coachella, presenting at CES? Do they want to be Silicon Valley moguls, wellness gurus or ball players? Do they take life advice from Father John Misty or Bella Hadid? Do they caffeinate with Starbucks or Stumptown? What other brands do they like and how are those brands talking to them, serving them? What are they showing them that is really resonant? Don't copy it. Know about it. Consider it. And then do your own thing. Give your people a glimpse at the life they really want, and speak to them as if they already had it.

Maybe it used to be enough to not offend anybody, as long as you had a decent product at an accessible price point. Not anymore. Now, you need to take a strong position, and that means speaking directly, and personally, to your audience. Remember what you learned in high school—if you try to please everybody, nobody will like you. 

 

Do you really know your target market?  BECAUSE WE CAN FIGURE IT OUT

The difference between copywriting and content writing.

Remember when you used to read magazines and you'd come across an article, enjoy it, then realize it was actually sponsored by an advertiser? That was content. Except then it was called advertorial, and now it's not just in magazines. It comes in all forms: articles on the Internet, social media posts, branded YouTube videos, concerts, parties, multimedia experiences and art exhibits, to name a few. Content's more practical older cousin copy is only ever words, which lay people sometimes call text, or worse, verbiage. 

In the middle of last decade, being a writer was an impossibly bleak prospect. The Internet was annihilating print media, but it hadn't figured out how to capitalize on content yet. Meanwhile, in the advertising world, copywriters were relegated to second-class citizenship as developers and marketing strategists assumed rock star status. And that is not even to mention the Great Recession.

But then social media happened and eCommerce exploded. Around the beginning of our current confusing decade, a gold rush of desperate, starving writers scrambled to meet the new demand for "content," specifically the written kind. But how was this different from the traditions of advertising copywriting and editorial (a.k.a. journalism) that these writers hailed from? And what sorts of skills and experience did the new dimension require?

According to conventional wisdom, "copy sells and content tells," which is an easy, if simplified, way to understand the dichotomy. Copywriting is a sales pitch. It's short headlines and product descriptions and calls-to-action. It's trying to get you to do something or buy something. Examples include the words in an ad, homepage headlines on an eComm web site and an announcement in a promotional email. Content is information or inspiration, sometimes related to product, but not always. It often comes in the form of long articles designed to draw traffic via SEO and enhance the user experience, though again, not always. To complicate things a bit further, as brands integrate editorial elements ever more closely into the consumer experience, the lines between the two continue to blur. And a single piece could require both skill sets. Which is why it's crucial to understand what your needs are before you start hiring writers. Not every writer can write everything.

Especially in the Internet age, journalists are encouraged to develop strong voices of their own. In case you haven't noticed, the Internet is deluged with first-person essays by writers who can't write about anything but themselves and their own lives in anything but the voice of their own interior monologues. These writers also tend to be poor editors, especially of their own work. Their pieces are long, rambling and self-indulgent, not such great characteristics for content, which should be squarely focused on the customer and her desires. Likewise, advertising copywriters aren't necessarily very good at long form, editorial-style content. It's two different tricks.

Even journalists who write adeptly about the world around them tend to absorb the habits of other writers and editors on their beat, whether it's music, food, fashion, politics or extreme sports. If you're a tech company, it seems like good sense to hire a tech writer, but do you want that person writing for your blog as if she were reviewing a product on Mashable? Even if you want to appeal to that same audience, you also want your content (and copy) to be brand-ownable, differentiated from whatever else is out there in your sector. The writer needs to be able to write in your brand voice, or if you don't have one, create one that works for you

As for copy, you need it to sell stuff, but you also need it to draw attention to your content, which you need to get attention for the stuff you sell. And so goes the dance, once forbidden, now essential.

 

Would you like to work with writers who have both deep editorial experience and expert copywriting skills?  OH HEY

 

 

Why copywriting is more important than ever in an increasingly visual content game.

Think about it. How many times have you scrolled through your Instagram feed with one eye open in bed, spotted a fashion blogger’s photo and wondered, “Where’d she get that skirt?” Through an Ambien haze, you manage to inquire in the comments, and notice that a few dozen others have done the same, asking “Who makes your shoes?” or “Where did you get those macarons you’re eating? I’ve been looking for a macaron spot in LA…”

Now, imagine how much more pro the blogger would have looked if she tagged her location, tagged the brands, and wrote a quippy, on-brand caption explaining that she wasn’t in LA this week, and that the skirt is vintage. A hell of a lot of trouble saved, and maybe some data too. And that's not even to mention the SEO benefits.

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Six reasons customers fall in love with transparent brands—and their copywriters.

For the entrepreneurs who believe in their products and want to tell the world why. For the marketing specialists who are wondering which plot points to play up in their brand stories. For the eCommerce consultants who want to see their shopping carts overflowing and un-abandoned. For anyone who ever wanted their brand to become an absolute obsession among their target market. This post is for you.

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