When write goes wrong

I was visiting my parents’ house the other day and coffee o’clock rolled around. I pulled a new packet of filter coffee out of the cupboard – and noticed it was a brand I hadn’t seen before.

‘Huh’ I thought to myself, ‘that’s some pretty funky packaging’.

Instead of the deep dark reds, browns, golds, purples and green of your average bag of ethically-sourced coffee, typically combined with a thoughtfully intense picture of a farmer, some coffee beans or a handsomely steaming brew, this packet was much bolder, with simple pastel shades and a large, round-edged font.

It looked good. Kind of like a soft-toy my one year old nephew would enjoy throwing up on, but good.

Then I read the copy.

And everything about it became hateful, including the actual coffee. (Seriously, it tasted like that horrific hazelnut-flavoured stuff you buy every few years by mistake. It didn’t say anything about tasting of nuts on the packet, so maybe the branding actually tainted the flavour.)

I can’t remember what coffee brand it was (or, in fact, anything other than the sickly sweet feeling it left me with, which just happened to resonate so well with the stench of its rotten, overly-branded heart), but pick up a dictionary and you’ll probably find it nestling somewhere between ‘smug’ and ‘soulless’.

Here’s my problem. The language on the packet had been copy written to empty excess. Everything – from tagline to body copy to the ‘please recycle’ message – had been perfectly perfunctorily parcelled up and presented. Oh how it tripped along, ever so breezily, urging you to forget your pre-caffeinated struggles and join hands in a land of sustainably-sourced plenty.

It meant NOTHING. It left me cold inside. And it was so bloody forgettable it makes me mad.

In fact, the patronising language (plus that horrible, horrible flavour) made me want to cry out ‘I’m an adult!!’ and stamp on it until it went away. Which, ironically, is very childish of me.

Now, I’ve done my fair share of branding for ethical coffee brands. A lot of people and big companies are working really really hard to make the coffee farming industry (and yes, therefore their businesses), more sustainable. Because at the moment, it’s really not.

That hard work, together with the real, tangible positive difference it’s making to millions of people’s lives deserves and requires clarity, respect and honesty. Trite, over-used, uncreative platitudes don’t just let the side down, they obscure its brilliance.

What’s more, coffee is a bit of a gateway drug to more informed buying decisions, so I think it’s important to get this stuff right. We’re basically asking people to pay a bit extra so that the future of coffee (and the future of millions of coffee farming families) is that little bit healthier. It’s not a hard sell.

What’s that? I can be a better human by paying a few pence extra? Because it’s going to help these guys, and do good things for the environment and and and make me feel good? What! And possibly even make my coffee taste better? WOW!

– Tom, real life human

One way we can make this kind of behaviour become more popular, and feel more normal, is by trying our very best to create a real human connection – by telling the simple story of ‘this is you, this is them, this is how you connect, what do reckon?’. There are other ways, but that’s a good one because most humans care most about other humans.

The way we make this kind of behaviour less popular and less normal is with this kind of marketing. By wrapping it in so many layers of fluffy feel good and caricature I forget I’m buying ethically-sourced coffee because it just makes sense (and, hey I like feeling like a good person), and start to believe I’m doing it so that I can sip from a round-edged beige mug while being hugged from behind by a pair of big, strong, approving arms. (I think Brand X did actually use the words ‘hug in a mug’ somewhere. Unforgivable. I could’ve just said that and be done with it).

Before I do myself out of the job completely, I should say that copywriting has a role to play in all of this. Real, raw writing can be as hard to pull off as a finely wrought tagline.

A professional copywriter will understand the job their words have to do – and know how to make them do it. In this instance, that would mean communicating clearly why this product is a good thing, and connecting with the audience through creative and authentically characterful language. (Actually, that’s pretty much always the job that needs doing.) And they’d probably make sure the coffee wasn’t hazelnut surprise too.

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