Copywriting for empathy

by Tom Albrighton 16 May 2011 Copywriting, Copywriting reviews, Tone of voice

At Boots we know how precious your memories are. That’s why our experts only use the highest quality materials before carefully hand checking every photo

This text, from Boots’ photo print envelope, suddenly tickled my cliché antennae when I saw it the other day. I realised I’d seen hundreds of variations on the same device – and written a fair few too. It was such a shock that I decided not to mention the two missing hyphens in the copy.

The formula goes like this:

At A, we know how important B is. That’s why we C, which gives you D.

Where A is the brand, B is a customer’s (presumed) concern or priority, C is a feature and D is a benefit (although Boots have decided, foolishly, to miss this last part out). Vary phrasing as required and season with cheesy adjectives to taste. And there you have it – instant reader empathy!

This formation has become a cliché, which never helps. But it’s also unsubtle and clunky. Consider the same technique in another context:

As your mum, I know how cold your hands get in winter. That’s why I bought you these fleece-lined gloves, which will keep you warm and toasty, take up minimum space in your handbag and dry quickly after washing.

As opposed to:

I saw these and thought of you!
(PS Ring your sister)

To generate empathy, you need to make the implication ‘I have your interests at heart’ or ‘I understand the problems you face’. However, this has to be done with great care; a light touch and an indirect approach work best.

First off, leading with the brand name is just nuts. Ascribing personal human feelings to a corporation, or even a group, kicks credibility into touch from the outset. Social media madness tells us that brands or even entire countries can be our best friends, with feelings and beliefs, just like real people. But no-one in the real world believes all that rubbish.

As in my frivolous example, it’s rarely necessary to doltishly point out who’s talking anyway. The presence of a logo or even just the format and occasion of the piece is enough. Look at the actual Boots envelope – the logo is present, so why say ‘At Boots’? (Answer: because the content is corporate boasting rather than advertising copy.)

This change leaves us with:

We know how important B is. That’s why we C, which gives you D

But is ‘we know how’ really needed? The key point is that the customer knows it, not the brand, or whoever is supposed to be talking. And who is talking, anyway? It’s not a trusted friend or relative; the text is being read off a website or poster or whatever. There’s no need to foreground the artificiality of the communication by positing an implausible or ambiguous ‘we’. Which gives us:

B is important. That’s why we C, which gives you D.

The ‘that’s why we’ link can be taken out, again to avoid introducing an ill-defined and distracting authorial voice:

B is important. C gives you D.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Freed of all that self-indulgent, self-regarding waffle, we might actually be able to sell somebody something. Let’s try an example:

Making a will is essential for preserving your family wealth. Our professionally written wills minimise your tax liability after death.

It’s admirably tight, but the tone is far too confrontational. Readers will be put off, even if they agree with the premise. It needs to be softened up a bit – but with gentle third-party authority, not branded boasting:

You’ve probably heard how important it is to make a will. Maybe your friends have already done it. It’s by far the best way to make sure your wealth stays in your family. We’ll give you all the help and advice you need.

By alluding to a shared experience or perception, we can gently introduce an idea that will resonate with the reader, but without bashing them over the head with it. Cosying up to the reader is more effective than getting right up in their grill and telling them what they think.

Using ordinary, conversational language is essential. To check for natural tone, trying reading aloud – nothing exposes pious, pretentious language better.

If you succeed in generating empathy, you can go easy on the brand-mentions and the selling – just evoking warmth and understanding in the vicinity of the brand is enough. In this context, when the call to action comes, it simply makes sense – it’s sensible advice from someone who understands. And who wouldn’t act on that?

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  • Good point. I’ve had the feeling for a year or so now that ‘that’s why’ has become one of advertising’s most overworked phrases. It’s like all copywriters have been on the same course.

  • Great post. I’ve been guilty of using the ‘Boots formula’ too – it’s not the worst copywriting crime but it is lazy.

  • Very nice breakdown – I’ve come away from reading this knowing what *not* to do next time. Cliches, eh? Can’t live with ’em…

    Something I’ve noticed in this first example:’At Boots we know how precious your memories are. That’s why our experts only use the highest quality materials before carefully hand checking every photo’ is that there’s actually not that much incentive for me, as a customer, to care how Boots handles my prints.

    Evoking enough true ‘warm fuzzies’ to make me care will make me think my money is well-spent, and that I’m getting good value; that my prints will be top-quality (hence the cost, and the reason I’m using them instead of a home printer); and, most of all, remind me of how much I can’t wait to get them back and share my memories because I had an amazing time creating them. And then it truly resonates and therefore makes sense to spend my money with Boots, instead of being given an empty reason which, on closer inspection, means little.

  • Sharon

    All the above would be true if creating empathy were the main objective. I’m not sure that it is. I think this is copy building a brand’s personality while selling a particular service. Understanding, reliability and reassurance are at the heart of the Boots brand, so it makes senses they’d try to weave those elements into their copy. If you strip it back to ‘we use quality materials to print your special photos’ then anybody could be talking – from other high-street retailers to the printers down the road.

  • I’m glad I’m not the only one who tends to wax a bit impatient with that device. I never use it myself because I just instinctively feel it’s too contrived. As a consumer, I know for a fact I skip right by sappy nonsense like a company caring about me. Your version is a better way to bring in the company at the end, after people have had their own insecurities and concerns spelled out in front of them.

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  • One of my least favorite phrases/words is “whether you are, whether you’re…”
    Drives me batty. “Whether you’re looking for a portrait package for your family, or a picture album of your favorite, etc.”

  • @richard

    I agree that ‘whether you’re’ is a bad one. That’s why I feel a little bit guilty every time I use it.

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  • Susan Greeney

    Thank you for your advice in this post and in your blog in general. I wish a few more people would read it when they are writing their websites (google ‘energy efficient electric radiators’ for a collection of businesses to pitch your services to!)

  • All agreed, but do we need “B is important”? The customer already knows what’s important to them, does it need to be stated? Isn’t that trying to tell the customer what they should think, which is an instant antipathy-generator?

  • Well, I guess it’s a gentle reminder, or the pretext/justification for the communication being attempted in the first place. But you’re right, it could certainly be implied rather than stated, and stating it too heavy-handedly certainly does risk getting the wrong reaction.

  • Ishan

    Sir, that’s incredible. It has changed my whole perception of writing for corporate clients.

  • Alistair Hann

    Nice article. Ascribing human feelings to brands reminds me of the Stewart Lee piece about TalkTalk’s statement upon pulling out of Big Brother sponsorship after the Shilpa Shetty race row.

    “The values of the the Carphone Warehouse. Of which, there are none.”