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?

Tags: ,