Consumers are confused enough about nutrition. Don’t let your packaging make the problem worse. What’s my proof this is a huge problem? All I have to do is visit a food brand trade show. For instance, during my most recent trip to the 800-pound gorilla in the food trade show world, Natural Products Expo West, I saw the same product over and over, in every aisle, in every category. I call this product, “Huh?” Of course, it wasn’t one product — but it seemed that way, thanks to the fact that, while the vast majority of exhibitors have gotten much slicker with their graphic design game, marketers are focusing far too much on features, and confusing ones at that — non-GMO, gluten free, lactose intolerant, whole grains, etc. These brands are leaning on the same in-vogue jargon, instead of giving consumers a clear understanding of what makes the product beneficial in the quest for better nutrition. I approach one of these hopefuls, encouraged by the great graphic design of the booth, packaging, and materials. A trick nearly everyone is onto these days. “So, what’s your story,” I ask. Him: “Well, Gregory’s Gluten Free is a great tasting, gluten-free snack that’s GMO-free, dairy free, cruelty-free, fair trade, farm-to-table, a good source of fiber and 92% organic.” Me: “Those are great attributes, but what’s your story? Why do you exist?” Him: “Oh cool, well my second cousin was diagnosed with a gluten sensitivity and there were no great-tasting gluten-free snacks that are GMO-free, dairy free, cruelty…”
Part 2: How do I write copy that sells?
I had to stop Gregory at “cruelty.” He had confused, like so many brands, the difference between copy points and the story. Your “why.” Then, he put those copy points ahead of the story. So how can you write a better story? Greg did have a story. Remember? The one about the gluten-sensitive cousin. The one you’d never remember because it sounds like a million other brands that use the, “We couldn’t find _____, so we invented our own.” Because it sounds like a million other stories in the store and in the aisles. These are the kinds of stories that are about the brand, not the consumer consuming the brand. There’s simply, in most cases, no advocacy position on behalf of the consumer with the problem. So what if we applied a highly relevant insight — while celiac is recognized as a legitimate problem, sensitivity to gluten is frequently questioned and even seen as a fabricated issue used by its “sufferers” to create a new kind of status I’ll call Nutritional Chic. Now, that’s the basis for a story. Here’s a crack at a new story, including a new hypothetical name. We’re tired of people calling gluten sensitivity a fad — for us, it’s a real problem. That’s why we created Gregory’s Gluten Freed. The only GF snack that’s amazingly delicious AND helping people understand the health benefits of discovering their food sensitivities. Join us! That’s better right? Thought so!
Part 3: Cool, so how do I apply a better story to create better packaging?
It’s a widely accepted statistic that 70% of shopping decisions are made in store. And with the options for store-provided promotional opportunities dwindling, what’s the most valuable persuasion tool you have? That’s right, the printed container in which your product comes. So, here are four guiding principles for clearer — and therefore more persuasive — packaging: 1. Assume your package is all the information a prospective customer will ever get. You may have heard the following from your design firm, “This package will intrigue the consumer to go to the site to find out more.” I say that’s a recipe for disaster, starting with the fact: If the product isn’t purchased, there’s no reason to find out more. Be sure the whole story gets on the package, succinctly, sure — but get it on there. 2. Write with clear, benefit-oriented language. See point #1. The benefit is the most important thing. What’s in it for the consumer isn’t a long list of features. How is your product going to make my life better and now? 3. Jargon that means a lot to you, may mean nothing to them. Many food brands use scientific-sounding copy in an attempt to persuade. But it’s better to opt for plain old English. Remember, your consumer has precious little time and even less deep understanding of food science or tech. Make it easy for her to understand and she’ll buy! 4. Tell me why you are DRAMATICALLY better than the competitor sitting next to you. Hint: Don’t save it for the back panel. Yes, the consumer wants and needs to know your “free-froms,” but assume your competitor has the same list. What is the ownable truth that sets your brand apart from all the others? Why are you a clear choice? Figure that out, put it on the package front like you would on a billboard. And win.
Part 4: How do I create marketing language that’s brief and clear?
You may have heard a quote that goes something like, “If I had more time I would have written a shorter letter.” Now, while the idea behind the quote has been attributed to Thoreau, Ben Franklin, Cicero and Mark Twain, the original, according to numerous sources, is credited to French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal. Why am I telling you this? Oh, so glad you asked. 1. It’s really interesting trivia for a writer, like me. 2. It contains a critical lesson for marketers. The point these and other historical figures have made, using their own variations on this quote, is that it’s extremely difficult to be succinct, clear and meaningful. It just is, but it’s so, so, SO important. Which brings us to your marketing language. Is it plain, simple, brief, clear English? In other words, do your materials speak to potential consumers in a way that allows them to understand what you’re offering — or is it jargon, which attempts to sell in a way that, in the end, is more confusing than persuasive? Be honest. The evidence, seen at trade shows, on store shelves, in advertising and online, would suggest the latter. In an effort to separate ourselves from the competition, we’ve actually separated ourselves from the clarity and resulting brevity that can win over consumers. This is a terrible idea. Don’t do this. Instead, be freaking clear! Your consumers and your shareholders will thank you for it.
Part 5: How do I test my marketing language?
Your marketing/advertising/design agencies just love it when you hold up their work proclaiming, “I showed it to my wife/husband and she/he hated it.” That’s sarcasm, they hate that because they think they know best. But the problem is, they know too much — they’ve separated themselves from normal people through their pursuit to be clever. Beat their (and your) copywriters to the punch with this dead-simple test:
1. Collect your packaging, sell-sheet and website copy.
2. Create three mini-focus groups comprised of spouses/partners of your employees — give one piece of communication from the list above to the individuals in each group.
3. Ask each person to highlight the phrases that are absolutely understandable and have them circle everything that’s even remotely confusing or that awakens the internal skeptic. I’m willing to bet the circled items (confusing) will outweigh the highlighted (clear). And that, hopefully, will point out both a problem and an opportunity. Because if your language is confusing, chances are your competition’s is as well (for extra credit, repeat the same exercise as described above with your competitors’ materials).
4. Once you’ve isolated the opportunities, really take the time that Pascal and all the others lacked and recreate copy that’s brief, clear and free of marketing jargon.
Go through this exercise with every new change in or addition of language and I guarantee your communication will be clearer, more transparent and more persuasive.
Part 6: How do I create winning brand positioning?
Let’s say you don’t have the money to hire a big, fancy marketing firm (like mine). One way of creating great brand positioning starts with making your own lists. For you, let’s start with this one: What makes our blood boil? Of course, this should be about the category, your competition, your consumers, NOT about the world in general. Common sense, right? So get a few of your best thinkers in a room where you won’t be distracted or interrupted for a solid hour. If it were up to me, you’d take the whole day, but I’m starting you off slow. Next, leave your phones and all those awesome, distracting laptops in a basket outside the door. Elect the mouthiest among you to be the moderator. Put a big, white, sticky note, or several, up on the wall (I always insist on 3M Post-It brand — they tear better and stick better). Make sure they’re straight (OCD). Prepare yourself with several big, fat, black markers (Author’s choice: Sharpie Chisel Tip). Now, pose the question to your group of geniuses: “What makes our blood boil?” Write down the responses that come, and encourage them to keep coming. The faster, the better. The less thinking, more stream of consciousness, the better. If someone wants to get into a long-winded discussion, let it play for a minute, but always bring it back by asking, “What do I write on the 3M Post-It brand sheet?”
Part 7: How do I add emotion to my brand position?
Go as long as you can on that previous, incredibly important question. Fill up as many sheets as it takes. Get as emotional as you possibly can. Now, when you’ve exhausted the room — and you’ll know it’s happened when the answers start getting redundant — stop. Review all the answers. Read them out loud. Ask the room to be sure everyone agrees to everything you wrote. If there’s disagreement, talk it out, find common ground or another word or phrase. Or cross the offending idea out. Next, looking at this glorious list of seething anger, ask, “Which of these things makes our consumers’ blood boil?” Circle the answers — be critical. If you can’t honestly, as a group, agree that the idea is truly something your consumers get routinely upset about, don’t circle it. Finished? Satisfied? Take a step back and regard this list, the intersection of what you and your consumers feel passionate, boiling-blood angry about. For all intents and purposes, this is the first draft of your story. For the last 15 minutes of your first hour together, ask everyone in the room to write a very short, three to four sentence, externally-facing, consumer-language paragraph using the ideas you’ve circled.
Part 8: How do I gain consensus that our brand position is right?
Okay, when you’ve completed the steps outlined above, Review as a group. After the reveal, trade papers with a neighbor with the agreement that, each person will, on his or her own, improve the story they’ve ended up with. Arrange a time to get back together with the improved stories and review again. Adjorn. When you get back together, review the edited stories as a group, then elect someone on the team (or hire a freelance copywriter) to turn the various drafts into one cohesive — and short — story. It should, in the end, give people goosebumps. You should easily see how it can go from the package to social media, to demos and trade shows — everywhere. This is your brand essence. It’s not about a list of things that are or are not in your product. It’s about an idea that drives you all, every day — and it’s about an advocacy position for your consumers. In the end, people aren’t looking for food, they’re looking for help! Your story should offer that help. Thanks for reading. Next time, we’ll talk about how you can help consumers decrease their intense confusion around INGREDIENTS and CLAIMS.
Be digestible. And thanks.