Is it just me, or have brands gone a bit theatrical lately?
Tesco Mobile is conspiring with Yorkshire Tea. Old Spice is getting into playful spats with Taco Bell. It would appear that brand communications these days are less top-down PR statement and more interactive digital theatre. There’s drama, comedy and – with the occasional social media faux pas - tragedy.
Ok, so maybe it’s not quite time to break out the opera glasses, but if brands are starting to behave more like characters on a stage maybe it’s time to sit up in our seats and pay attention. Perhaps there’s something we can learn from the world of theatre that can help project a brand’s voice and propagate some of that two-way brand storytelling we’ve been hearing so much about lately.
Before I became a copywriter I cut my teeth writing for the theatre. I’ve spent sunny afternoons in dark stuffy studios, lost sleep over opening nights, and stayed up until unholy hours fussing over dialogue. When I landed my first copywriting job I discovered that a lot of what I had learnt on the stage could be easily translated to writing for brands. So, seeing as it’s nearly festival season here in Edinburgh, here are my top copy tips from the other side of the velvet curtain:
Get into character
When I write as a brand I like to think of it as writing in character. Whether it’s a chatty retail assistant, a calm and collected financial expert, or an eccentric mascot it helps to visualise the Brand’s voice as a person - someone you can grab a drink with and shoot the breeze.
Take a look at your brand guidelines and think, ‘What might this person be like? What’s it like to BE this person?’ Luckily, there’s a characterisation technique designed to help you do just that…
Do some Hot Seating
Hot Seating is when an actor answers a series of open-ended questions while in character. ‘Which political party do they vote for?’ ‘How well do they sleep?’ ‘What kind of music do they like?’ These are designed to get the actor thinking about aspects of their character that they may have otherwise overlooked.
When building a brand’s Tone of Voice I like to ask questions like ‘What would a night out with your brand be like?’ ‘What kind of pet do they have?’ ‘What sort of shoes do they wear?’ Hot seating questions like these can help disrupt conventional brand thinking (our values are… we speak like…) and open up a fresh perspective.
Build a back-story
If I had a penny for every time the question ‘what would a night out with your brand be like?’ was answered with ‘informative’ or ‘fun’ I’d be rolling my eyes from beneath a mountain of pennies.
Method actors can’t get away with one-word answers. They spend hours, days and weeks creating elaborate back-stories for their role. By the time they step in front of an audience they know their character inside and out. Now I’m not saying we have to be quite as rigorous as that, but details can help build a strong, engaging character.
Let’s go back to our night out question. Instead of ‘informative’ a better answer might be ‘an Open University talk on Viking mythology followed by a real ale tasting’. Details like these help to create a specific picture in your mind’s eye and can even inspire interesting new content and events (Viking themed real ale festival anyone?). Besides, it’s easier to respond to an event or a comment online if you instinctively know how your brand would react.
When in doubt, follow your Desire
The most important question you can ask any character is ‘What do you want?’ Juliet wants Romeo. Hamlet wants to avenge his father. Macbeth wants to be King. Everything these characters do and say is driven by that desire. Without desire a character has no drive, no energy, no meaning.
When writing for a brand, this means thinking beyond ‘I want to increase sales/clicks/submissions etc.’ and getting to the heart of what the brand is really about. Are they passionate about getting children to eat healthily? Are they driven to help OAPs become more finance-savvy? Or do they want to support new parents? When in doubt, measure your content against this desire and use it to drive your brand’s voice.
Bring some emotional reality
Every actor, playwright and director has to bring something real to the make-believe going up on the stage. There’s no point acting out a sad scene if you don’t know what it feels like to have your heart chucked through the proverbial meat grinder. It’s this emotional reality that makes theatre (not to mention music, art, TV and movies) matter to so many.
The same goes for writing for a brand. You have to remember your humanity if you want to make an impact. What does your target audience want? What do they need? How does that make them feel? Empathise with the emotional reality of your audience and you’ll be on your way to creating a voice that’s relevant to their needs.
The reviews are in…
So, what do you think? Are theatrical techniques a farcical suggestion or is the play the thing? Are there any theatrical tips I’ve missed or is there another medium you think we could learn from?