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Illustration of packaging copy

I love good packaging – and packaging copy. Whether it is a new computer or a bar of soap, the packaging starts telling a story before I pick it up. Buy an Apple computer and you know the thing will work flawlessly just by the packaging, everything fits so neatly and beautifully.

In this blog post I will look at how to approach writing packaging copy. This can be tricky as there is never enough space and too much to write so you will usually have to sacrifice something. I will go over the elements you can put on your packaging and what you might want to say.

Packaging copy
Packaging I have had the pleasure to work on

Frugal writing

For people looking to buy the product, it is usually a visual experience, designed to draw your hand to the product sitting on the shelf but the packaging copy might just close the sale. Unfortunately, I don’t think designers like copywriters very much – maybe they should go out for a beer. For a writer there is never enough space. And that is fair enough. We just have to work harder. The designer will tell you how much space you have and what word count you have to work with. The rest is up to you.

Filling in the boxes

Each segment of packaging copy has a different role to play – descriptions, directions, legalese. All require creative writing, either to interject a brand personality or to be concise. If you can do both you’re a genius. So first things first, determine what you need to write.

What role does the copy play on packaging?

1. Brand naming – Sometimes you are given an existing brand name, other times you are asked to generate one, (which is a completely different skill. You can find techniques to generate brand names here.) If you already have a name, you will have a brand tone and personality you will need to follow with your writing.

2. Brand description – This is the short, three to five-word description that sits beside the brand name. Evoke a feeling, a taste prompt, a heritage statement, a variant description, a product guarantee or product claim. It will always re-enforce the brand identity. You might not need it at all, your brand name might do all that work for you. The designers will rejoice if they have more room to play with. Some brands will use their tagline.

3. Brand experience – A short description about the brand performance, this might be a benefit, either rational or emotional that the product delivers. It makes them feel great and shows them they’ve made the right decision to buy your product.

4. How to use or care directions – Leave it off and you can be flooded with calls and complaints that your product doesn’t work properly. You might legally obliged to inform your customer how to use your product if misuse could harm them. Care instructions will keep your product looking great for longer, which in turn keeps your customer feeling great about you and a walking advert for your product.

5. Close the sale – Is your customer standing in the shop thinking, “Is this for me”? The design and name have got them to pick it up, now you have to close the sale. This is the copy on the back that gets them over the line. Consider a performance fact, what problem the product will resolve and how fast. It could be a reassurance, such as how many people use the product or an emotional state, how the product will make you feel, how well it tastes, how long it lasts. This is the copy that persuades you to act.

6. Warnings and legal requirements – Copywriters are not lawyers, so any legal consequences of using the product should be written by an appropriate person. But in the process of getting to know your audience before you write anything, find out if there are any age restrictions or warnings that you need to be aware of.

7. Contact and manufacturing information – Do you need to add the address of your business or maybe your website where your consumer can find out more? Of course you do. They have just tried your new product for the first time, they love it, do you want them to check out what else you’ve got to offer? If it is going to be useful to your customer it should be on there. Same goes for product information. For a lot of products that use chemicals or health or food, it is a legal requirement.

8. Product updates and flashes – We are talking about that little starburst or lozenge on the front. Designers will hate them because they’re ugly but it is that, “Hey you, look at me” part of the pack to make it stand out on the shelf. “New” “Improved Formulae” “Jumbo Pack”.

General writing tips for packaging copy

  • Consistency. What is the brand personality? If you have one, then stick with it. In a competitive environment, the tone of voice of a product will make all the difference.
  • Focus. Break the task down into small chunks. Separate each part and focus on what you need to achieve with that section of the copy.
  • Get a word count. Ask the designer how many words you have to work with. They will drop Latin copy “Lorem ipsum” into the space and count the words to give you a guide.
  • Write like your customer. Understand the kind of language and words they use and reflect that in your copy. It is no good using jargon. You might be so familiar with your product that you don’t even know you are talking “doublespeak”.
  • Strategy. What angle is your copy coming from, this can be dictated by your brand voice but it could come from the production process, where the ingredients come from or the people who produce it.

Knowing what you need to deliver makes a huge difference for the writer. A written brief will define all the objectives for your writing. It sets out the parameters and how it will be judged. This is really important if you are being paid to write. A brief sets up the goal posts, what your aims are and gives you the tools you need to sell your written piece. If you are not given a written brief, I would  advise you to create one yourself. It will outline a logical argument of why you have written your copy in a particular way.

Let's look at an example

anchor milk range

I was asked to write the copy for new packaging for Anchor Milk. This is a brand that has been around a long time. The client wanted a fresh new look, something that reflected the brand values. Thankfully, I was given a very clear brief from the design agency.

  • They wanted short, happy stories that capture joyful moments of everyday life
  • I was given the word count around 55 words
  • I was given the consumer profile for each SKU
  • I was given the brand personality
  • I was also asked to write a short product description that would appear on the back 15-20 words

This gave me everything I needed. I knew the purpose of each piece of copy. I knew the word length. I could be consistent in tone with other marketing materials. I had a good picture of who was buying the different types of milk – full fat was more male oriented; half fat was the family pack and trim a younger female skew. I had a strategy, happy, everyday joyful stories. I knew the milk was consumed mostly in the morning so I could make the copy relevant.

Packaging copy with short stories

Fifty-five words doesn’t give you much room to tell a story, so I decided to capture the morning routines in each different house.

I started off by writing longer stories until I got the flow and pattern of events that I wanted. Next, I chopped as many words as I could before I lost the charm of the story.

I knew I would have to use short phrases that created pictures of the moment in the reader’s eyes.

After all, this is a carton of milk and people will not have the patience to read anything long. But if they do, I wanted to make them smile. So this is what I wrote:-

Anchor Blue Milk

Little feet running, lunch boxes packed, scramble for the door, another day just begun. The clatter of spoons, the slurp of milk, little white moustaches on gleaming top lips. Sitting round a table, sharing, caring, quality family time. We are here for each other, together for ever.

Anchor Lite Milk

A steaming shower, a burst of song, drip, drip, looking good, feeling fine. Fresh and spruced ready for the day. Off to the park, slide, spin, hang, jump. Happy little faces, happy parents. Life sounds better with laughter. The alarm clock rings, it’s still dark, a splash of lite on cereal. Stretch, yawn, say hello, the morning calls.

Anchor Trim Milk

Grab the phone, snuggle in a chair, laugh, giggle, gossip. Well I never, would you believe, isn’t life funny?Wake up sleepy head, coffee on, big splash of milk, feeling great, come on world, what’ve you got for me today? Knock knock, who’s there? Friends, tales and treats. Plans made, souls refreshed, loving every minute.

Anchor Super Trim

Walk to work, run up the stairs, jump on a computer. Winning praise, feeling great, racing through the day. We’re winning! Calories counted, smiling scales, small rewards. On track, beauty smiled on us today. Bright and early, running on time, jog before breakfast, wide awake. Ready, steady, we’re good to go.

On the back there was a much more traditional description of what kind of milk it was, and an informative product description. In truth, the vast majority of people will use the colour-coded cap to make their decision. Grab it and go. They know what they want. The story on the front just adds flavour, a touch of brand character. If they read it and relate to it, it brings them closer to the brand.

It took ten submissions before everyone was happy with the finished copy, small little tweaks that improved the message each time. Once I had completed all the stories about the milk, I was asked to do the same for the cream and butter.

Write in character

Writing stories for a back is quite unusual but it is very common to be asked to write with character. For the milk a story was in character with the brand – it reflected the advertising tone they had been using for decades. The words on the pack are literally the words of the brand, its voice. As a writer you need to stay in character and reflect the personality of the brand.

Be clear

Space is at a premium so there is no room for waffle. Be very clear about what you need to communicate. I will always bullet point what I need to say and then create copy from those points. If I have been asked to write a description of how to use the product – like how to make a coffee, I first check the design to see if I have pictograms to help me. They can be a huge help.

Be concise

Lack of space is always the biggest issue. It takes practise to be concise and use the adjectives you need to convey a specific personality at the same time. You might find it easier to write a long description to begin with, to get the flow and personality right. After that, get out your red pen. Be brutal. Again, you might find it easier to bullet point the messages you want to get across and then write, edit and write again.

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