Building a brand is hard work. You have to figure out just what it is about your business that sets it apart from the others, and then you have to convey that information to customers (and potential customers) in a way that’s catchy and memorable. Unfortunately, a lot of business owners are perfectly content to take shortcuts, opting for vague and meaningless marketing language that sounds good at first, but actually says nothing about their brand.
Daniel Burstein, who serves as Director of Editorial Content for MECLABS, refers to this kind of fluff as “wallpaper copywriting.” Basically, these are words and phrases that have been overused to the point that they’ve lost all meaning. For example, ever notice how every book is a “best-seller?” Or how every toothpaste is “clinically proven?” Or (at the risk of lobbing stones from my glass house) how every advertising agency is “award-winning?”
Here are some of the most common pitfalls that lead to bland branding.
Weasels will often eat eggs by sucking out the insides, leaving an intact shell that looks untouched to the casual observer. Weasel words accomplish this in marketing copy, presenting a claim that looks legit at first, but is actually hollow. For example, stating that a shampoo will stop dandruff is an impressive claim. Stating that a shampoo will help control dandruff with regular use sounds impressive at first, but doesn’t really mean a thing. Some of the most commonly used weasel words are:
- can be
- up to
- as much as
- the feel of
- the look of
Sometimes, a business will claim that its product or service is “better” or gives the customer “more,” but doesn’t elaborate. The result is a vague statement that might sound impressive, but can’t really be verified. For example, Ford once famously claimed that their Ford LTD was “700% quieter.” When the FTC asked them to substantiate this statement, they explained that the inside of the LTD was 700% quieter than the outside.
“Water Is Wet” Claims
When a business makes a claim about their product or service that’s true for *any* brand, that’s known as a “water is wet” claim. It’s often stated to sound like an advantage over the competition, but the truth is the competitors can make the same claim. For example, Rheingold refers to itself as “the natural beer,” because it’s made from grains and water, or Great Lash mascara is proud of the fact that it “greatly increases the diameter of every lash.”
“So What” Claims
Similar to the “water is wet” claim, the “so what” claim may sound impressive at first. However, a careful reader will likely respond to it by saying, “So what?” The claim may be technically true, but it doesn’t necessarily provide an advantage to the brand or make it superior to the competition. A vitamin supplement may advertise that it contains twice as much iron as its competitors, but is twice as much actually better for your body?
Did you know 83% of statistics on the internet are totally made up?** A statement containing actual numbers may sound concrete and quantifiable, but numbers can be fudged and statistics can be worded to sound far more impressive (or credible) than they actually are. An oven cleaner may claim to have 33% more cleaning power than another popular brand, but what does that actually mean?
Moving Beyond Wallpaper Copywriting
So what’s the solution? The first thing you need to do is determine what your value proposition is to your customers. Rather than trying to be all things to all people, figure out what it is that you offer that sets you apart from your competitors. And then make sure you convey this clearly and concisely in your marketing.
Burstein actually recommends a three-step approach for purging your brand of wallpaper copy:
- Audit your copy (your website, your emails, your product descriptions, etc.) for meaningless words and white noise that can be replaced with content that actually says something.
- Hunt through your copy for “buried treasure.” Look for meaningful claims, interesting facts, and impressive tidbits that you can dig up and bring to the surface.
- Verify the uniqueness of your copy by doing exact match searches in Google. As Burstein explains, “[w]hen I search for an exact match of ‘clinically proven’ I get 6.67 million results (and actually, the first one, from Urban Dictionary just happens to be perfect for the point I’m trying to make, ‘Clinically proven may mean virtually anything… including nothing.’) However, when I run an exact match search for ‘Proven effective in 2 clinical trials of 200 people,’ the results tell me that the new copy has really hit on something unique.”
*This article was originally posted on February 24, 2015, under the title, Is Your Brand too Bland? Avoid These Pitfalls of “Wallpaper Copywriting”