Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is to marketers what Rembrandt is to photographers. While’s he’s technically not one, studying him is a great way to improve your grasp on the finer things in life. And make no mistake – marketing is one of those finer things. It goes way deeper than making a few sales.

In its essence, marketing is about making a connection. And few writers create a connection with their readers as Vonnegut does. So kick back, relax, and let’s see what we can learn. Here are the five lessons in no particular order.

5. “Sound like yourself.”

Most brands I work with don’t have a voice of their own. When they first approach me and they want me to write copy for them, they imagine I would simply use some magic words and the sales will start falling from the sky.

“Do you have a brand voice in mind?”, I would ask. Blank stares and head scratches. “Do you know your target audience?” Same answer. “OK, we have a lot of work to do before we can get to the wordsmithing.”

Every brand needs a brand voice. Not that every business is a brand, don’t get me wrong. But if you take your business seriously and want to develop it as a brand, you need to have a brand voice.

Apple have a very distinct brand voice. Their flow, their phrasing, their cheeky wordplay – all of it is very recognizable. When you read an Apple copy, you know what to expect. It’s distinct.

I know what you’re thinking. “Apple is such an obvious example.” I agree. Here’s another one – Cards Against Humanity. Everything they write in their marketing is short, punchy, and outrageously hilarious (like the game itself). You cannot mistake Cards Against Humanity for any other brand. That’s the power of the brand voice. That’s the power of sounding like yourself.

4. “Say what you mean to say.”

I don’t get it. I really don’t. If you’re the average person, you’re constantly bombarded with marketing messages. And when you’re a marketer – you get bombarded with twice that, because you’re also constantly looking for ways to up your game. So why, in the Seven Heavens, are most marketing messages so convoluted? This leads me to believe marketers are the most unempathetic people on the face of the planet (right up there with psychopaths and people who put pineapple on a pizza).

Say precisely what you mean. It’s not that hard. The moment I connect to the Internet, I get a barrage of messages. You can bet your ass I’m not going to even look at your ad if it doesn’t immediately tell me something I care about. And how can it do that, when you’re not saying what you mean to say?

There are plenty of examples where this goes beyond useless and marches right into brand suicide territory. In 2015, Bud Light was going for an uppity and adventurous tone in their ads. That’s why no one noticed the implications of “The perfect beer for removing the word ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night”. This ad was poorly received when it came out and it aged even worse (whoops!). Be clear with your messaging. Say what you mean to say.

3. “Keep it simple.”

This is somewhat related to the previous point. When I first dipped my toes into professional writing, I was eager to prove myself. So like any other young buck, I was going for the biggest, longest, most convoluted sentences you could ever imagine. I’ve spent hours going through a thesaurus to find “a more eloquent way to put it”. And I genuinely believed this made me a better writer.

It didn’t. It made a douche copywriter who was trying to show off and had zero empathy for the reader. Especially when it comes to a marketing message, it fails the moment your target audience has to reach for a dictionary. If you can use a simpler word – use it. If you can use a shorter sentence – do it. No one has time to waste on your ad. And if you really want to show off your writing skills, you can do so by providing a clear message that works. Keep it simple.

2. “We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

Business and risk go hand in hand. Especially in the beginning or when the going gets tough. That’s why you always have to be ready for the next risk. What does this look like for your brand? I don’t know. Figure it out. Or your competitors will and then you’ll be in trouble.

If Jeff Bezos doesn’t sit on his ass because he thinks Amazon is too big to fail, then neither should you. My best clients are the ones who are open to a certain degree of risk. And they tend to be the ones who win the most.

This doesn’t mean you should be reckless. But you should know it’s sometimes better to take the loss in the short term for the long-term gain. No one currently understands this better than Elon Musk.

The now infamous Cybertruck announcement was a “failure”. There were memes. There was news coverage. Tesla’s stocks took a dive. The situation looked dire. But even someone knows jack about stocks (such as myself) knew their stocks were about to soar. It was just a matter of time. And sure enough – it happened. Lots of people made a lot of money around that time (sadly, I didn’t risk it and I made diddly squat).

So whether it’s taking the business in a new direction, changing your tone of voice, your marketing message or your target audience, you need to take risks. Sometimes you will lose in the short term. But all too often companies, especially when they grow to a certain size, get overburdened with pointless bureaucracy and forget what got them there in the first place. The biggest risk you can take is not taking any risks.

1. “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

This is great advice for creative writing. But also marketing. When I get approached by a new client, my favourite question to ask is, “Why do your clients choose you over the competition?” Most of the time, people don’t know. This is a huge waste in terms of market positioning.

One of the best ways to enter a market is to create a new category for yourself. An example would be Uber or AirBnB. They disrupted industries that hadn’t moved in decades by introducing a new market category. But the more subtle reason for their success is they identified new customer motivations. Convenience without breaking the bank? Yes, please.

Identify customers’ motivations and make them your unique value proposition. Know why your customers are choosing you. Everybody wants something. Make sure you give it to them.

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