Find the human truth.
Chances are, you’re familiar with the terms 'B2B' and 'B2C'. They stand for 'business-to-business' and 'business-to-consumer' marketing (I just looooove being called a 'consumer', don’t you? But I’ll save this rant for another day.) A valid distinction in some cases, but if you dig a little deeper, all marketing is really just H2H: human-to-human.
That’s why the best copywriters are part-wordsmiths, part-psychologists. It’s hard to persuade people without really, really, REALLY understanding what goes on in their hearts and minds. Hearts especially. Because we humans are nowhere near as rational as we like to think. We make all kinds of messed-up choices and illogical decisions on the daily — from kissing our pets to checking our email five times in five minutes when we should be finishing an overdue assignment.
Still, there are some universal rules to how we operate. We like to belong, we cry over works of fiction and assign human qualities to animals. We care more about our dogs than the neighbours’ dogs, let alone some stranger’s dogs in another country. We can criticise our parents, but if someone else says a bad word about them, we feel somewhere between defensive and murderous. And for most of us, putting googly eyes on everyday objects is a worthwhile endeavour, especially if we’re doing it to avoid work. In marketing, these fundamental rules are called human truths. They can be universal: like the desire for connection, the fear of failure or rejection, the need for security or the tendency to defend our own child even if, objectively, they were in the wrong. Some human truths are more nuanced and speak more to a specific group: men or women, new parents, cat lovers, teenagers, gamers, believers, beer nerds, competitive knitters.
When you look at it that way, you might think that human truths are the same thing as insights, but that’s not quite right. Or, rather — all human truths are insights, but not every insight is a human truth. Have I confused you yet? Here’s an example: the fact that dog owners tend to walk more than cat owners is an insight, but the fact that pet owners experience a similar level of grief over their pets as they would over a family member is a human truth. In other words — if there’s thoughts and emotions involved, it’s a human truth.
Why are marketers obsessed with human truths? Because they can help us connect to our audience on a deeper level than logic and reason, artistry or humour ever could. People can be swayed by price, features and benefits, but it often takes more than that to make us change our behaviour or take action, be it spending money, washing our hands, or choosing a more eco-friendly snack. (Did you know Pringles tubes are nearly impossible to recycle? 'Once you pop, you can't stop' wondering how the manufacturers sleep at night.)
Human truths let us tap into fundamental needs and feelings: it's the difference between 'being overweight is linked to an increased risk of heart disease' and 'if you don’t lose weight, there’s a good chance you won’t be around for your child's graduation.'
Human truths help your writing sound genuine and empathetic, making people feel seen and heard. They can be funny or poignant. They can even bypass logic entirely. They can be used for good or evil, from to swaying election results to saving lives the way 'Friends don’t let friends drive drunk' did. As far as writing tools go, this is powerful stuff. That’s why Bill Bernbach said that 'our proper area of study is simple, timeless human truths.'
When to use it
Is all the best copywriting and marketing based on a human truth? Absolutely not. But a lot of it is — so your copywriting toolbox would be incomplete without it.
So, how do you know when to go hunting for good ol' human truths? Generally, there’s no need for it if your audience is already sold on the product or service in general, and is just looking for the best price. In most other cases, digging for human truths is good practice, even if you end up going for some other angle.
Where to find it There are a few different ways to identify human truths, which can be split into two main input sources:
Personal experience. Granted, you won’t always be your own target audience, but there are some universal truths that you’ll share with your readers regardless. And presumably, you’ve met and read about enough people to be aware of some common aspects of the human experience, even if you’ve not lived through them yourself.
Audience research. If you’re trying to persuade people, you need to understand them first. Step into their shoes (Havaianas, designer sneakers, wellies) by learning everything you can about their needs, wants, fears, struggles and aspirations. Talk to them in person if you can, analyse stats and data, do market research, run a focus group. Just keep in mind that people’s answers can be swayed by others, and what we say publicly can be pretty different from what we really think and feel. That’s why I love Reddit for customer research: anonymity often leads to honesty.
It’s a good idea to brainstorm a list of human truths and then test and refine your ideas based on different ones.
How to use it
Have you noticed? It’s nearly the end, and we haven’t talked about words at all. It’s all been practical anthropology so far — but now that you’ve found your truth(s), it’s finally writing o’clock.
You'll need to figure out where and how best to weave your insight into your writing. It could be a headline that hits the reader over the head and makes them read the body copy. It could be a well-poised question that makes them reassess their current point of view or behaviour. It could be a casual remark or three that builds trust and gives your copy gravitas, because it seems to speak directly to the reader and their situation. You could even deploy a whole arsenal of truths big and small — all in the same piece of copy.
Sometimes you’ll know the right approach instinctively. Sometimes you’ll have to try a few before you find the best one — remember, writing is rewriting. Just make sure your method of persuasion feels empathetic and insightful rather than exploitative, because — and that’s a human truth for sure — no one likes being manipulated.
In the wild.
Three executions of the long-running, mega-successful 'You're not you when you're hungry' campaign by Snickers. It's practically inexhaustible (unlike you after skipping a meal).
Life is full of plot twists. A simple observation behind a genius campaign. There's a few more executions you can (and should) find — just search 'Swiss Life ad campaign'.
It's hard not to chuckle over this one, because you've been caught. But so has everyone else reading this ad, so it's fine. Note that the body copy maintains the witty tone to highlight the features in more detail.
No one can tell how many accidents, injuries and deaths have been prevented since this slogan came out in the 80s. All thanks to a simple truth: we often feel more concerned with and responsible for our friends' safety than our own. Plus, it shifts the responsibility: like a well-placed preventative guilt-trip.
Today’s task should put you to sleep. Or rather, it should make you think about sleep: deeply! Because you’ll be writing copy for a mattress. Not a glamorous product category — but only until you dig a little deeper. We spend about a third of our life in bed, and all that… Speaking of ‘all that’ — I’m sure you’ll find plenty of cool facts and figures when you do your research, but remember, this is about human truths. So your main message should be based on those — supported by stats and features, not replaced by them.
Your choice of media: radio or press ad, email or direct mail.
You choice of audience, too. Do think it through! The reasons a uni student needs a good mattress may be different from those of a busy single parent or athlete. Their budgets may differ, as well. And don’t forget, it’s not always the buyer — or at least not just the buyer — who uses the product.
Do you see how many mattress-lined avenues this opens up, even at first glance? I sure hope so.
Here is a horribly dull, dry, cliché-ridden and human-truth-less product description to get you started. Warning: it really is a snooze-fest, and not in a good way. You don’t have to call out all these features, but if you choose to do it, take another look at that Tripp suitcase ad in the examples.
'Casper is a luxurious mattress that offers the ultimate in comfort and support. Designed with a combination of innovative materials, including memory foam and pocket springs, Casper cradles your body while providing the perfect level of firmness. But Casper isn't just about comfort — it's also designed with your health in mind. The mattress features a hypoallergenic cover that helps to reduce the risk of allergies and asthma, as well as a special cooling layer that helps to regulate body temperature while you sleep.
Experience the ultimate in sleep comfort with Casper. You'll wake up feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to tackle the day ahead.'
Gross or what? I look forward to reading your rewrites.
Remember: human truth(s), not just facts and stats.
P.S. ‘Wake up the best you’ is not a human truth. Or maybe it is, but it’s a bit… *makes vomiting noises*
I mean... it's plain lazy. Yours will be so much better / funnier / more nuanced / clever.
Dare to share.
Post your rewrites in the comments section below — anonymously, if you want.
P.S. If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to the Writtn newsletter.
P.P.S. Know someone who might like this, too? Please send them a link to this post.
P.P.P.S. Your feedback is my only hope of making this newsletter better. What worked well? What didn’t? Was there too much practice, or too little? I’m all ears.
Thank you for reading — and writing.
Until next week! Oh, and sweet dreams :)