What Makes for Better Branding: Clear or Clever Copy?

Effective copy combines clarity with cleverness, but sometimes wit goes too far. Here's why copywriters need to get over their egos to produce effective content—and how to add the fun back in.


Which is better: clear or clever content?

Advocates of clear copywriting argue that clarity is paramount. They claim that consumers can’t buy what they don’t understand. What’s the point, they ask, of inciting a laugh if consumers can’t remember the the name of your product?

Those in the clever camp, however, contend that clear copywriting is the stuff of collegiate nightmares (i.e. it’s boring). Consumers are assaulted by a non-stop stream of information, they say, so your copywriting must stand out. This, they insist, means being clever.

So who is right? The answer is both, though any copywriter worth her salt will tell you clarity trumps cleverness. Before I explain why, plus how to affect clear copy that is also clever, there are two quick concepts worth covering. These include the obstacles to clear copywriting, and the qualifications of successful marketing copywriting.

1) The principles of clear copywriting seem simple enough:

  • Use short sentences.
  • Write in the active voice.
  • Be brief.
  • Use an inverted-pyramid writing style. (Start with your conclusion and follow with supporting points.)

Why, then, is clear copywriting so rarely executed? There are a few reasons, but two–writers’ egos and lack of research–are chief among them.

In the case of egos, writers like to impress with clever turns of phrase. They also try to dazzle prospects by using jargon and “insider-ey” language. Both result in unclear copy, and both turn consumers off.

Lack of research is the flip side of jargon and “insider-ey” language. Often, writers craft confusing sentences because they are confused by the product and do not want to conduct the research required to make sense of it. As Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

2) The terms below distinguish successful marketing copywriting and support effective value propositions. They should be front of mind throughout the development process for everyone working on a marketing campaign.

  • Distinctive: Does your copy present information in a new or unique way?
  • Seductive: Does your product’s copy spark a desire, want, or need?
  • Specific: Does the copy around your product distinguish it from competitors?
  • Succinct: Is your copy brief and to the point?
  • Memorable: Can consumers recall your copy and your product after they’ve turned your ad’s page or clicked through your product’s website?

Now that the clear versus clever framework exists, here’s an explanation of the “both are important” hierarchy.

#1 Start with Facts

In a 2010 Huffington Post article outlining how to correctly promote green packaged goods, ad man Mark Stoiber claimed that customers didn’t trust ads anymore. He wrote that consumers wanted visible and easy-to-understand proof of eco-friendly claims in product copy and on packaging. Translation: If a product had no added value over its competitors, masking this with a clever turn of phrase wouldn’t cut it.

Fast forward eight years and imagine how savvy consumers are today. Though most consumers will not spend hours researching your product’s supply chain, they will notice if your product doesn’t deliver on the claims made in its copy. It must, therefore, clearly state what your product does, provide proof of what your product does, and avoid exaggerating what your product does with dramatic hyperbole.

To summarize, get the facts of your product on the page before you start crafting your product’s message. Everything follows from the facts.

#2 Keep it Simple

When consumers read anything, from targeted emails to print ads, they are engaged in a cost-benefit analysis. While reading, they are asking themselves two questions: 1) How much hassle is involved in reading this? 2) Do I get what I need by reading this?

The result of these cost-benefit analyses is a collectively short attention span. Former Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile wrote in a 2014 Time.com article that 55% of web users spend less than 15 seconds on a web page.

Given these two bits of information–that users engage in cost-benefit analyses while reading, and that their “time spent on page” is brief–it makes sense that copy should be clean and easy to scan. To quote a recent Neilsen Norman Group research article: “Users won’t read web content unless the text is clear, the words and sentences are simple, and the information is easy to understand.” In other words, simple wins.

#3 Infuse with Fun

Though points one and two suggest an almost ascetic approach to copywriting, you don’t have to forfeit fun altogether. Once your product’s differentiators are laid out and you’ve established a basic framework for your message, it’s okay–in fact, it’s preferable–to infuse your copy with some fun. Fun makes copy memorable. Fun is seductive. And fun distinguishes your marketing campaign from competitors. (Recall that these are three principles of supporting an effective value proposition.) Without a little levity, your very clear copywriting is likely to be very soon forgotten.

To summarize: clear converts, clever sticks. Strike the right balance between the two, and you’ll have a successful marketing campaign. And if you need a helping hand from the pros who know how to make it happen, get in touch at info@marketsmiths.com. 

Amanda Cargill

Amanda Cargill

Amanda Cargill is a Brooklyn-based writer, video producer, and marketing communications strategist specializing in food, travel, culture and lifestyle content in domestic, multicultural, and international markets.

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