Writing through a crisis

Covid-19. Climate change. Political turmoil around the world. In times of crisis, when getting out of bed can feel challenging enough, there are small things you can do with your brand language to help you and your business through.

Writing through a crisis

by Rob Self-Pierson

The planet continues to wobble on its axis.

Like so many, our business has been rocked. Profits have plunged, creativity is drained, and our motivation gets tested before each morning espresso.

Thankfully, we find ourselves recharged by the enthusiasm of a few close agency partners and clients, who share our love of language but ask our help to bring colour to projects in these dark times.  

Here are the five brand language tips we’re told have been most useful.

1/ Write more human
To be frank, there’s never a time not to do this. 

But in business, in a world of ‘B2B’ and ‘B2C’, it can be easy to forget the human touch. Especially when something as gargantuan as a pandemic rushes or disrupts your brand decisions.

Some people conflate ‘writing more human’ and ‘dumbing down’. They say, ‘We’d love to sound friendly, but we’re professional. We don’t want any of that fluffy brand stuff.’ But that’s not what we’re saying at all. 

Ask any great writer, from novelists to advertising copywriters, and they’ll tell you that human writing—warm, empathetic, aware—does the thing every professional organisation needs to do to survive or thrive. It helps to start or to grow a relationship with somebody else.

There are some simple things you can do today to write more human. 

For a start, use personal pronouns—‘we’, ‘you’, ‘our’ etc. Instead of, ‘ACME Plumbers invites customers…’, write, ‘We invite you…’

Simplify sentences. For most brands, that means stop trying to say everything about your business in one sentence, one really long sentence, full of clauses, some awkward fragments, a piece of writing hard to read in one breath, complex to follow, that drifts into new subjects because vanilla ice cream is inferior to others and... Be clear and focused to show your customer or client that you’re aware of how they feel when they read. 

Avoid abstraction. Set your writing in a concrete place and time. If you must introduce abstract ideas, do as the Greeks and Romans did: use character and story to make complex concepts (for them Love, for you Efficiency) feel real and relatable. Maybe write a case study or two.

Finally, reach further into the wonderful well of language available to us all. Choose a greater variety of verbs for headlines, calls to action, buttons etc. Use unexpected adjectives to describe products and services. Avoid words competitors use. In fact, avoid, remove or reinvent anything you’ve seen written before. Original writing suggests an original brand experience. 

At a time that feels so limiting, challenge yourself to free up your brand language, to add colour to it, to be original, to play among words, and to come across to your customers as irresistibly human. 

2/ Be ready to adapt…
Like the pandemic response itself, you need brand language that adapts.

At times, you’ll want to lean heavily on ‘human’: say, when you’ve had to cancel a customer’s holiday booking and can only offer credit, not the cash refund they want. Remember: warm, empathetic, aware of feelings.

But one day you might need to put out a crisis statement. Of course you’ll still be human, but you’ll want your words to feel firmer. Perhaps you’ll up your register, shorten your sentences, ask challenging questions. Your tone of voice especially should be able to cope with this scenario shift.

For long-term success, your language should also adapt depending on your audience. We’re working with a UK university. Their customers range from first-year undergrads nervous to leave home to corporate partners focused on KPIs. It’s a gutsy university—as motivated by student achievements as its own philanthropic initiatives—now with a gutsy tone of voice that flexes depending on what they’re writing and who they’re writing it for. 

If business is quiet, work on defining or refining your flexible tone of voice. Make it fit for purpose now, at a time of global crisis, and it will continue to serve you well when the planet steadies.  

3/ …while staying true to your brand
To be clear: having an adaptable approach to language doesn’t mean trying to be everything to everyone—as tempting as that might feel today, when work, customers or money seem elusive.

For your tone of voice to serve you well, now and in future, it must be true to your brand, in particular to one of your most valuable verbal assets. 

Your brand proposition statement, by its simplest definition, sets out who you are, what you do and why anybody should care. It works externally to engage customers, and internally to guide brand identity and inspire your teams.

We’ve been working with a quantity surveying firm that will probably huff—and should, thanks to three months of conversations with us!—at the phrase ‘quantity surveying firm’. You see they’re actually a close team of quantity surveyors, cost consultants and estimators. 

What do they do? It took a few interviews for us to go beyond standard industry services into what our client really does for people ie what happens when a close team of quantity surveyors, cost consultants and estimators partners with developers, contractors and sub-contractors. We worked out that it’s all to do with focusing people’s energies…

And why should anybody care? We asked Matt to describe his dream client, then step into their shoes. ‘Why would they choose you over all the others?’ we asked. ‘What can you do for them that no-one else can?’ Matt’s response was clear, distinctive, powerful and brilliant. We’ll share it in the spring. 

In the meantime, how about your brand? Who are you? What do you really do? And why should anybody care? 

4/ Step into your customers’ shoes
Just like Matt did. Even better, get in touch with your customers. Ask them what they want, need, like, loathe. The better you know them, the more likely it is your words will connect with them.  

If you’re planning a questionnaire, perhaps on what people think about your industry’s leading brands based on language, ask qualitative not quantitative questions. Numbers are great for getting a sense of the big picture. Original responses to qualitative questions can unlock linguistic doors. 

So much brand language we develop is based on this sort of natural phrasing: spoken words or written responses to searching questions. In fact, carwow’s tone of voice principles were said by car buyers and dealers during interviews. On the comfort of a call, both groups told us what they really thought of the car buying process. The voice we created responded to both sides’ needs and concerns.

If it’s difficult to speak to customers now, personas can be useful. These are created profiles of existing or potential customers you want to develop a relationship with. Try three. First, someone likely to be attracted to your brand, then someone who doesn’t care about you (yet), finally a dream customer. Get creative. Give them names, backgrounds, hobbies, attention spans, passions, hopes, fears. How have they spent lockdown?

We do this in workshops. Quickly teams realise how different they sound—how much more warm, empathetic and aware their writing becomes—when they ‘meet’ their customer. For some, especially customer service staff, this one exercise can transform their approach to language.

Spend half an hour today creating personas. Make them as real as you can. Get to know each person. Then choose a subject and write them an email. 

5/ Be kind to yourself
Finally, actions can sometimes speak louder than brand language. If you’re really struggling today, if the words aren’t coming, get away from your desk.

Go for a walk. Feed the swans, ask how they are. Call a close friend or relative. Give yourself permission to start that book you picked up all those years ago. To sign up to an online course. Perhaps to reach out to help somebody else, see if they’re ok. Anything to give your day purpose. 

John Jessup, our close friend and former creative director at Leo Burnett, once encouraged us: ‘Whatever you do, find your win: your reason for doing it. It might be something tiny. But it will remind you to keep on going.’

Your win today might be getting your accounts paid, praising a colleague’s recent report, lining up a new strategy for when these things pass. And be sure: these things will pass. 

And we’ll see you when they do. 

by Rob Self-Pierson