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Word for word

When it comes to deciding on copy for a package, a word to the wise brand-owner is sufficient.

Sterling Anthony, CPP
Sterling Anthony, CPP
A package is a medium that can communicate through all its elements, whether they pertain to structure or graphics. With the latter, colors, images, and copy do the work. And of that trio, copy too often doesn't receive its deserved strategic focus. Whereas some types of copy──notably brand names, unique selling propositions, and slogans──most likely have undergone research and testing, other types often are composed less systematically. Excluding from the discussion copy dictated by regulation (nutrition listing and certain warnings are examples), brand-owners have wide leeway in the use of the written word; and, the effectiveness of that communication can be increased by following a few principles.
Keep the consumer in mind

Copy should be customized, never generic. Since a consumer seeks to satisfy a particular want, the copy should speak to that want on an individual level, to convey that the product was made with that particular consumer in mind. It's akin to a presenter wording a speech such that each listener feels directly addressed.
In translating product features into consumer benefits, style and phrasing should combine to woo; for after all, the brand-owner is conducting a type of courtship. At the same time, copy should be perceived as sincere and credible. No phoniness. It mandates that the brand-owner truly know the consumer by germane measures, be they demographic, psychographic, or ethnographic. But that was a mandate for the development of the brand in the first place; therefore, the brand-owner already should possess information that can serve as a starting point for fashioning consumer-enticing copy and should build on it.
In those instances wherein purchaser and user are not the same person, such as with certain products targeted at children, the copy should be persuasive to both sets of interests. With children's cereal, for example, parents are receptive to copy that promotes nutrition, while children are more concerned with taste, shape, color, etc. Copy, therefore, has a balancing act to perform, and the relative weight placed on each scale should be determined from a position of knowledge.

Words can affect attitudes and feelings, a fact that a brand-owner can use to its advantage in the choice of tone. To do that, the brand-owner needs to consider not only the circumstances surrounding product purchase but those surrounding product use, as well. Using an over-the-counter pharmaceutical as an example, the consumer certainly will not be feeling her best at the time of use, and possibly not even at the time of purchase. Copy that emphasizes efficacy and minimum side-effects is in order, for sure; however, the overall tone should not be so sterile and clinical that it dampens already low spirits. A brand-owner should seek copy of a tone that has a positive effect on the consumer. Depending on the product, that effect might be encouragement, hope, confidence, etc., as appreciated by the likes of dieters, novices, do-it-yourselfers, and so forth.

Make the copy easy to read

The choice of words and the way that they are arranged should make for convenient reading. It's alright to interpret that advice as avoiding words that are overly-technical or otherwise imposing, as long as one realizes that the pendulum also swings the other way. Just as consumers don't want to feel that the copy is over their heads, neither do they want to feel that they are being talked down to. The compromise might reside in research already being conducted by the brand-owner; for example, focus groups and other direct-response methodologies can be a rich source for learning consumer lingo, but it requires an attentive ear.

In crafting copy, it's always advisable to have a strong lead-in, preferably containing the most important portion of the message. Additionally, a contrasting background and adequate spacing between different parts of the message make for easier navigating. A store is quite different from a library, in that the consumer doesn't come there principally to read. When the consumer takes a package from the shelf in order to learn something about the product, that motive had better be fulfilled quickly or else the product's chances of being placed in the shopping cart are diminished, unnecessarily.
Space allowing, some brand-owners are fond of devoting copy to a narrative, of a biographical nature, for example. That's fine, as long as it's tightly woven around aspects that relate to the reasons that the consumer buys and uses the product; otherwise, it's just an indulgence on the part of the brand-owner and a violation of the design adage, "Less is more."

Aside from composition, making copy easy to read is dependent upon typography, including printing method, fonts, and point-sizes. A printer that is an expert in lay-outs that are easy to read is a valuable partner for a brand-owner to have.
Make the right assignments

Within a corporate era marked by memos, emails, and texts──most of them hastily composed──devising effective copy might not be fully appreciated as the art form that it is. As such, it might fall by default to the product manager or someone else who isn't adequately versed. A brand-owner should be honest in its assessment of whether capable wordsmiths reside in-house and if that talent is absent, contract for it. On that latter note, the brand-owner should regard the outside service as a project and begin with a written brief that outlines scope, objectives, timetable, fees, and other pertinent particulars.
But whether copy is composed in-house or contracted out, every reasonable effort should be made to render it consistent with and compatible with the brand-owner's corporate communications strategy (and there had better be one, otherwise, much of this is academic). The consumer might not ever be exposed to the brand-owner's annual report, might not ever visit its website; that is to say, the only communication encountered might be through the packaging, of which copy plays a central role. A brand-owner, therefore, should set decisional standards for package copy, enact them, evaluate the results, and revise according; for, words do make a difference. And that's the last word.

Sterling Anthony is a consultant, specializing in the strategic use of marketing, logistics, and packaging.  His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center-176, Detroit, MI 48243; 313-531-1875 office; 313-531-1972 fax; [email protected].
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