Estimated reading time: 14 minute(s)
Our guest writer Laura Olson is the secret copywriting weapon behind some of the most prominent beauty brands in America. Here’s why she loves hearing clients say “no” to her writing.
I’ve heard “no” so many times in copywriting, any bystander would think I have a two-year old tethered to my keyboard.
And every time it happens, I relish it.
On my first copywriting project, I heard “no” so much that looking back, I’m sort of amazed I stayed in the business.
I was so green. And the scope was huge. I’d been hired by a well-known makeup artist (Sonia Kashuk) to create product names, product descriptions, taglines, usage instructions, in-store signage, primary and secondary packaging copy, and advertising for her new skincare line (for Target).
She wanted it to sound high tech. Sciencey.
First stop on the “no” train: mock techno-speak. I’d given her names like Tri-Active Cleanser, Pro-Nutrient Serum, and Solar Shield UV Guard with Parsol 1789.
She came back with a hard no.
She said she wanted to see more of herself in this. So I generated product names, all based on her name. That was the next stop on the “no” train.
She said it sounded repetitive—and egotistical. She still wanted to see herself, just a little less blatantly, and she wanted to understand the products at first glance.
So I handed her a simple solution. I named the line after her, and each product for what it does. Day cream. Night cream. Lip balm. With the “action” as a sub head. So clean! So clear.
That’s when I got my first resounding yes. And it felt so good—and so well earned, for both of us.
When it comes to creative copywriting, companies might have to see it before they know it—or else they’ll “no” it.
A particularly memorable “no” came from a designer friend. I had worked with him often as a copywriter, going from “no” to “yes” with a variety of his clients. When he asked me to give him brief bursts of words—like a beat poet—to describe Christmas in New York, I took him at his word. Not being a beat poet, I did some research and produced volumes of edgy new expressions.
NO, he shouted by email. Beauty consumers want wintry charm. Department store windows and carriage rides. This is way too edgy!
I snorted my morning coffee up my nose. Then, I dabbed it off and smiled. “No” was just the way to “yes.” Like any other client, he had asked for what he thought he wanted, but seeing it in print was totally different.
By the end of the day, we’d found our surprisingly simple ‘Christmas in New York’ theme.
Why is creative copywriting so often like this?
Imagine you’ve never eaten anything sweet in your life, and the baker asks you to describe your favorite pie. Peachy with a hint of cinnamon? Creamy with a touch of bourbon? Chocolate, banana, cherry? You’d probably have to taste each thing to know what you really loved. There might be a few “mehs” before the final “whoa!” That pie baker might have a broad range of ingredients, but you’d probably need a bit of trial and error to pinpoint your absolute favorite.
My best copywriting “no?” A brand story for the reinvention and rollout of an iconic beauty brand. I tapped the company’s history, edited language they already liked, added romance and smoothed it to perfection. They LOVED it. But for the word “it.” In one sentence, the “it” ruined the whole idea. They requested options. I gave them fun, exciting, romantic, juicy, simple, sweet, edgy replacements. And none worked. Meeting after meeting, we circled the problem “it.” Until finally we just pulled “it” out. Perfect. And simple. And exactly what I’d suggested, too.
But this story isn’t about me knowing, it’s about me knowing “no.” It’s often much easier to recognize what your brand doesn’t want than what it ultimately needs. And, in a roundabout way, it can be easier to go the long route than the easiest, simplest, most direct route. That way, you know you have options. And you can still settle on what’s cleanest in the end, and know you gave it a thorough evaluation first.
As a copywriter, I am charged with being a great listener and with continuing to gracefully pivot, like a prima ballerina on steroids. I may not be able to intuit your taste right away—and that may be because it’s not fully solidified yet. I might need to cast your team’s original idea in a slightly different hue or flavor. I may even have to throw out whole sheets of lipstick names, product copy, brand narrative—and start over. And I am up for the job.
At MarketSmiths, we provide an extra set of eyes—those of a content strategist, with a whopping level of experience to draw from. Sometimes, this is a fail safe. But since much copywriting—particularly B2C brand writing—is inherently a subjective and creative process, it may not always be.
In any case, we always know that we will get it. And the more you say “no,” the closer we are to finding that golden path forward. We invite you to try it with us. I guarantee a little angst, a dose of fun—and a lot of learning on both sides.