The Power of the Word

Why professional copywriters can generate big bucks for small business.

Back in 1936, American Elmer Wheeler gave us the famous slogan, Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle. Described as one of the best-known salesmen of his time, his memorable quote still stands today as perhaps the most powerful piece of sales advice ever.

Salesman? Yes, that’s right, because advertising copywriters – those clever people who come up with the jingles, slogans and taglines that bombard us daily from every direction – are using the power of words to sell a product or service. They are neither journalists nor creative writers (even though they possess many of the same skills required by these professionals), but primarily business people who are aiming – on behalf of their clients – to grab the biggest slice of market pie as they possibly can.

Examples of just how powerful the right words can be are well documented. During the 1930s, oil giant Texaco paid Wheeler $5000 – a fortune in those days – for coming up with the following nine words: Is your oil at the right level today, sir? This was to replace the standard Check your oil today? It’s a seemingly subtle difference, but one that ended up increasing sales by 250,000 in just one week.

Another Wheeler success story came about when Barbasol, a company that makes shaving cream, hired him to come up with a slogan. Wheeler changed the words How would you like to save six minutes shaving? to How would you like to slash your shaving time in half? As a result, sales increased by a staggering 300%.

A more recent example, and one we’re all familiar with, is the famous Nike Just Do It campaign. These three little words increased the company’s sales from a mere $800 million to $9.2 BILLION in just 10 years!

While copywriters can be considered business people, the fact is that ‘copywriting’ and ‘business writing’ are two separate entities. Good copywriters for example, invariably make good business writers, but the reverse is not always true. The reason for this is that while business writers need to be logical, clear and well organised in the way they convey information, copywriters need those same skills plus the ability to write in an interesting and engaging manner. In discussing the benefits of a new walking shoe, a business writer might say: Our anatomical cushioned footbed and shock absorbing system make our shoes more comfortable to walk in. A copywriter on the other hand might put it this way: Our exciting new shoe technology will have you walking on air. One statement is designed to inform, the other to entice.

Copywriting is a rapidly growing occupation in Australia, especially since the growth of the Internet and the fact that these days, it’s become mandatory for any successful company to have a website. Yet it’s also been described as the ‘secret occupation’, with many small and medium-sized businesses – that could well stand to benefit the most – not even aware that copywriters exist, or where to find them. Instead, they tend to use their own staff to write copy, yet these are often people who have neither the skills nor the experience to really understand what informs and what entices.

The benefits for businesses using a professional copywriter can be huge. Not only does it save time, it can lead to greatly improved profit margins if the writer has done his or her job properly. Also, a local or freelance copywriter won’t charge the exorbitant fees that the big advertising agencies do, and yet understands just as clearly that effective copy needs to target a business’s clients, rather than the business itself.

In today’s tough economic climate, Elmer Wheeler’s famous words have probably never rung more true. It’s just that there are still a lot of business owners out there who are simply not recognizing that crucial difference between the ‘steak’ and the ‘sizzle’…