The task was to sell a German-made car in America, less than 15 years after the end of World War II. Oh, and it looked and drove nothing like the most popular cars of the day.
So how do you introduce a new car in a hostile market dominated by giants?
The answer was positioning:
“Since Detroit’s policy was not just to manufacture cars, but to manufacture discontent with the one you had just bought last year, Volkswagen and DDB took direct aim at that system. Beetle ownership allowed you to show off that you didn’t need to show off.”
— Dominik Imseng
The position and strategy were simple and clear: Our new car is humble and hard-working, just like you. It’s not ostentatious, pretentious, and unreliable, like the competition (and the people who buy them).
But positioning is the beginning of the work of advertising, not the end. The next step is translating that position into art that grabs attention, language that communicates, and an overall emotion that persuades to action.
My favorite example of that craft is the “Think small.” ad from a few years into the campaign. I keep a framed copy from 1962 in my office.
Bob Levenson wrote the copy for that version, which became iconic:
“Our little car isn’t so much of a novelty anymore. A couple of dozen college kids don’t try to squeeze inside it. The guy at the gas station doesn’t ask where the gas goes. Nobody even stares at our shape.
In fact, some people who drive our little flivver don’t even think 32 miles to the gallon is going any great guns.
Or using five pints of oil instead of five quarts.
Or never needing anti-freeze.
Or racking up 40,000 miles on a set of tires.
That’s because once you get used to some of our economies, you don’t even think about them anymore.
Except when you squeeze into a small parking spot. Or renew your small insurance. Or pay a small repair bill. Or trade in your old VW for a new one.
Think it over.”
The ad became a sensation, and perhaps the only one from the era more famous than “Lemon.”
So how did Levenson do it? What was his writing secret?
“When you really don’t know what to put on that blank paper in the typewriter, you should just write ‘Dear Charlie’ at the top. Assume that Charlie is a neighbor of yours, a very nice, bright, intelligent guy, with a sense of humor. He’s got all the mental equipment you have, but none of the information that you have about the Volkswagen.
So just put down what you want to tell him in this ad, and cross off ‘Dear Charlie’, and you’ll probably be all right.’”
The key to good marketing writing is being clear, using the language of your audience, and speaking directly to them—directly to one person. If you can convince one person, you can convince a crowd—but you can’t convince a group without convincing an individual.
Levenson would tell his creative teams to write, “just say as skillfully as you can … what it really is that you are selling, what is good about it and why somebody should buy it instead of what they are buying now.”
It sounds simple, but how many ads or social media posts have you already seen today that didn’t tell you clearly what they were selling? Didn’t tell you clearly what was good about it? And didn’t tell you clearly why you should buy it instead of something else?
Success also hinges on the language you use. Nobody is impressed with jargon, they’re either intimidated or annoyed by it. Notice Levenson’s self-deprecating use of the word “flivver,” or the colloquial “going any great guns.”
You’re speaking to humans, not an algorithm. You’re trying to communicate to someone just as smart as you, just as clever and funny, they just don’t know anything about your product or why they should care—yet.
And that’s where careful, crafted writing comes in. It doesn’t matter how big the concept or how amazing the idea—the execution is what makes it work, or fail.
You may have a million great ideas. A million amazing concepts. A million things you want to show off in your ads and posts. But as Mallarme once had to counsel his friend, “It’s not with ideas, my dear Degas, that one makes verse. It’s with words.”
So first, identify and solidify your position.
Next, create a strategy for reinforcing it.
Then, use the simple, clear language of your audience, not your industry.
And focus on one thing at a time.
And if all else fails, write “Dear Charlie” at the top. Tell Charlie everything you love about your product and why they will love it, too. And then remove “Dear Charlie.”
You’ll probably be all right.