Corporate identity and the copy convergence conundrum

I write copy. When executives at the client can’t converge on a set of words about who they are, it often reveals more about them than it does about the words.

When I say “I write copy,” I don’t mean email marketing or descriptions of urban sombreros. I get called in when a company is trying to create a tag line and few sentences that explain who it is. You might call this a statement of corporate identity, or a value proposition. When you have 50 words to introduce yourself to the world on a website, those words are important.

Here’s how I approach the project. I read past materials and take a few notes — but never copy what’s already written. Sometimes I interview executives or customers. Then I meet with key people, in person or by video — no more than three of them, including somebody who’s taking the role of a customer — and ask them to explain what they do.

It’s crucial to get people talking, not writing. I ask questions from a position of ignorance. I intentionally misinterpret and misunderstand. When they get to “No, it’s like this!”, whatever follows is gold. I listen for unique words or phrases that set them apart. I take a lot of notes (in a place they can see, like a Google Doc). And then I write something that says who they are.

I admit to pride about my ability to do this. I build a story in my head, based on what they told me, and then start typing. I focus on ideas, customers, points of differentiation, and problems to solve. But there is no “algorithm” to accomplish this. A lot of it is intuitive. I’d have a hard time teaching somebody how I do this, since I don’t understand everything about my own process.

What I write is not the endpoint. It is the beginning of an argument.

Revision and reimagination

After the copy is out on a virtual page, the real challenge begins.

“It’s too colloquial.”

“We never use the word ‘security,’ it’s too limiting.”

“You’ve left out the part about . . . “

“There’s something basic missing.”

I learn more from the objections than I do from the interviews. I learn the difference between what’s in their heads and what’s in my head. I listen very carefully, once again paying close attention to the words that clients use. I edit and delete and modify and reword. Every description of this kind leaves things out, and that is the point — when you decide on the 50 words that describe your company, you get to the nub of what is important.

Ideally, this process gets closer to a description everyone can agree on. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Why copy doesn’t converge

Sometimes executives at a client disagree. I strive to find a higher truth that unites them. Sometimes that’s not possible. If this is your company, this is the moment you need to ask yourself who you are. Because if you disagree about that, you don’t have a copy problem, you have an identity crisis.

What do people disagree on? When it comes to copy, it helps to analyze it with ROAM.

  • Readers. Who is the audience for this statement of identity? The easy answer is, “customers.” But who are the customers you are talking to? Buyers? Decision-makers? C-suite executives or rank-and-file implementers? If you can’t decide who you are talking to, you’ll have trouble converging on a set of words to say to them.
  • Objective. In a ROAM analysis, the objective is the change you want to make in the mind of the reader. Do you want them to think of you as a technology product? A useful service? A way to improve their health? A trusted friend? Until you can describe the change you want to make in one sentence, you’ll never get agreement on the copy that describes it.
  • Action. What will they do when they read this? Read a white paper? Sign up on a mailing list? Click through to a Web site? Share it with other decision makers at the company? If your idea of the resulting action is different from your colleagues, then no set of copy can satisfy you all.
  • iMpression. How will they think of you? As technologically sophisticated? Friendly? Cost-effective? Trustworthy? Different desired impressions demand different tones. If you can’t decide what face you want to show to the reader, a consistent set of words cannot emerge.

There are, of course, not the only possible areas of disagreement. If you can’t decide what you do or who you help or how you package your product, you have a deeper problem than settling on copy.

I didn’t set out to be a therapist, but sometimes when I’m writing copy it feels that way. I try to find ways to bring people’s perspectives together. I try to find language that everybody can get behind. When something gets in my way, I don’t doubt myself, and I don’t hate the clients. I ask why. I ask pointed questions that the clients need to argue about and settle.

Sometimes this takes quite a while. But I’ve never had to give up. Eventually, we converge. In the process, I’ve done more than write down a few words. I’ve helped a company come to grips with who it is, and how it talks about that to the world. That’s work I can feel good about.

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  1. I found this interesting: I take a lot of notes (in a place they can see, like a Google Doc). Do you mean that as they are talking they can view in real-time the notes that you are taking? If so, how do you see this being beneficial and/or how does it backfire sometimes?

  2. Yeah, I’m the only one I know that does this.

    When brainstorming, we have a shared space. I want them to see what I’m writing as I write it and give me feedback. It’s very immediate. But if you’re insecure or don’t work really fast, it would probably scare the crap out of you to have people see your work as you create it.

    1. Thank you for your response. Well, I have a lot of confidence in my note-taking and client interpretation abilities – I’m the one on our team who captures everything being said at a new client intake meeting and makes it into a concise and informative content creation brief. I am also a wicked fast typer. So perhaps I will try this out on our next new client. Thanks again!

  3. Nicely said, as always. Like you, I pride myself on listening carefully, sometimes asking intentionally dumb questions, and making intuitive leaps that often can’t be explained and definitely not taught. The ability to express the essence of an organization (or project or what have you) in words is still a valued skill, thank goodness, and seems unlikely to be supplanted by AI, at least for the remainder of my working life. And, yes, it’s work I feel good about. Thank you, Josh, for describing it so aptly.