GET THE WORDS RIGHT…TO GET THE WORK RIGHT
“You should think of each word in the Creative Brief as similar to each word in a poem: consciously and carefully chosen, and always conveying precision of meaning.”
Former Johnson & Johnson CMO and Consumer Products Division Head
It sometimes seems like we have been writing all of our lives. While our weekly DISPATCHES are now in their 21st year, as lifelong marketers we have been committing our thinking to writing for decades. No doubt, we both were gifted with a natural bent towards the written word. Then, too, we both began our marketing careers at Procter & Gamble—in the days when the only road to success absolutely demanded thinking and arguing well on paper. (It was not uncommon back then, in fact, to see on a number of P&G manager’s desks a printed sign that read, “Put it in writing.”)
We could not have been better reminded of the critical importance of excellence in written expression than we were awhile ago by a longtime-ago client who, now some years later, invited us to work with his marketing team at a different company. More specifically, in kicking off our Leadership Communications Workshop with his team, he made crystal clear what he expected as a main outcome of their work with us toward expressing the Brand Idea, Communication Strategy, Campaign Ideas, and direction to agency colleagues (Coaching!): namely, as he succinctly put it, “You have to get the words right in order to get the work right.”
Hearing our client speak to his team this way reminded us of yet another respected client, many years ago, speaking the quote above to a group of Johnson & Johnson marketers. Given her analogy to words in poetry, you might think that her words were intended to be directional, not literal. But actually she meant exactly what she said. In her many years of experience she had found that, particularly when marketing teams brought their Creative Briefs to her for approval, all too often they (a) were laden with imprecise language (“fat” words that had multiple, non-specific meanings) or they (b) were burdened with way too many different “must communicate” for agency creative teams to choose from. And what she found from failing to “get the words right” in these briefs was, all too often, a “failure to get the work right”: that is, being spot-on strategy, and stimulating the creation of many compelling Campaign Ideas.
Actually, we couldn’t agree more with our two clients. We marketers, acknowledged across industries as the ones most responsible for external, customer communications, ought to be equally skilled at internal, company-team communications. It’s so common to hear marketing teams—from industry to industry and company to company—express a yearning for an internal common language…so that everyone understands precisely what everyone means. But having a common language, by itself, doesn’t necessarily ensure consistency in getting the words right to get the work right. There are some other best practices that marketing teams need to follow—to better ensure their common language works. Most of these are incredibly simple, even easy to implement when there’s a will to do so.
Some Best Practices to Get the Words Right
- Commit the important stuff to writing. (See, we said these were simple!) What’s the important stuff? Brand Positioning Strategy, Creative/Communication Brief or Communication Strategy, Coaching Comments—following a creative presentation, for starters. You might be thinking, “Isn’t this stuff typically put in writing already?” The truth is, though, that “typically” doesn’t happen. Year after year, when running our positioning or communications workshops, we always asked participants up-front, “How many of you have a copy of the Brand Positioning Strategy in your laptop, notebook, or desk drawer?” And what we normally got in response—if we were lucky—were three or four hands going up. Of course, committing the important stuff to writing is just step-one in getting the work right; step-two requires actually using things like the Creative Brief as a filter to hold up against creative work that is being presented. Likewise, Coaching Comments must be reviewed at subsequent presentations and meetings…to ensure the work has been added to or revised as expected. How can you readily do any of these things without the written word in hand?
- Spell out your meanings. Especially when crafting an over-arching Brand Idea Statement, for example, take the trouble to break each key word down into its clearest meaning. We like to use a simple, two-column format to do this: key word on the left and what it means on the right. As an illustration, when we wrote our first book, Creating Brand Loyalty, we specified what we meant by those words (shown below).
- Become a Thesaurus heavy-user. Does anyone even know what a Thesaurus is any more? Okay, sure, it is digitally included in Microsoft Office packages, but our bet is that not many Office users rely on it (or even know they have it). We wouldn’t get our work right without the use of a Thesaurus: not so much to discover an unusual word in place of an overworked one, but to give us a good many options for nailing that as-precise-as-possible detonation & connotation that we’re seeking when writing a positioning strategy or brief. (Oh, by the way, there is no comparison between the one you get with Office and Roget’s or Webster’s Thesaurus.)
- Co-author the important stuff. Such a simple thing to do, and yet so rarely put into practice. And the absolute best practice when it comes to committing a positioning strategy or communication brief to writing is this: work the words out together, Brand Team and Agency (with both Account and Creative people). The reason this represents a best practice should be obvious; not all of us MBA marketers are gifted with a wide-ranging, colorful vocabulary…but we can “borrow” that kind of vocabulary from our agency colleagues who craft robust expressions and sell words for a living. Many times in our experiences we’ve found that communication agency folks are like having a live Thesaurus.
- Kill the “fat” words. As already noted, fat words—those with imprecise or 35000-foot meanings—abound. Words like quality, effectiveness, safety, fun roll of the tongue and onto an important marketing document with ease…only to come back and bite us when no one on the team can recall what, specifically, was intended or meant by them, OR when everyone has her/his own interpretation of what was meant. A good way to ferret out fat words is by asking someone who doesn’t work on your business or brand to read your words; then ask him or her to playback what they believe you mean.
As you can readily see, none of these 5 Best Practices requires any special training or investment. Just the same conviction that our referenced client held: you’ve got to first get the words right if you have any hope of getting the work right.
“NINETY-NINE PERCENT OF ADVERTISING DOESN’T SELL MUCH OF ANYTHING.” David Ogilvy
Is your advertising among the ninety-nine percent? Read Chapter 9, Brand Communications that Suck, in AVOIDING CRITICAL MARKETING ERRORS: How to Go from Dumb to Smart Marketing. It will identify those critical errors and, importantly, point the way to develop advertising that’s in the Top 1%. Learn more here: http://bdn-intl.com/avoiding-critical-marketing-errors
Richard Czerniawski and Mike Maloney
PS: In an upcoming DISPATCHES, we’ll take this week’s subject a bit further. Getting the words right, ironically enough, often depends upon getting just the right word for what we mean. Take, for example, some of the various (mistakenly considered synonymous) words marketers regularly use for that heart-component of the Positioning Strategy: Benefit, Advantage, Point-of-Difference, Claim…and, though less frequently seen, Promise. We more and more think that word “Promise” might just be the absolute best right word for what the Brand means.