Now, more than ever, making a stand for a cause isn’t just good citizenship. It’s smart business. Sixty-six percent of consumers are willing to spend more for a product if it comes from a sustainable brand. Eighty-one percent of millennials expect their favorite brands to publicly declare their corporate responsibility and citizenship. But — and this is a big but — a 2017 survey revealed that when asked to name a responsible brand, a third of respondents couldn’t name a single company.
For conscious companies, this means we need to get customers excited about the change they are helping to make by doing business with us. How do we accomplish that? With clear, compelling copy that speaks directly to the desires, fears, struggles, and greatest aspirations of your customer.
The Two Common Communication Traps
Unfortunately, companies often fall into one of two traps when communicating their social missions or corporate responsibility.
The “nonprofit nap” trap
When for-profit companies talk about their corporate responsibility, they can get sucked into the yawning abyss of “nonprofit-ese” — boring jargon and clichés often used by nonprofit organizations. While jargon might be appropriate for a grant application (doubtful), it will alienate the people you seek to inspire to sign up for your products or services.
When the public benefit corporation Learners Guild first launched a software training program, its website copy was littered with nonprofit jargon like “historically underserved populations” and “empowering minorities while bridging the tech diversity gap.”
First of all, yawn. Second of all, what do those phrases even mean? And why should people who want to pursue a successful career in tech care about them?
After Learners Guild improved its website by removing the jargon and replacing it with more conversational language that its target audience actually used, sign-ups for its first cohort more than doubled.
The “quiet cause” trap
Treating social mission as an afterthought is another copywriting problem that plagues for-profit companies. This leaves customers unaware that their dollars are helping to further a cause that may be close to their hearts.
A favorite place for bookworms like myself to buy T-shirts is Out of Print, an online clothing retailer that features book cover and library-inspired designs, but the prices tend to be a bit higher than some other places I shop. It wasn’t until doing research for this article that I discovered Out of Print is also a conscious company. Its social mission is buried as a tiny, three-sentence statement in the About section of its website:
We don’t know where our money is going (what’s an underserved community?), how much money from each purchase funds literacy programs, or how that money will help (what does a successful literacy program look like?).
How many sales have amazing conscious companies like Out of Print missed out on by keeping their social missions on the sidelines?
3 Ways to Avoid the Traps
Let’s take a look at what you can do to avoid these traps and transform yawn-worthy copy into stories that make your customers thrilled to do business with you while helping others.
1. Put what you believe front and center.
Instead of relegating your beliefs to a forgotten corner of your About page, shine a spotlight on them. Here’s an example of a growing company that brings equal attention to its beliefs and its products:
Case Study: Sweetgreen
“We believe the choices we make about what we eat, where it comes from, and how it’s prepared have a direct and powerful impact on the health of individuals, communities, and the environment.”
Why it’s powerful
I call this approach the “TED Talk” formula — quickly and efficiently communicating the big idea you want to spread.
The simplicity of the language gives the reader a clear message — Sweetgreen is about making change through healthy food choices. The purpose of this ethos message is to establish a common cause that the brand and the customer can agree upon and work toward together.
Copywriting Secret #1: The Template
Copywriters rarely write from scratch. There’s a reason they’re called copywriters — they’re great at imitating stuff that works and doing it in new ways. You can take a great piece of copy, turn it into a template, and then make it your own.
Here’s a simple template I created using Sweetgreen’s ethos statement:
“We believe will/can .”
The template in action for another company or organization:
“We believe offering affordable childcare and helping mothers to balance their work life with their family life will dramatically reduce the gender income gap and put more women into corporate leadership roles.”
2. Talk about how your customer can do good, using the language they speak.
As a conscious company, your customers may be more altruistic than the average consumer, but that doesn’t change a fundamental rule of marketing and human psychology — all customers want to know is, “What’s in it for me?”
Your company is helping to solve a problem in the world, but you’re also helping your customer solve an ethical problem they’re wrestling with as consumers: “How can I buy great products responsibly, and how can I offset their purchase by giving back?”
Case Study: Harper Wilde
A brand that brilliantly pairs its “making good” business model with copy that makes customers feel good is bra company Harper Wilde.
“Take down Goliath, without any help from David.”
“Shop as easy as A, B, C, DD.”
“We will not only lift your ladies, but lift the next generation of leading ladies as well.”
Why it’s powerful
Believe it or not, coming up with a tagline like “take down Goliath, without any help from David” isn’t a matter of a few minutes of brainstorming in a conference room. It takes hours of research to craft concise copy that speaks to your customers’ greatest aspirations and define the helping role your brand can play in their journey.
By using double entendres (“lift up the ladies” = supporting boobs and supporting girls’ education), fun bra puns (“shop as easy as A, B, C, DD”), and we’re-all-in-this-together messaging (“take down Goliath, without any help from David”), Harper Wilde clearly defines the role it plays in the customers’ journey. The copy unites brand and customer as fellow warriors in the fight against systemic sexism.
Copywriting Secret #2: The Buyer Persona
My favorite tool for discovering my customers’ motivations is a buyer persona — a made-up customer who represents the very real customers to whom you want to appeal. You can build your own customer persona by doing competitive analysis, gathering demographic and psychographic data, and discovering the communities your target customer visits to discuss the things they care about. Learn how to create a buyer persona here.
3. Selling impact is about storytelling.
When it comes to getting people to care about your cause and make a buying decision, the best weapon in your arsenal is a well-told story. Telling folks their dollars will help people and the planet isn’t quite as convincing as showing them the impact that their purchase will make in the world.
Case Study: Causebox
One brand that embraces the power of storytelling as a sales tool is curated subscription box company CauseBox.
“We tell the whole story.”
Why it’s powerful
Human beings are hardwired to respond physically and emotionally to storytelling. Masterful storytellers can cast a spell on an audience so their brains have an empathetic response. Empathy leads to emotional decision-making (and most people make buying decisions based on their emotions, not their reason). In the case of social impact brands, powerful stories can lead to powerful change.
CauseBox recognizes that its customers aren’t just buying products. They’re buying stories of positive change — stories that their dollars help bring to life. CauseBox delivers on that promise by publishing blog posts, creating product packaging, and sharing social media content that offers in-depth looks at the lives of the individuals its customers help.
Copywriting Secret #3: The Storytelling Formula
The elements of storytelling can be applied to anything from a landing page to a blog post to an entire strategy roadmap. It’s all in understanding the arc of the journey you seek to take your customer.
A formula you can use when writing story-driven ad copy, social media posts, and blog posts is Problem-Agitation-Solution (PAS):
- Problem: What is the problem your readers or the protagonists of your story are experiencing? Tap into their pain and the conversation going on in their heads.
- Agitation: How does this problem make them feel? What are some examples of how it affects their lives and the lives of people they care about? Stir up your readers’ emotions, and don’t be afraid to get them uncomfortable. Discomfort is the threshold to change.
- Solution: What are you offering that will change the situation?
Let’s look at how this model can be used to communicate a pressing global challenge and present a solution from a conscious company:
Problem: Phyllis’ ex-husband often beat her so harshly she wouldn’t leave the house for days because she was so ashamed.
Agitation: She was trapped in a tortuous marriage — isolated from her family and cut off from any means she could use to escape. Women in Zimbabwe who leave their husbands, even in situations of abuse, are often blamed for their bad marriages and treated as outcasts.
Solution: Despite the social stigma, Phyllis found the courage to move back to her family’s homestead, where she started a cattle business with a $1,000 Kiva loan funded by 35 lenders from around the world.
The above examples are just a fraction of the potent copywriting tools you can use to amp up your own social responsibility marketing.
No matter what technique you use, great copywriting is about demonstrating a deep, empathetic understanding of your customer’s struggles and desires. As a conscious company, tapping into your customer’s desire to do good is the best marketing decision you can make for your business, your customers, and the world.