Menu  ☰

After more than 20 years in the copywriting business, my colleagues and I know what our strengths are. And, believe it or not, ‘a way with words’ is a long way down the list.

All those ‘wordsmith’ qualities people seem to value – like making a product or service sound good in 50 characters, or knowing whether to use ‘less’ or ‘fewer’, or understanding where to put a comma in a sentence – are just skills you can learn. Minor skills, at that.

Much more important to effective copywriting is something rather basic. And that’s the seemingly innate sense of another person’s perspective – an automatic ability to inhabit someone else’s shoes. Whatever style of shoe they wear.

And, after two decades of trying to explain this type of empathy to sales people and marketing folks, we’ve realised you can’t learn it. Or if you can, many people aren’t prepared to. Instead, they carry on using language and ideas that make perfect sense in their heads, without stopping to think that their customers and prospects might not share that comprehension.

It’s not about you

In the words of Peter Drucker, perhaps the most quoted business commentator and scholar, marketing “is the whole business seen from… the customer’s point of view”. Also, brand consultant and marketing professor Mark Ritson has raised this point numerous times when talking about the concept of ‘market orientation’ as the first rule of marketing. In other words, you are not the customer. Or perhaps more importantly, the customer isn’t you.

Brands that forget this, do so at their peril. Why? Because they simply don’t get through to the people who matter.

A lack of empathy is everywhere

Here are two recent examples, from very different – but equally blinkered – worlds.

First, the world of motorhome (and probably motor car) sales. A while ago, my wife and I were browsing ‘mohos’ at a local dealership, where the salesman was keen to point out that, for the particular model we were looking at, the “residuals are excellent”. When I asked him what this meant, he replied, “the residuals are much better than you’d expect”. It was so unlikely to him that I’d need help with “residuals” that he assumed I didn’t know what “excellent” meant.

Feeling patronised, I didn’t ask again, and eventually worked it out for myself: what he thought he was saying, as clear as anything, was simply that the palace on wheels would have a good second-hand value if we were to sell it. (Assuming we bought it in the first place – which we didn’t.)

Second, the world of grocery retail. Now, you can sort-of forgive a motorhome salesman for not realising the language (and knowledge) differences between a trade customer and a consumer, but there’s really no excuse for a major supermarket group. I’m talking about their use of the phrase, ‘Free From’.

They know what it means, and some consumers have learnt what it means – but for many, it’s just confusing. What should we infer about the ingredients of a product called Free From Cheese & Onion Quiche? That it’s free from cheese and onion, and therefore not much of a quiche? The marketing team behind this product description would be amazed that anyone might ask such a question – everyone knows it’s free from gluten, surely?

Okay, if you read the pack very carefully, you’ll see ‘wheat free’ and ‘gluten free’ in small lettering – but in product listings, order confirmations and receipts, it’s Free From Cheese & Onion Quiche. And if you shop at Sainsbury’s, it’s Deliciously Free From…

It seems nobody in Sainsbury’s marketing, digital or product departments has thought about how confusing this could be. Yes, regular ‘Free From’ shoppers understand it. Many others are left guessing (it certainly fooled my colleague’s Mum, who can’t eat cheese, so unhappily had to throw it away). And rather than guess, most customers will move on.

An honourable exception

So if big retailers can’t see the world as their customers do, what hope is there? Well, I was heartened the other day to hear an interview with fashion designer, Sir Paul Smith – someone who knows a thing or two about selling. He described how he learnt the secret of sales success from his father, a ‘credit draper’, who sold clothing door to door. He admired his father’s ability to talk to people, and gain their trust, by finding out what interests them and developing the conversation from there. From an early age, Smith knew the value of seeing life from the customer’s perspective, and communicating with them on that basis.

So at least that’s one example of a sizeable business headed by someone who understands the importance of empathy. I wonder if we could ask him to talk to a few others?

Leave a comment