It’s generally accepted that copywriting has evolved in recent years from an advertising discipline, most evident in the long-copy ads of old, to a branding discipline, covering everything from packaging to writing-led identities. Strictly, the history isn’t quite that neat. Longer writing continues to play a role in advertising, whether it’s the poetic musings of Apple or the recent Instagram ad by Old Spice. Equally, the novelty of brand writing can be overstated: it has existed in the nooks and crannies of brands for as long as they’ve been around.
Nevertheless, there was a marked transition somewhere in the late 90s – call it the Great Copy Shift. It may have had something to do with the publication of The Copy Book in 1995 (reissued by Taschen in 2011), which collected the best long-copy ads from previous decades and inadvertently drew a line under the trend in the process. Faced with that legacy, it became harder for advertising writers to take a long-copy approach without it feeling like pastiche.
Then Innocent came along in 1998, still the default case study for writing-led brands; 1999 saw the introduction of the Writing for Design category at D&AD, recognising the way brand writing was broadening out. The next decade saw the emergence of a more collective spirit among a disparate group of design and business writers, with the formation of writers’ group 26 and the arrival of Twitter. All the while, the idea of ‘tone of voice’ was on the rise, now an automatic consideration in any branding exercise. The parallel rise of ‘storytelling’, at least when it’s done with any conviction, has placed a similar emphasis on the craft of writing.
What this broader form of design/brand /business writing has lacked is a definitive textbook. There’s a canon of sorts, starting with the pure writing guides such as Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (Macmillan, 1959), then the advertising classics such as Ogilvy on Advertising (Crown, 1983) and Victor Schwab’s hard-selling How To Write A Good Advertisement (Wilshire Book Company, 1982). More recently, the Dark Angels series by John Simmons offered a humanist approach to business writing that had a formative influence on brandwriting. Other guides have included Lindsay Camp’s Can I Change Your Mind? (A&C Black, 2007) and instructional books such as Copywriting by Mark Shaw (Laurence King, 2009) and Brilliant Copywriting by Roger Horberry (Pearson, 2009). Now we have Read Me: Ten Lessons for Writing Great Copy, also by Roger Horberry, this time in partnership with University of Lincoln lecturer Gyles Lingwood. And with it, we may have the definitive primer for brandwriting in its current form.
The authors make the case for ‘brandwriting’ as a term early in the book. They admit it’s unlikely to catch on and copywriters will probably keep using the accepted label, however unsatisfactory it is. But it’s welcome recognition of the shift outlined above and a good starting point for a book that deals with writing from every angle: as thinking, as meme creation, as problem-solving, as storytelling, as brand-building and as a rhetorical craft. The book is split into ten chapters, each ending with suggested ‘workouts’ in which the lessons can be applied (good fodder for anyone involved in writing training). Within that conventional-sounding framework lies some refreshingly unpredictable content. One chapter is dedicated to a close reading of George Orwell, who might have mixed feelings about being made the patron saint of brandwriting, but undoubtedly has plenty to say. Another chapter deals with the rhetorical armoury that copywriters have at their disposal, where we meet everything from ‘antanaclasis’ to ‘zeugma’ (more useful than it sounds, especially when struggling with a headline). It’s one of the pleasures of this book that the authors make copywriting accessible without pretending it’s anything other than a hard-won craft. The tone is clear-headed and unpatronising: none of the vague truisms or over-confident soundbites that can easily creep in.
Best of all, the book is packed with examples that are thoughtfully chosen. Even the usual suspects like The Economist are illustrated with less familiar executions. There are some gems to discover: everything from a Ramones press release to a weird US police recruitment ad targeting hippies. This makes the book much more than a primer for beginners: it’s a rich source of inspiration for practising writers too.
One frustration is that the credits are hidden in a dense list at the back – having names and dates alongside the work would give valuable context. But on the plus side, each piece is captioned with entertaining insights. Some of the best discoveries come in the small print – for example, a footnote reveals that ‘Less is more’ can be traced to an 1855 Robert Browning poem.
What’s arguably lacking is a critical admission of where writing for brands so often goes wrong: the self-absorbed burble that has become the norm on supermarket shelves. With so much emphasis on ‘engagement’ rather than persuasion and the idea that marketing is now a ‘conversation’ (not a conversation most consumers are interested in having), many brands have contracted an over-familiarity that is less effective than they seem to realise. Reading a lot of today’s brandwriting, it’s hard not to yearn for the days of old-school ad copy, when people wrote with a goal in mind, edited ruthlessly, and worked on the basis that the reader needed persuading rather than assuming you were best mates.
That said, this book should act as a corrective influence on the zanier excesses of brandwriting, because it’s full of grounded advice and good examples that will set any learner off in the right direction. Whatever appendage you add to it – copy, brand, business, design – writing will always be an important commercial skill, because of its ability to turn shapeless thoughts into sharp messages. It’s good to see a book that recognises this craft and makes it accessible without being reductive. Wherever brandwriting goes next, this is a welcome milestone.