{copy}writer advertising & marketing

There’s an old computer science acronym—you’ve heard it before: “GIGO.” (Garbage in, garbage out.) In marketing and advertising, the expression is used often by frustrated copywriters and art directors who present the fruits of long hours of labor only to have their baffled clients look at the work, shake their heads, and say “this is not what we’re trying to say at all.” The creative team can blame the account team, the account team can blame the client, but the bottom line is usually this: erroneous or incomplete information was fed into the creative brief. So off-target or misguided messaging is the result. GIGO.

I’m very fortunate these days to be working with sharp, articulate clients who provide precise briefs to get me started on new projects. This morning my client in Denmark provided a comprehensive written input letter and a verbal run-down of goals. But I haven’t always been so lucky. I’ve learned, over the years, that a copywriter must ask very specific questions about the nature of the job before writing the first word of messaging. The formal creative brief, a version of which is included below, is a nearly-foolproof method of collecting the information necessary to write a targeted, effective marketing message. Check it out. If you’re working as a copywriter, a tool like this can be worth its weight in gold.


The Objective

What are we trying to achieve with this project? What is the goal? This may seem obvious, but the answers should be articulated so that all members of the team are on the same page. We want more people to come to the client’s website? We want to sell X number of products? We want the market to know that our client is an active philanthropist? Whatever it is, get the goals out onto the table. You can’t succeed until you know what you’re working toward.

The Position

What is the one thing we want the audience to understand? What is the Unique Selling Proposition (USP)? You can’t be everything. But you can be something. Find the ONE thing that sets your client’s product or service apart from the competition. Is it the cheapest? (Usually it isn’t.) Then why should a consumer choose it? Fill in the blank: our product is the only one that _____. (Has unique packaging/is available in convenient sizes/makes you feel sexy/has top safety ratings/comes in red/…whatever.) Create a brand. Make your client’s product stand alone.

Supporting Facts

What facts clearly support the position statement? Here’s where things get serious. Consumers want proof. You can tell them all day long that your client’s flea preventive is more effective than the competition’s, but until you quote data from scientific studies, consumers are dubious. In advertising, the most effective messages speak the truth and back it up with facts.

Message Tone

How do we want to convey our message? What tone will resonate with this audience? Try to identify adjectives: hip, authoritative, comforting, clean, bold, aggressive, emotional, colorful, cheerful, provocative, elegant, understated, subtle, cutting-edge, youthful, mature, etc. You’d be surprised how this examination of tone will fuel your ideas. What works for an audience of investment bankers will never fly with long-haul truckers. Know the culture and the pulse points of your target market.

Target Audience

  • Primary audience? To whom are we speaking? How can you describe this group? What’s important to them? What do they dislike?
  • Secondary audience? Are there other key opinion leaders who may affect the primary audience’s action? Dealers or distributors, for example? Parents, patients, spouses—any secondary group that may influence the buyer of the product or service.

Desired Action

What do we want the audience to do? Call? Buy? Understand? In the most direct forms of advertising, of course, we want our audience to make a purchase. Now. But sometimes advertising and marketing works on a more emotional level. We try to build awareness of a brand and create positive associations in the consumer’s mind to be filed away for future recall. Nike, for example, famously urged us to “Just do it.” Consumer: “Do what?” Nike: “Do this: associate yourself positively with our product, and see it as an inspirational icon of athletic achievement and motivation. Done? Good, now go buy some sneakers.”

The Big Picture

What else is going on in this market? Is the product or service part of a larger offering? Sometimes you’ll find yourself working to sell a product or service that’s just one facet of a company or organization. This means you may have a larger brand that you could coat-tail on. Or, worst-case scenario, that you need to create distance from.

Competitive Environment

Brainstorm a list of main competitors. This is a must. Get to know the playing field to understand how your client’s product or service can be positioned in the marketplace. You’ll quickly get a sense of industry standards and target market phrasings.

Key Barriers

What are the challenges we need to overcome? Does the audience perceive this product or service to be expensive? Difficult? Is a competitor launching a new contender? Try to identify the primary obstacles to marketing. Consumers think the product is expensive? Then ignore price talk and instead cultivate a unique and coveted brand experience. (Can anyone say Apple?) Opportunities may present themselves in unexpected places once you truly understand what the barriers are. Think of L’Oréal hair color, which fought against a perception of higher price until launching a brilliant campaign that demolished their key barrier to sales: “L’Oréal. Because you’re worth it.”

Mandatory Items

Logos? Phone numbers? Corporate colors? Legal disclaimers? Maps? Contact information? Find out now if the client needs to include sponsor information or lengthy legal additions to the copy. Any visual or textual addition to the project can have an effect on tone, balance and direction. Also, a missing phone number or logo can sometimes be distracting enough to a client that he or she will fail to focus on the big picture. I’ve seen clients reject a concept for its inaccuracy (“that’s not our shade of blue”) and fail to see the effectiveness of the overall direction. Get all your details in order to avoid extensive revisions.

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