In this guest post, Andrew Knowles, a partner at comms agency SKMG, offers his tips on how brands can grab consumers’ attention in this overly saturated age without the usual shortcuts, tricks and clickbait…
There’s much to be said about current advertising trends and their short-term orientation. I won’t spend my time here detailing rockstar studies like Binet and Field’s “The Long And Short Of It” to prove that point, but I would like to draw your attention to the fact that this sense of short-termism is not, in fact, limited to media strategy – it has multiple touchpoints across our industry all the way down to something as seemingly micro as the language of our copy. This is problematic. Why? I’m glad you asked.
Much the same way that social platforms abundant in consumer metrics and illustrative ROI figures have tempted media strategists down the path of (arguably) overspending on marketing at the very end of the purchase funnel, so too have they tempted brands to adopt a certain type of rhetoric in explaining themselves to the consumer.
In AdWeek 360, Lippincott’s David Stein challenged us to “imagine the modern customer”: he slips into “the most comfortable socks in the history of feet” (Bombas) before putting on “the perfect sneaker” (Cariuma). He spends a moment deciding between “the most versatile pant ever” (Rhone), “the most comfortable pant ever” (Swet Tailor), and “the most comfortable men’s jeans ever made” (Mugsy). He buttons up “the best damn dress shirt yet” (Mizzen+Main), pulls on “the greatest hoodie ever made” (American Giant), zips into “the world’s most versatile travel jacket” (BauBax) and grabs “the most functional backpack ever” (Nomatic) before he wheels out with the “best carry-on luggage ever” (Away). After a long day of travel, he gets into the “world’s most comfortable slipper” (Mahabis), unwinds on a bean bag that relieves depression (Moon Pod), before tucking in for the “best sleep of his life” on “the world’s finest mattress” (DreamCloud).
“The notion of sensational language in advertising is nothing new, but it seems our digital lives are crowded with what might be called clickbait brands, products with a headline so good you can’t help but click through,” Stein says.
Aside from his assertion that the modern consumer is exclusively male, Stein is right. We’re living in a marketing landscape where brands that chose to err on the side of short-termism, particularly in digital, have to compete with an incredibly vast amount of information clogging newsfeeds by the hour – even with the assistance of targeting algorithms so spectacularly accurate they make you swear someone’s listening in on your phone mic (UPDATE: they are). The result of this competition is a revival of the sort of hyperbolic ad copy that existed in Don Draper’s day, but delivered with a precision and speed he couldn’t have dream of (and not just because he’s fictional).
You can read the rest of Stein’s piece here, and while I don’t necessarily disagree with his suggestion that there are inherent marketing lessons to be learnt from these clickbait brands flooding our newsfeeds, it does raise an interesting communications challenge: how, in a hyper-competitive digital landscape of continually shrinking attention spans, is a brand supposed to grab attention and simultaneously build its own unique tone of voice?
Let’s be clear, I am not suggesting clickbait brands or this extreme copy approach currently accounts for the entire digital marketplace. On the opposite end of the spectrum we have major FMCG companies like Unilever publicly announcing at Cannes this year that they will be ditching “brands that we feel are not able to stand for something more important than just making your hair shiny, your skin soft, your clothes whiter or your food tastier”. The pursuit of greater and more authentic purpose in advertising is truly the next frontier for brands seeking longevity with Gen Z and beyond for reasons that don’t need to be unpacked here. But this stands in direct opposition to the clickbait brand trend and the age of extreme copy in the digital sphere.
The obvious side effect of clickbait brands, particularly for small to medium businesses, is that they spark a competitive trend toward both brevity and hyperbole in communication. This trend homogenises the way many brands decide to communicate their product – otherwise they risk going unnoticed. What is less obvious is the effect this has on the brands themselves…
One of the more entertaining exercises I’ve witnessed in a writing workshop encouraged participants to adopt the tone of voice of three well-known celebrities before rewriting the same bland paragraph in their three, distinctive voices. It’s a fun way to introduce aspiring copywriters or communications professionals to the process of developing a unique tone of voice for your client, but let’s consider which celebrity our clickbait brands best align with… Go on, have another look at Stein’s quote above and imagine which well-known figure might be reading it back to you.
Nothing? Ok, now try reading it one more time with your index fingers pressed firmly to your thumbs.
The key message here is that to many marketers, this sort of extreme copy sounds relatively innocuous… until you put a face to it. Problem is, it’s not the Donald whose face audiences see behind “the most comfortable socks in the history of feet”, it’s the brand’s face. What we’re witnessing here is the communications equivalent of Binet and Field: extreme copy drives clicks, largely out of curiosity, but what sort of brand does it build? One that’s comparable to a sweaty orange guy with a bad hairpiece and a well-known talent for economic blunders. In other words, one with a, let’s say, limited future.
That’s the real problem. Clickbait brands are for the most part disposable – how many of the brands in Stein’s anecdote do you recognise? These brands are built to generate a huge number of click-throughs with a lower rate of conversions. But when their tone of voice begins to encroach into more established brands chasing more clicks themselves – based on lessons touted from the likes of Stein – we have a problem.
What does this mean for how a brand should communicate to its consumers? What language should executives adopt to hit the sweet spot between attention-grabbing, meaningful and unique? Well dear reader, you’ve just hit on one of the biggest challenges faced by copywriting and communications teams today: how to adopt the principles of this click bait-driven advertising trope, while effectively communicating the brand’s authentic tone of voice and heritage.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a ready reckoner or Idiot’s Guide on the subject. It may seem gratuitous, but this really is the inherent value of finding the right comms team for your brand – one that puts your brand’s voice first and is ready and willing to workshop that tone with you to settle on something that is right for all parties involved. Further, make sure your comms partner has a proper strategy to get that tone ingrained in the market, one with a clear beginning, middle and end (or follow through) – rather than relying on “one-hit” tactics like a single media release or the clickbait ads themselves.