Writing copy that sells and advanced messaging strategies

20 December 2018

Every marketing novice without a strong brand will make this mistake. Look at our product, feature, feature, feature, it’s awesome, we’re awesome, feature, feature, feature…buy it! And the customer goes, “that’s nice whoever you are, good for you”

Here’s what you should do instead…

But first a quick quote.

“As the battle for media supremacy becomes even-more bitter, most marketers are besieged by studies and data proclaiming the superiority of TV/digital/influencers/radio/whatever over all the other alternatives. In this ongoing gladiatorial contest we tend to forget that media is, quite literally, just the conveyor belt for the message. If that message is powerful and creative and attractive it will clearly work better than a message with none of the above.”

(Mark Ritson, Marketing Week)

The reality

Anyone can communicate poorly, but there is an art to communicating effectively.

Effective communication occurs when your message and it’s meaning is interpreted by someone else in the same way you intended.

I know this sounds obvious, but given that the human population is not full of clones, there will be significant differences in the way each person interprets the same piece of communication.

To sell something, you need to take simple comprehension much further – you need to be persuasive with your message. You need to more far beyond simply affecting that person’s cognition and focus on affecting a behavioral response.

Much like this article, summarizing a long complex concept into a shorter, concise way is an art.

Everyone is bombarded with hundreds if not thousands of messages per day and the brain automatically filters out messages which are not salient.

As a marketer, your job is to create messages which cut-through the clutter and influence your target market to buy. Everything else is just a waste of time and resources.

Writing copy that sells is extremely valuable.

Before we begin

We’re going to narrow the scope of this discussion to message strategy involved with the marketing communications process – specifically the promotional media side of this discipline.

We’ll also primarily focus on product-level messaging strategies for the end purpose of a sale.

The same approaches can be applied to brand level messaging strategies, but these focus less on a short-term behavioural response and more on long-term perceptions that may or may not result in a sale.

While this article title refers to copy writing, you can use these same approaches for all forms of creative content including imagery and video, using the same message strategy approaches.

Other Similar & Related Terms

Brand message strategy, positioning statements, copy-writing, advertising message, brand message, single minded proposition (SMP), catchphrase, tagline, slogan

Why Messaging Strategy is Important

Just like with any speech, often ‘how’ you say something is nearly as critical as ‘what’ you say.

The pauses, the expression, the inflections and how you wrap a story around the central theme your wishing to convey is so important.

Messaging Strategies are needed for…

Briefing – Defining a messaging strategy will provide your team with a clear scope for all future communication whether this is intended for internal staff or for briefing external communication vendors. As Mark Ritson highlights above, you can have your media strategy perfect, but if your message is not effective the whole campaign will under-perform.

Off-Brand – You may notice that in agency-land a term will be used that highlights if a message is relevant or not to the broader brand of the organization..that message is ‘off-brand’ or ‘on-brand’. However, many of these same people have trouble explaining what exactly is on or off brand. A message strategy will define this.

Comprehension – mis-communication and misinterpretation occurs when a message is untested or not robust enough to provide consistent comprehension by receivers. The best way to explain this is the translation between different languages or between different cultural segments who may speak the same language but with subtle differences. For example, marketing messages can be more ‘salesy’ in the US when compared to markets like the UK and Australia.

Competition – novice marketers who try their hand at copy writing can be easily identified. They will default their focus on their product or service – describing what is it and what it does and how they believe it’s superior to other alternatives. This approach only works when there is a lack of competition and overwhelming demand for the product. In most markets, this is rarely the case and the need for marketing is far more crucial. The problem with this novice approach is that it completely ignores the state of the customer and thus doesn’t provide a compelling sales case.

SMP – At large communication agencies, their aim tends to be defining the heart of the strategy called an SMP or a “single-minded proposition”, The SMP summarizes the most important things one could say about a product or brand, serving as a universal truth statement from which all messaging permeation will flow. This SMP will “ignite” creative briefs and serves as a rally cry for all marketing communication staff involved in the campaign. Often the SMP will become the main tagline or catchphrase of the campaign for which it is remembered by.

Brevity – it’s easy to explain your brand and product with many words. Far more difficult to summarize it in just a few. In the land of diminishing attention and time, short snappy messages will win and increasingly so.


Messages and Communication

This is a basic model that shows how the communication of a message works between a sender and a receiver. It’s important that you first understand how this works, even at a basic level, otherwise you’re looking at the message in isolation from the broader communication process.

Sender – the person or organization from where the message originates.

Message – The source will ‘encode’ the message which simply means that the intended meaning behind the message takes the form of a written piece of text, graphics, user-interface, tangible product etc.

Channel – which medium the message is being relayed through. i.e. is it an ad in a newspaper, product packaging, face-to-face sales, a website etc. These can sometimes be broadly defined as ‘brand contact points’ i.e. any point where a person comes into contact with a brand. For a comprehensive list of promotional channels visit the ‘channel’ section of the platform.

Noise – unless this message is being send face to face, there will likely be many other competing messages from multiple channels affecting the daily life of the receiver. There will be conflicting messages, inconsistency and general ‘clutter’ which will affect how the message is decoded by the receiver.

Source – The combination of the sender, message and channel is sometimes called the message source as the receiver will form perceptions based on where they believe the message is originating. For example, if a company sends a news release to a journalist and this news organization creates a story, the receiver will interpret the source of the message differently than if a brand pays for a commercial spot on TV. There will be massive differences in the perceived trust and credibility of the same message based on where the receiver interprets the message to be originating.

Receiver – the target market a.k.a “target audience” receives the message and decodes it. I.e. The receiver interprets the message via their perceptions at the time.

Feedback – the outcome from the communication process. Did the customer buy, visit a store, fill out a form, browse a website, chat via a chat bot, hang up the phone etc.


Messaging Strategy Approaches

Naturally your messaging strategy should stem from your business or marketing department’s overarching goals and specific objectives.

There’s no shortage of messaging models from Simon Sinek’s ‘Why’ through to agency inspired models like TFD, stories, or the classic linear AIDA approach.

Most messaging strategies will focus on one more of the following areas with the eventual aim to persuade the audience into committing to an eventual transaction

  • cognition such as the awareness of a brand name or knowledge of features
  • emotions such as an allegiance to a brand’s tribal community or a feeling of confidence
  • behavioral actions such as a join, click, store visit or sale

Which approach you take and prefer, is a personal preference. This is not an exhaustive guide (I’ve omitted some of my favourites), but this should at least give you a creative framework with which to approach the problem.

Approach 1 – Think Feel Do (TFD)

The think feel do is just a way to approach your message strategy focus between three common objective areas.

Think – Informational Message strategies focus on communicating things about the product offering so the customer can know or understand objective facts. This could include product features, attributes, performance, technical specifications, pricing, providence, availability, name etc.

Feel – Transformational Message strategies involve changing the way people perceive the brand in an emotional way i.e. how the person feels and affecting a change in their current state to a desired state. Typically the strategy will focus on perceptions of quality, image, brand image, association, lifestyle, emotion, credibility, relevance etc.

Do – Behavioural Message Strategies and Relational Message Strategies are intended to spur action instead of thoughts or feelings. added value, reminder, loyalty, advocacy, involvement, two-way


Approach 2 – Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle

Simon became famous for his ‘revolutionary’ concentric circles. What, the How and the Why – he argues it’s best to start with the reason why your organization exists and the problem it attempts to solve for consumers, then explain how they do it and what it is.

This runs counter to the conventional marketing theory approach where a product/service offering is created (The What), then the organization communicates how it works or solves your problem (The How) and finally with some brand level reasons on top in order to differentiate and add distinctiveness to the offerings (the Why).

This popularity of his model reflects the competitive nature of most modern advanced economy markets where a purchase decision may have less to do with product’s ability to satisfy a functional requirement and instead, rely more on how it resonates with one’s own values and contribution to their sense of self.

This approach has become popular in recent years as it complimented the agency catchphrase trend during the 2000’s of… ‘brand story’ ‘brand purpose’ and ‘brand promise’.

All of these words are BS, but in competitive, mature markets, the reason why you are doing something can be a powerful driver of general demand.

Mark Pollard’s 3 Brand Model

Similar to Sinek’s ‘Why’ Mark Pollard has formed his own version of strategic brand planning and vouches for the ‘Vision-centric’ approach in modern markets, where everyone becomes customer-centric. He touts that messaging should stem from customer insight, mixed with a clear overarching vision/mission.

He also says a brand and product’s benefits can be categorized into three areas, making the important distinction between how product value is distorted via the immediate priority of features.

1 – Love to Have

2 – Nice to Have

3 – Must have

Comparative Messaging Approach

Compare your product to competing offerings. Apple iPhone vs Android. Often this messaging approach compares product/service features or other facts which can be proven in a court of law so as to limit the legal risk of making false representations about a competitor’s product. This approach is often used in competitively saturated markets or when consumers have trouble comparing between products, thus finding it difficult to compare value.


Value proposition and positioning statement approach

Instead of communicating product/service features, this approach instead looks at how the product and brand benefits the customer or reduces a cost. Ultimately, in every purchase decision, a customer does not buy on price. They buy based on a perception of value at the time.

Perceived value = perceived benefits – perceived cost.

This message approach moves beyond what the product/service contains, but rather what is how this is valuable to the consumer. Often these statements are supported with forms of brand proof for increased message salience such as endorsements or sales testimonials.

The mistake novice marketers make is to only focus on Functional Benefits and Monetary Cost while ignoring all the other costs and benefits.

A good example of how value perception works is with the engineering of intuitive user interfaces and reducing friction. These acts build value because they reduce mental exhaustion (emotional cost), provide a sense of empathy (emotional benefit) and reduce the time the user spends doing what they want to do (time cost).

Functional Benefits – the product/service provides some kind of functional utility.

Example: a bike allows me to go from point A to B. Or this bike has a gel seat for added comfort.

Emotional Benefits – desired emotions as a result of using the product/service.

Example – a bike makes me feel good about leaving a low carbon footprint. I feel physically refreshed after exercise. I feel ethically more at ease when riding a bike than alternative forms of transport.

Self-Expressive Benefits – your ideal sense of self which you are aiming to express and move towards. Note: consumers will often not be consciously aware that this is why they are purchasing a product and won’t admit it to you during research.

Example – I’ve always respected the Danish bike culture and as an aspiring graphic designer with left-leaning political ideologies, riding a bike fits in with how I see myself. That’s why I ride a bike as opposed to driving a car or walking.

Time Cost – our time is finite and in advanced economies, increasingly highly-valued.

Example – a bike may be far slower than a car ride or helicopter so this would be a time cost. If it is raining, I’d have to perhaps bring a change of clothes and have a shower at work which adds additional time.

Monetary Cost – the cost of buying and maintaining a bike is less than a car so the monetary cost is lower than a car but higher than walking.

Emotional Cost – undesired emotions which you wish to avoid when using a product/service.

Example – navigating bike lanes and avoiding being hit by cars who don’t like bikes provides a source of stress and the alertness required adds to my mental exhaustion during my commute. These are both emotional costs that are not present when riding in the back of an Uber.

Opportunity Cost – the forgone alternatives after a choice is made. Often one course of action excludes either permanently or temporarily an alternative course of action.

Example – because I ride a bike to work now, I’m restricted to paved areas and can’t stroll through the nearby gardens on my way to work like I do if I was walking.


Persuasive Sales Approach

Copy-writing for behavioral responses is perhaps the most valuable (short term) because if effective, it will have a high dollar value contribution. Robert B. Cialdini’s “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, is a commonly referenced book for sales people and direct response copywriters. He mentions the impact of 6 proven rules which can help influence a person.

Reciprocation: When we receive something, due to social norms, we feel obligated to return the favour. Marketers use product/service sampling strategies and trials to take advantage of this.

Commitment and Consistency: Once you make a commitment, not matter how small, we feel compelled to be consistent with our original choice and will make further similar commitments. Sales people often get you to agree to making a small concession before using that as ammunition for further concessions.

Social proof: We look to others who we trust for validation in our own decision making. Just look at how celebrities are used as endorsers for luxury brand ads.

Liking: We prefer to buy off people who we know and like. In the words of Darryl Kerrigan, sometimes it’s not the product at all, it’s just “…the vibe”.

Authority: We will defer to sources of authority and show an inherent obedience to their directives.

Scarcity: Something that is scarce has a higher perceived value. In modern times this has evolved into another term called the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). Scarcity concepts can also be used to provide the illusion of popularity.


Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP)

While often touted as a quasi-science and frowned-upon by academia, I’ve personally seen NLP work in many scenarios. Direct response copy-writing and sales objection approaches play into NLP concepts, especially where specific speech patterns are used to take advantage of some of the social norms and the principles stated above. Agreement frames, awareness patterns, thought redirection, yes sets, objection handling, comparison states…the list goes on. These are very advanced techniques that apply more to tactical level messaging rather than the strategic level, but it’s important to be aware of their power in closing sales.

Donald Trump makes use of NLP patters with his communication constantly.

Current State vs Desired State

This is a good way of framing your approach similar to the value proposition approach above. This works whereby you focus on the deficiencies of the current state your customer and how they could benefit from using your product/service in a way that can bring them to a desired state. Essentially, customers are buying outcomes or access to an ‘After’ state rather than the product itself.

You then use messages which highlight why their current state is undesirable and how your product/service can get them to their desired state. This approach is effective at reorienting a marketing team’s focus toward messaging tactics that encompass a customer-centric view. I.e. what do you need to communicate in order to convince the customer that purchasing our product/service will get them to their desired state.

The famous ‘Got Milk’ campaign in the US, focused on the absence of the product and the state people are in when they don’t have milk. Ads featured a variety of use cases where the subject needed milk for consumption, but didn’t have it available, finishing with the tag line ‘Got Milk?’ This is a classic, current state – desired state situation from where the creative team formed their message strategy.

A lot of branding experts use a similar concept as an exercise for brand owners to help define their brand purpose. They ask the person, what would happen if, overnight, your company didn’t exist. What would the world lose? What would happen to your customers and the broader population? If you can’t answer that question with some compelling responses, you don’t have a very strong brand.


Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action (AIDA)

This linear customer purchase decision theory states that a customer must first be aware of a brand before being interested, registering a desire to buy and then taking that action. In a modern context, this linear model can be distorted significantly due to the role technology plays in purchase decisions.

For example, a consumer could be scrolling down their Instagram feed when a picture catches their eye (interest). They then read who else has interacted with the image or posted it or read the description which builds their desire to purchase (desire). They then investigate how to purchase it and are alerted to the name of the brand (awareness) before travelling to that brand’s website and purchasing online (action).

The traditional marketing communication industry process focuses primarily on using paid media advertising to achieve brand awareness above all other objectives which are assumed to follow as there is a belief that brand awareness is the first, and most critical step in the purchase decision process. The invent of social media, search engines, review sites and marketplaces has distorted this prevailing wisdom.


Dynamic Data-led

In a digital world, messaging can be tailored to each user depending on their digital signature (browsing history, cookies, device ID, email identifier, IP address etc). A simple example of this is Google Ads’ dynamic keyword insertion to areas of the search advertisement. A more complex use, is where the headline of a landing page can detect the digital signature of a user and personalise the message to that user (example – Clearbit). Similar things can be done with adaptive user interfaces such as Sitecore.

Other more complex programmatic online display advertising systems can incorporate dynamic messaging in their ads. A lot of re-targeting ad systems incorporate at a basic level, some of these elements.

Research data should always feed a strategic process, but it’s more useful for testing the superiority of different tactical message executions prior to a widespread company adoption. Data won’t automatically create your messaging strategy for you. This needs to be an internal directive.

To read the full article navigate here or PM me for access.

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