Why Copy Is Critical in a Post-Covid World

Are you speaking your customers' language?

Twitter decides its people can work from home "forever." Gov. Cuomo wonders if we really need physical schools after all. Businesses are told they "must jump years" in the quality of their digital experiences if they're to survive.

If you're not tired of the phrase "new normal" already, you soon will be. What does it mean for you? What will your customers be looking for in the years ahead? How much will you have to adapt to Whatever Comes Next?

As we start moving into the post-lockdown (the "open-up," perhaps), much of what you do will involve words. Things like:

• Adapting your messaging and tone
• Developing and promoting new products or services
• Explaining new health regulations
• Enhancing, or creating, digital experiences
• Aligning internally behind new ways of working
• Forming new partnerships
• Reassuring investors, or persuading new ones

Words aren't just a final lick of verbal paint for these activities. They shape and articulate the thinking behind any strategy, as well as communicating that strategy in a way that connects, and makes sense. Neglect the words, and you neglect the thinking.

There's a lot to do—and not long to do it. Across the world, restrictions are easing. In the past few days, two clients who run public-facing sites have started talking to me about their plans for reopening. 

All being well, many businesses will soon be back on their feet. Some will be off and running faster than others, and the others may never catch up again.

The language of trust.

Unsurprisingly, I believe language will have a lot to do with how brands fare in this not-so-brave new world. Largely because it always does. But also because the crisis has reminded us of the importance of clear, sensitive, authentic and consistent communication.

Such communication is vital for building—and maintaining—trust in your brand. Consistency is a hobby-horse of ours at Reed Words, but for good reason: It reinforces trust and confidence. 

Brands frequently apply huge amounts of attention to the words in their TV ads, poster campaigns and homepages, while neglecting the voice in their payments processes, service emails or app UI.

But these distinctions mean nothing to consumers. For them, it's all one company. If different bits of that company speak in different voices, the impression is of a brand that's confused, or fragmented. At worst, it can appear dishonest: a brand that pretends to be friendly, funny or reassuring, but is just another faceless corporate monster underneath.

Consumers listen—and judge.

The pandemic intensified awareness of brand voices. The language of comms has been scrutinized and discussed more than ever. 

YouGov found that consumers were keenly aware of "crisis clichés," for example. It asked which phrases people felt were being overused, and got clear responses: "All in this together" was number one (42 percent), with a second-place tie between "new normal" and "unprecedented," at 34 percent each. (The irony of "unprecedented" being massively overused is inescapable.)

On one level, this is kind of funny—look at this compilation of U.S. pandemic commercials, if you haven't seen it already. 

It's also kind of inevitable: In such a terrible, unexpected situation, people felt they had to respond—fast. "Pandemic" comes wrapped in "panic," after all. The quickest, easiest message is always the most generic. But generic messages erode trust. 

In YouGov's research, 43 percent of U.K. respondents agreed that "brands/ companies' current messages and advertising are inauthentic." Translation: You're lying. Even accounting for a certain baseline cynicism, that's a dangerous perception.

When to speak. And not to.

As well as knowing what to say and how, a well-managed voice knows when to be quiet.

Most consumers (51 percent) feel brands are overcommunicating during the pandemic (YouGov again). Again, that self-imposed pressure to speak forces brands back to the clichés—and the risk of "inauthenticity."

Sometimes—maybe frequently—silence is the strongest voice. It certainly helps avoid responses like these:

Do good, speak well.

The recent Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report on the pandemic found that 37 percent of people (globally) had started using a new brand specifically because of its innovative or compassionate response to the crisis. (Also, one in three had convinced others to abandon a brand they felt did not respond appropriately.) 

That's not just about language. But a lot of it is. Combining clarity with empathy has proved critical during the pandemic—unsurprisingly, perhaps. But people won't stop valuing these qualities just because they can get haircuts again.

Actions matter most. People are drawn to the brands they feel are doing the right thing. But if you're not talking about your actions in a way people notice, understand and feel, your brand won't win the trust it deserves. 

If you talk about them poorly, good deeds can even backfire. Look at U.K. brewery Brewdog, which decided to start making hand sanitizer. A fumbled tweet meant people initially suspected the brand of profiteering:

In fact, they were offering the sanitizer free—which they've now managed to make clear. But the original form of words created a battle they should never have had to fight.

Silver linings.

"Never let a good crisis go to waste," said Churchill, acknowledging that moments like this reorder the world—creating unique opportunities in the process. 

Grasping those opportunities takes more than good comms, of course. But comms are critical. And words remain the most powerful communication tool we have. Like any powerful tool, they require expert handling to avoid a nasty mess.

As we move—rapidly—from "managing the shock of lockdown" to "preparing for life after coronavirus," we need to remember the many lessons the crisis has taught us. Or, perhaps, the basics of which it's reminded us. 

For brands, one of those basics is the importance of words. Speaking truthfully, clearly, authentically, and with empathy builds lasting connections. Not just with customers, but employees, partners, communities, investors, regulators, governments—and the world at large. 

It boils down to two rules, as it always has. And as always, they're easier said than done. Make it clear, and make it matter. 

Profile picture for user Mike Reed
Mike Reed
Mike Reed is co-founder and creative director of Reed Words, a strategic writing agency.

Museletter

Get Inspired

Sign up for the daily Museletter for the latest ad campaigns and the stories behind them.

ADVERTISING