I want to break you of a huge novice mistake…
I was working on something today that reminded me of one of the biggest mistakes I see novice marketers and copywriters making.
And by breaking you of this bad habit, I believe I can help you create incredible breakthroughs in the performance of your selling message.
The best news?
I believe the results will be almost instantaneous, IF (and yes, that’s a big IF) you “get it.”
As long as you don’t quite get it — or if you choose to fight this basic truth — you will always and forever be conveying to your prospects that you shouldn’t quite be trusted. That you’re hiding something. That you’re putting on a mask, and so you can’t quite be trusted.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make with your copywriting is trying to sound like a copywriter…
Here’s the thing. We study the classics. We learn from the new-school gurus. We copy winning ads by hand. We dissect the intricacies of the style and substance of winning copy.
And if we’re truly learning from, reflecting on, pondering the power of the master works of this commercial art form…
We do learn something about writing effective copy.
And, in fact, I believe that everything I’ve just laid out above is probably the best path from zero to competent novice.
— Read the classic books on copywriting, advertising, marketing, and selling.
— Pick a few modern gurus that resonate with you, and study their work for how they’re applying classic principles today.
— Really analyze both classic ads and relevant modern examples in your market, for the intricacies of what they’re doing.
— And seek to develop enough of an understanding of all of it that you could sit down and explain it to a friend or colleague so they’d understand.
Again, do all that, and you’ll quickly reach the ranks of competent novice. Which means even if you never create breakthroughs, you’ll be able to write consistently profitable copy, especially in less competitive niche markets.
But when you do this, you also set yourself up for this big mistake.
Because whenever you study someone else’s work, you’re automatically taking it out of the context for which it was created…
Let me give you an example.
Take the classic Volkswagen ad, “Think Small.” When it came out in 1959, it was a total breakthrough. And probably part of why there are still so many Volkswagen cars on US streets today.
Now let’s say you get the gig as the copywriter or creative director for the Mini Cooper, another small German-made car.
If you’ve done everything above and really studied the classics, you might look at the old VW ad and feel inspired. Here’s another ad for a small car, and it captured the American imagination in such a way that the “bug” became a total sensation.
And so, thinking like a copywriter, thinking it was the WORDS that mattered, you say, “Think Mini.”
Ooh! You share your inspiration with your team. They start seeing dollar signs, just thinking about the classic success of VW. And they fall in love with it around the conference room table.
Then, you finish the ad, get it out there, and… More crickets chirp than during yesterday’s solar eclipse.
What made the difference? The Mini is a cool car, don’t get me wrong. But its small size is not the distinction today that the VW bug’s was in 1959. In 1959, nearly every car on the road was a boat. That was the big thing about 1950s cars — they were big!
In a market where all the manufacturers had gone big, VW was distinctive — even before that ad was created — by being small.
All that ad did was to recognize that point of distinction, and go all-in on that.
It wasn’t about copying what others had written before. It wasn’t about modeling other successful ads. It was about finding that one substantial idea and, in this case, summing it up in two words.
So, let’s take a different tack.
Let’s imagine for a minute that you are in some big ad agency, and you’ve been studying the classic ads, and that “Think small” ad did really capture your interest.
And instead of just trying to capture the words and apply them to your product, you looked instead at the underlying principles of what made that work.
So, that old VW ad took a visually distinctive characteristic of this already-unique car, and highlighted that characteristic as something that the VW bug could “own” in the mind of the consumer.
They did it visually, by presenting the bug as SMALL on the page, with white space around the car taking up most of the page (I’ll argue one of the FEW really effective uses of white space in advertising history).
And then they captured that same characteristic in two incredibly concise words.
So you start to brainstorm…
In an ideal world when you could pitch any company… And you really want to land a car ad account… Whose product could you use these principles on, and how?
Well, who is producing the most distinctive cars in the market today?
Tesla is definitely a contender.
What’s unique about the Tesla?
Well, lots of things. But they definitely stand out by being the best-known all-electric car.
Is that something you can present visually? Well, there are probably a few ways to do so. But the average consumer probably couldn’t identify an electric car based on what’s under the hood, if that’s what you pictured. And it might not be so exciting to show the car plugged in. Gimmicky electrical graphics would probably come across as gimmicky, too.
But why do consumers buy electric cars? Well, many buy it because they want to contribute less emissions into the atmosphere.
And where do emissions come from on a gas vehicle? The tailpipe.
So let’s imagine this…
A big picture of the back of a new Tesla. And underneath, the headline…
Then, you go on to capture the story of what makes the Tesla so distinctive. What makes it stand out versus every other option the consumer is being given today.
Are there other electric cars? Sure. But people today aren’t really choosing between a Tesla and most other electric cars, because they’re not major players. (There were other smaller cars with the VW beetle came out, too.)
Most people who’d consider a Tesla Model 3 today are choosing between, say, a Prius or other hybrid and the new Tesla. And even hybrids have to have tailpipes, because they run on gas at least part of the time.
That’s putting the principles behind what made the “Think small” ad work into a modern context, to showcase the distinction of a modern product in that market.
If all you’re trying to do is copy what others have done before, you’ll never get to this point…
And this is what I’m pointing to when I say that trying to “write like a copywriter” is one of the biggest mistakes I see novice copywriters make.
Instead, think about your product or service, the result it gets for your customers, who the market is and what they care about, the problem you’re solving and what makes your solution unique, and so on…
Immerse yourself in it…
Let it swim around in your head…
Do more research…
Find that point of uniqueness…
Find the story you want to tell…
Then, tell it in the clearest way possible, in real, human language (not advertising-speak, or jargon, or anyone else’s words).
Start from there, only drawing from your foundation of research and marketing knowledge when it helps you say what you want to say in a better way.
When you do this, it makes your message itself almost invisible. It conveys the feeling and core story in a way that’s authentic and that resonates with your audience. They don’t just admire what you’re saying — they want to respond.
Yours for bigger breakthroughs,