In Defense of Copy
A Copywriter's Plea for a Bit More Humanity
The State of the Humanities in Our "Humanist" Era
Not long ago, a friend and former colleague of mine bemoaned yet more budget cuts in the Humanities Department at the university he works. The money saved was going to be funneled into a new video game software development program.
As a former college lecturer in the English Department, I keep close tabs on things in the world of academia. It should come as surprise to no one that reading and writing skills have been greatly devalued in favor of computer sciences and engineering. I assured my friend that the working world is victim to the same trend.
Technology has played a large role in this decline. In many respects, it is the driving force, and we have happily handed the wheel over and asked if it could please speed things up.
But good writing is rarely benefitted or strengthened by a formula. The opposite tends to hold true, in fact. This, however, does not jibe with engineers, programmers, and data analysts, considered to be the most influential demographic in our current world.
There are no rules to good writing.
But there are protocols. There are the laws of grammar, but unlike the laws of physics (of which our understanding is limited), these rules are fluid. In this way, writing is closer to biology than mathematics. Language evolves and grows new skin, new appendages to adapt to the environment around it.
We tend to forget that we are the environment in which language exists. What we do with it and how we use it changes how it lives in our reality. That sounds scary, but it shouldn’t. In our current time, however, it is scary because the people creating our prevalent forms of communication do not possess the necessary understanding of language’s uses and purposes to hold such significant influence. (How could they when they’ve been told that the Humanities, the Language Arts, hold no monetary or tangible value?) What they do know—and know so well—is how to follow and interpret patterns of human behavior. Then through formulas and algorithms they can tailor technology to be more amenable to our habits. Never mind whether or not those habits are healthy, productive, or even satisfying.
What does any of this have to do with marketing and branding?
We’ve adopted a similar mindset in branding, a field where written language is vital. I’m not talking about juicy taglines and sexy one-liners that adorn your home page—though these are certainly useful (but even these have been reduced to equations to satisfy the SEO machine rather than impart meaning). I’m referring to the deep foundational work that produces substance. Brand mission, vision, and a position statement that sufficiently articulates the reason your business exists outside of making money. Formulas and algorithms cannot produce these reasons and are helpless to articulate them. These reasons come from within and are a part of what compels us to get up and do what we do day in and day out.
If you’re an entrepreneur or a business leader, you know there are reasons beyond making money that drive you to work as hard as you do. You feel these reasons in your bones. But you’re painfully aware of how hard it can be to articulate these reasons, especially in a convincing manner. You know why people should care; you just can’t find the words.
How then can you expect to plug the disparate components that make up these reasons into a formula to produce deep branding work? If you can’t express the whole idea, you will have extreme difficulty expressing the pieces that form it.
Language becomes more difficult, more complicated at the granular level.
A good writer is needed to hear you out, to understand the nuances of what motivates you, and to interpret your particular vision for an audience. Authenticity cannot be manufactured and is required to connect to your audience. A human, one with a deep understanding of language beyond the literal, is required to make those connections. AI technology can absolutely help with the grunt work down the line, but the foundational elements must be in place first.
Take a look at these 17 ads produced by The Economist. Sure, some of them reflect well-worn trends and even dip into cliché territory. Others are clever and unexpected. What they all convey is the attitude and position of The Economist’s brand—one that has thrived for nearly two centuries.
Eliminating the human effort required to create these keystone pieces to your brand (position, vision, mission) will result in inauthenticity and a lack of direction for future decision making. Your brand will suffer. You will experience a rash of symptoms that can be treated only somewhat effectively by technology but never fully cured.
Sure, you’ll produce a banger of a headline now and then, but you’ll lack the voice and ability to move ahead of trends confidently. Consumers will note the inconsistency and sense your brand’s insecurity. Your brand will lose trust.
That’s the last thing you want.