For this interesting question, thank David Weinberger of “Cluetrain” fame. He was challenging me when I suggested that a good copywriter could create a genuine and honest voice for a company, whether offline or online.
The short answer to his question is, of course, no. No, a company can’t always be completely sincere and genuine in the way it talks with its prospects and customers. Companies cannot always be trusted to have the best interests of their customers in mind. They have those pesky things called shareholders to answer to. And if one thing is guaranteed to get in the way of a sincere relationship between a company and its customers, it’s the blind pursuit of short-term shareholder value.
But before we assume that companies are automatically and, by default, dishonest in their communications, let’s take a good, hard look at ourselves.
When you — yes, YOU — talk with your friends and even your family, are you always completely genuine, sincere, and honest? Do you never hold back or become subjective a tad in support of your own preferences, needs, and agendas? Of course you do. It’s the nature of all relationships.
We all know, instinctively and through brutal experience, that there are many shades of gray to the “honesty” of our communications across all our relationships.
It’s the same with the commercial world. We know that companies will often overstate the benefits of their products and services. We know it, and they know we know it. It’s part of the relationship. (Did you really believe that your shirts could be whiter than white? Of course you didn’t.)
But that aside, a writer really can have an impact on the relationship between a company and its audience. A smart writer can make a very real difference by discovering a true voice for the company that really does engage both the company’s customers and employees. That doesn’t mean that the writer is being manipulative; it means that he or she has found a truth that works for all parties.
The best example of this that I know of is a series of ads written by an English copywriter named Susie Henry. She wrote the ads for an insurance company called Commercial Union. Each ad was built around a real case history and the tag line, every time, was this:
“We won’t make a drama out of a crisis.”
This was not only a terrific promise to the consumer, but was also something for the Commercial Union employees to stand by and live up to. It’s a great copy line that has since been used, quoted, and misquoted across numerous media.
But Susie Henry did more than just create a great tag line. She also created a voice and approach that aligned itself exactly with what the company could deliver and with what its customers expected. The campaign was so successful that it continued for 17 years, and Commercial Union followed Susie Henry while she worked at four separate advertising agencies over that period.
Did Commercial Union talk with a sincere and genuine voice over that period? Sure it did. You can’t wear a mask and remain undiscovered for 17 years.
So yes, a company can speak with a voice that is genuine. But the only way you’re going to get that done online is by using great writers who are determined, and allowed, to write great copy that intersects the needs of both the site and its customers.
In parting, here’s some great advice on the craft of copywriting from Ms. Henry:
“Whatever the skill is, I cannot define it. For me, it’s more a feeling for words than a formula for putting them down.”
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