Looking back or moving forward? Mrs M&S and The Co-op

If you keep your eyes on the brands, you might have noticed that both Marks and Spencer and The Co-operative have decided to shake-up their marketing. But what’s behind it?

Well, when known and loved brands come out and overhaul their branding, it’s usually for two main reasons:

1, There’s a past to be buried

2, They’re failing to reach out to customers old and new

We all know The Co-operative has been through turbulent times over the past few years and M&S profits have been falling – but how can a change of branding help?

In short, it’s all about perception. The Co-op has reverted back to its 1960s’ clover-leaf logo, doing away with the long-form handle and its suffixes: The Co-operative Food, –Bank, –Funeral. This might have something to do with the fact that they’ve shed quite a few of their franchises.

But undoubtedly this reversion to an old and nostalgic logo is intended to win back former shoppers. It radiates heritage, it’s friendly and informal and less institutional that the long-form branding was. In essence, it wants the customer to know it’s getting back to its ethical roots at the same time as unveiling its reward scheme – further showing how the business is less profits-oriented and more about giving back to the community.

Meanwhile, M&S CEO Steve Rowe recently announced the retailer was setting out to win back its own once-loyal customers, customers he feels have been neglected. And the chain believes it knows just who they are: a certain ‘Mrs M&S’.

While both tactics aim to look back before moving forward – seizing on past success and moulding it for the future – have they got it right? Only time will tell. Yet is strikes me there is a fundamental difference between the two.

The Co-op, on the one hand, seem to be using their new (or old) branding as a way of pretending the difficult few years of late never happened, and focusing instead on their new policies and systems. Their message is positive, even if it does hinge on nostalgia.

Yet M&S seem to be using this ideal shopper, the seemingly innocuous ‘Mrs M&S’, as the font of their future success. Although Steve Rowe assured customers they would be implementing some changes alongside this new marketing strategy, these minor revolutions to slash prices and become less fashion/more contemporary-casual oriented seem to be something of a regression for the retailer, not to mention inconsistent with their recent decisions.

It’s unsurprising that some shoppers were offended by this portrait of Mrs M&S. For starters, it’s not a great idea to come out and tell your potential customers how you’re pigeon-holing them. Moreover, in the 21st century, fewer women are choosing to get married, so this title carries less importance than it once would have done. The Mrs M&S of their profiling seems more like a profile of their ideal customer thirty or forty years ago than today. And in being slow to realise this, M&S bosses have overlooked another massive cultural shift that has happened. Our shopping habits. We were once very brand-loyal, but with the advent of internet shopping, our new loyalties lie most with one-stop-shops like eBay and Amazon. In essence, the cheaper, the better.

Something else that Mrs M&S doesn’t seem to account for is that women have become less focused on their age. While some might be content to sidle into a pair of elasticated slacks from the Limited Collection, most others have got their eyes on the latest magazine styles and don’t want to look like a conventional 50-something from a newspaper insert. In fact, they’re just as likely to order a few staples from ASOS as their children are. But if M&S is moving away from fashion just as cheaper sources of clothing and the digital revolution open up the latest styles to more and more people – not to mention after appointing Alexa Chung (one of the biggest fashionistas of the moment) to curate a new collection – then forgive me, but doesn’t that way confusion lie?

It strikes me that it’s not necessarily M&S that has let the customers down – the customers have let the store down, as is their wont in the age of Primark and internet shopping. Today, it is impossible to have one dominant high-street retailer the way there was fifty years ago. But not only has M&S been too slow to react, it also doesn’t seem to understand what the 21st-century woman is looking for, never mind what it is prepared to offer her.

Regardless of whether M&S has got it right, establishing a profile of your ideal customer is one of the first things you should do when you set up business. It helps you define who you are marketing at and helps you keep your selling strategy clear, succinct and powerful.

But how do you get started? What questions do you need to ask yourself and how do you know your ideal customer is attainable? All this and more will be answered next week when I’ll show you: how to identify your perfect customer.

How to write a business strategy

Writing a business and marketing strategy when you’re a freelance copywriter might sound overwhelming. It might even sound unnecessary. Believe me, it is both simple and necessary!

Why do you need a business strategy? Because with the best intents and purposes, getting your foot on the copywriting ladder can be a bit difficult.

To make the best impact and not become dispirited, it’s good to implement several different tactics at once. Having a plan will help you stand back, look at the overall direction you want to head in, and start moving.

Before we begin

Jot down all your ideas in a notepad for establishing your routine and marketing your services. Once you’ve got an outline, you can type them up in Word.

There’s no set formula but I use a basic table with 3 columns (first column for publications/activities; second for detail; third for deadlines). You can tweak what I suggest to make it work for you and your business – that’s fine!

Content

Your content is the most important thing to your business. But writing to promote your own cause when you’re probably not being ‘paid’ for it can make you likely to waver. By creating a regular plan detailing which days you write for what publications makes it much more likely you’ll stick to it.

Make a table with three columns. In the first, list publications you write for and then list those you would like to write for (there’s a really good article here about planning to approach new publications). In the next column you can go into more detail such as genres/article types. In the final column list the timeframe, such as when you will publish this content or, if you plan to approach a new publication, the deadline you will set to do that by.

Remember, by publications and businesses I mean those you write for under your own name. This plan is about getting your name out there – not any clients that pay you to write their articles anonymously. At present you might only be writing for your blog. Look for websites that take contributions. Even if it’s unpaid, you’ll be getting your name out there and earning lots of experience.

Digital activity and social media

This includes promoting your articles through social media and e-newsletters etc. On your table, detail which digital avenues you work with (e.g. Reddit, LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook, Twitter, your online portfolio…) and next to each one write the days of the week you will promote certain links/campaigns/others’ posts through these avenues.

Try to have something to promote each day (Mon-Fri). For the days when you don’t have original content of your own, ensure you’re reading others’ work and retweeting/sharing. This earns followers and you can highlight the causes/topics you’re interested in.

Remember to use the social media ‘forum’ with respect: interact with other users and post observations. You could even start a regular segment such as your favourite blog or app of the week that you always run on a Friday. It is more engaging for your followers than merely seeing a series of links coming from your account!

And what about starting a monthly e-newsletter through your website? Setting one up is easy with free tools like MailChimp and gives you something free to ‘sell’ to your followers. You can use it to collate your articles from various different publications or even entice followers with articles solely published in your newsletter. Plus you can update your followers with tips, news and offers.

Advertising and promotion

Your copywriting is still a business that can benefit from promotion and advertising. This encompasses print/digital ads, direct mail, sending out a press release

Think about who needs your service. It’ll mostly be other businesses, so where might they find out about you? In your table, list possible publications (e.g. trade magazines, local paper) to advertise in or approach with a press release, as well as businesses you could approach directly with a sales letter, etc.

Then spend an afternoon getting quotes, contacts and artwork deadlines. If you’re going to attend networking events or conferences you’ll need business cards. These are also useful for dropping off in venues where customers can pick them up, such as restaurants, exhibition centres and libraries.

Events

Freelancing can also be a lonely business, so it’s refreshing to make a network of contacts through digital or in-person events. Scour Google for virtual conferences and webinars, and sign up to copywriting websites such as the Pro Copywriter’s Network and Copyblogger, a great way to get information on events. Hootsuite also often has virtual learning sessions helping you learn while connecting with others in your field.

Physical events are also ideal to get you out of the house. A site like Meet Up can help you discover what’s going on in your area that ties in with your interests. List these events under the first column in your table including any dates and activity/materials you want to have completed (i.e. business cards) in advance of them.

Bringing it together

You’ll notice how each field begins to overlap. This is good because you’re drawing connections between your activities. So long as all activities have the same end goal – to bring you more business – they will strengthen each other and, in turn, your brand. It also helps when setting yourself deadlines since one thing usually depends on another.

Next is buying or creating a calendar in Word. Detail everything (so make sure it’s a biggie!). Jot down the days you’re writing for which publications. Then the days you’ll spend devoted to finding new followers, for example, followed by the days you have any events, as well as print deadlines. And so on…

Tip: Use colour-coded keys and back up your calendar with a simple Excel planner like these templates from Hootsuite for more in-depth info on what you’ll be writing each week. That way your main calendar remains like an easy-to-read overview.

From here

Now your strategy is all typed up, scheduled and ready to go, it’s time to implement it. Write down the immediate action points that have arisen from your plan. Use these to inform your workload for the next week or two, to ensure you meet your deadlines.

Don’t forget that your business strategy will evolve over time and regularly need updating.  Depending on how quickly you work, set aside time to update it – every month…or three – whatever helps it stay relevant and progressive for your business.

Finally, good luck! If you have any questions, drop me a comment, I’d be glad to try and answer them.

Next week: I’ll show you how to find your first copywriting clients

Should I join a content mill?

Whether you’re just starting out as a freelance copywriter or you’re a seasoned pro looking for a side gig, you might be wondering if joining a content mill could work for you.

What is a content mill?

A content mill works like a digital noticeboard for freelancers. Businesses list any web copy jobs they need doing – from blog posts to product descriptions, one-off jobs to full projects.

There are two main kinds:

  • Free-for-all platform (where you may be ranked according to your quality – e.g. between 1 to 5 stars – and jobs are posted on a forum on a first-come-first-served basis)
  • Bidding platforms (where clients list their brief and freelancers bid what they’re willing to work for; or the client sets a fee and freelancers pitch to win the contract)

Content mills aren’t for everyone. They don’t pay well and they aren’t a substitute for networking and getting to know clients on a one-to-one basis. However, they work well to get you started if you have zero experience and/or need a little short-term cash.

Pros of content mills

  • A good way to build a portfolio when you’re starting out
  • A crash course in working to a client’s brief (including familiarity with language, keyword requests, and formatting)
  • Flexibility over when you work and what work you accept
  • Casual earnings when you need it

Cons of content mills

  • Compared to working directly with clients, content mills are very poorly paid (typically as little as a penny a word)
  • On bidding platforms, you run the risk of wasting your time and not being picked for jobs
  • There can be a wait to receive payment 
  • Work is not guaranteed – sometimes mills can run dry
  • They can be a dead end in terms of networking and finding prospective clients

Some sites to check out

Because of the potential for ripping off naïve and earnest writers, there are a lot of scams out there. When you’re looking to join a mill, run a Google search and see what others have to say about it. In the meantime, here are my top content mills:

  1. Great Content
    The best content mill in my experience. You submit a short 2-300 word article to register and they grade you on that. Your rating will improve the more you write and the more positive feedback you get.This mill gets a lot of good and regular clients. I have written for an international fashion website, a cosmetics company, and online opticians to name just a few. Clients often add you to a group of similar writers if they have jobs coming up they’d like to work with you on, and group orders pay better. I’ve also had a number of even better-paid direct orders (you set your own fee) and bonuses for working on long-term projects. It’s a good, friendly platform to help get your portfolio off the ground.
  1. Copify
    Jobs posted on this first-come-first-served (FCFS) board range from articles on marketing, fashion and legal topics to landing page content for boiler repairs. Pay is no less than £0.01 per word and sometimes more. However, deadlines are often the same day and it can take up to 30 days for your work to be approved and you to get paid.
  1. Textbroker
    This platform was one of the big names in FCFS content mills but has failed to keep progressing. It’s pretty badly paid and again you will submit a piece to be graded. There’s the possibility of moving up the ladder but I eventually gave up on it. There’s also a LOT of competition for those lower-graded jobs (which are also lower paid) because everyone usually starts out as a level 3 writer before being upgraded.
  1. Pure Content
    Pure Content is a little different to the standard models. You can register as a writer and/or editor and the company email out jobs for your taking on a first-come-first-served basis (meaning smartphone notifications are essential regularly). Jobs can be few and far between (and pay terribly). The writing jobs aren’t worth the effort in my opinion, but the editing ones are quite quick to get through.
  1. Contently
    OK, so this isn’t a content mill. However, it’s a great place to set up a free portfolio where you can post any work you’ve done, list your specialisms and include your contact info. When businesses go to Contently for help finding a freelancer, they assign them to one of the writers on their database, so it’s a good way to get noticed and is especially useful for journalists.

Make content platforms work for you

Starting out, a content mill or platform is an easy way to get a bit of experience. But don’t become complacent.

True, you need to stick at them to maximise your return (such as getting better grading, pay and more repeat work) but use them as a go-to, a little something on the side. If you’re serious about getting into copywriting, they should not be come your sole earner. Keep your eye on the prize and always work towards a clear plan for building your freelance copywriting career.

Next week: I’ll show you how to write a business strategy.

Buzzwords – a rule to be broken?

I recently tweeted about an interesting programme I happened to catch on BBC Radio 4. The programme was Word of Mouth – a weekly look at language use in modern life.

This week, the topic was ‘PR: How Not to Do It’. It focussed on the prevalence of buzzwords throughout history and how these can actually work against you.

All very well for those at the top of their game, I thought, but how does that help aspiring marketeers?

Don’t get me wrong, I know buzzwords can be as annoying as corporate speak. They don’t mean anything – or rather they are often employed to mean the opposite of what they actually mean – and they become overused.

Yet when you attend marketing days or copywriting courses, you are encouraged to use buzzwords. In fact, we are often presented with a list that we should, on pain of death, get into our copy lest it never see the light of day.

Here are just a few:

New

Awesome Hot

Free

Epic
(and epic fail)

Mashup

Upsell

Millennial

Amazing

Solutions Issues

Wellness

And if you look at successful headlines, they clearly work. They wouldn’t be buzzwords if they didn’t have some special power would they? And in case you were wondering, yes buzzword itself is a buzzword!

In the discussion, Hamish Thompson, MD at Houston PR, suggests that the best way to avoid these words is to take your advertising concept in a different direction, perhaps by looking at a campaign backwards.

In his example, he cites a company who decided that instead of selling drills, they sell holes. He also mentions a Virgin Life Insurance ad he worked on, where instead of selling policies front ways (‘buy this in case you die’), they twisted it around and played up the comical un-thought-of aspect (‘we’ll cover you in the event of attack by Dalek’).

This works. This is clever. And a lot of companies could probably be persuaded to go down that route.

However, he also cited an example of a press release he has to write annually for the Boring Conference. He loves this task, because he gets to take an ironic stance and writes the most boring press release he can.

But this sounded alarm bells for me. While that would certainly fire up journalists (and don’t forget, when you’re writing a PR, they are your audience) I think that a client has to be on the same wavelength as you in order to be OK with what they’re paying you for! My fear is that many clients know what they want: it’s what they see in viral headlines, the smack-you-in-the-face lies (and pics) we read all the time, lurking in those clickbait ads at the bottom of any web article.

My point is, many clients aren’t necessarily ‘up for’ subtlety and irony.

It seemed to me as though Hamish’s suggestion is what top-of-their-game marketeers should be doing. But unfortunately, I don’t know if too many start-up freelancers would be brave enough to take the risk for fear of it falling on deaf ears.

Ultimately, I think buzzwords still have a place in the right context for luring people in – but don’t get complacent. Don’t substitute creativity for buzzwords. Because eventually, buzzwords die off. You know as well as I do that when a headline starts ‘You won’t believe…’ or ‘5 things you need to know about…’, you’re probably not going to click. It’s viral fodder that will make your computer run slow, spread pop-ups everywhere, and make you wish you’d never wasted the time.

I suppose my tip is: use your judgement. Pay attention to the client’s brief. If they’re open to seeing what you can do, then why not pitch them a few off-the-wall ideas in amongst a few safe strategies? Every now and then it will pay to take a chance, even if it’s just in content you’re publishing on your blog or pro bono. It’ll be good experience for you and your portfolio, and you’ll have more credibility when you pitch something similar in future.

 

Why you need a copywriter

I expect you’ve heard this quite a lot. The sales letter from the eager copywriter, the marketing agency that assures you your business will fail without their services.

And I know your concern.

The way the economy is, you need to keep costs down. But your business also needs content – it needs words – otherwise how will anyone new know you exist?

I’ll cut to the chase.

There are 3 reasons you need a copywriter

  1. To create a sense of need in the reader
  2. To inspire them to buy into your product
  3. To deliver you repeat custom

It really is that simple.

Some businesses write their own copy, but this can be counter-productive. Copywriters are constantly analysing marketing strategy to see what works. Might you be turning your customers off without even realising? Or worse, not communicating with them at all?

It takes a lot of time to write content that is unique, error-free and interesting. Often it takes an outsider like me to see the simplest way of getting your message across.

But you can already write. Right?

It’s not just about being able to write. Hiring a copywriter is about making a firm decision for your business. You are deciding to hire a professional who has the time, knowledge and skill to craft unique and engaging content specifically for you.

Choosing to employ a copywriter is about finding
– Someone who knows what works and what doesn’t
– Someone who can eliminate errors
– Someone who can use a voice your customers will relate to
– Someone who will ensure your business stands out from the crowd

And while they’re doing that, you can spend your time running your business. That’s the way it should be.

You can contact me when you feel the time is right. Just drop me an e-mail. I’ll be here, cracking on with that paperwork in the corner until then. I look forward to hearing from you.

Has gender marketing had its day?

Are women passive and girly? Are men all about their muscles? Of course not. But that’s not what most product marketing tells us.

For a long time it was ‘acceptable’ to gender products in order to sell them. But this has just served to perpetuate the myths we are still trying to break free of – ultimately, that men and women act in wholly different ways and therefore must want, need and be sold different things.

A little story
I recently bought a bottle of Radox Muscle Therapy, my usual bubble bath of choice. I picked it up, paid for it, took it home without a thought. It’s only when I ran the bath later that evening that I realised Radox Muscle Therapy bubble bath is now labelled for ‘MEN’.

Just a matter of months ago, this same bubble bath was safe for use by all sexes. But I – as the dumb consumer that marketers think I am – can only assume they’ve just discovered it contains ‘man ingredients’. You know, the kind that only work on men. It would be wasted on women – you have to be a man to enjoy it!

But what is the assumption behind this seemingly innocuous labelling? That only men use their muscles? Only men get back pain or aching legs? I wonder if they’ve ever heard that women lift stuff too? Or of period pain and restless legs syndrome?

I don’t need to make my point – you already know what it is. But many marketers don’t.

Gender marketing: a double-edge blade
When they market products, many marketers still employ assumptions about gender and sex to sell them. Whether it’s pink, flowery bicycles and globes for girls, or superman costumes and camouflage play tents for boys. And if that fails, they just tell you who it’s for, as in the case of many toiletries products. Just so there’s no ambiguities and everyone stays in their rightful place.

These marketers think that by labelling products appropriately – even though it is totally inappropriate to exclude one sex from a unisex product – they’re attracting a newer audience or targeting their marketing. But here’s the thing. Often, they’re not. Instead, they’re turning off a whole lot of other consumers and risk making them feel belittled, alienated, angry and not listened to. And if those consumers you’re putting off are female, you might just end up losing out.

Women buy
Women account for 85% of all purchases made. They might be buying for themselves or they might just as frequently be buying for the men in their life – so marketers need to have the woman in mind when they sell.

That doesn’t just mean with flowers and fancy décor. Target marketing is about more than just fluff – and sex and gender for that matter; it’s about appealing to your customer’s ideals and values. If you take the time to find out what matters to your consumer, rather than making assumptions, and distilling those values into your marketing, then your message will be picked up.

The paradox
These days we know gender stereotypes are bunkum; we live our lives to the full doing all kinds of different jobs and activities that blur the boundaries of gender and sex. But advertising largely fails to acknowledge that. In a world much more open, we actually seem to be seeing more gendered marketing. It doesn’t make sense.

Women are more likely to buy products aimed at men, more so than men will buy those aimed at women. Therefore, gendering products can work against marketers, who are actually narrowing the field of what men, and some women, will go for. If unisex products were marketed at all sexes, then the audience base becomes wider. We also have to ask ourselves whether women sometimes buy products aimed at men because this is the only way of getting what they want.

How to get what you want
When I went back to the supermarket and looked at all those Radox bubble baths lined up, I noticed something. Only one was labelled for men (Muscle Therapy), while the others had titles such as ‘feel pampered’, ‘feel heavenly’, ‘feel blissful’, ‘feel enchanted’. There was also a Muscle Soak option – I suppose the passive woman’s version of the more intensive, active and energised Muscle Therapy, which is for ‘MEN’, as we now know. Despite the fact that all baths entail the passive act of simply ‘soaking’.

None of the other bottles were labelled for women. But I could tell, what with all the pastel pinks, peaches and innocent, creamy white palettes – and of course the flowers adorning the labels. The men’s Muscle Therapy bottle, however, was angsty black and red, with a label signifying something more akin to the bubbling inferno of hell than a relaxing bath. Of course, men don’t want their bath time to be relaxing, but rather a dip into hell and back. They want the hard stuff.

Just as the statistics state, in order to get what I want I will still buy Muscle Therapy bubble bath, even though it’s now for ‘MEN’. Mostly, I just like the product, but I also refuse to be told I must defer to a more feminine alternative.

Marketers – break the mould!
Gendered marketing seems wholly backward in a time when we are more than ever aware of marketing tactics, more connected, and the already-blurred divide between the sexes is being shattered day by day.

Advertisers and marketers with the most acclaim are those who recognise what their consumers want, but also show the reality of modern culture – whether that’s the recent Match.com advert with two kissing lesbians (albeit in a sexualised way) or the Guinness ‘Never Alone’ advert with gay rugby player Gareth Thomas.

When I see a pink this or that for females and a camouflage alternative for males, I despair. Because it is this lazy, old-fashioned stereotyping that makes it harder for the people out there who don’t conform. And that, in one way or another, is all of us.

At worst, gendered marketing of unisex products is offensive, at best it’s just redundant.