Zen and the art of marketing mastery

One book, five lessons learned and a goal finally reached

Zen and the art of marketing mastery | philosophy marketing ideas  | copywriterZen and the art of marketing mastery | philosophy marketing ideas  | copywriter

I’ve finally done it. It’s been on my list of things to do forever, and now I can tick it off. No, it’s not climbing Everest, or appearing on Britain’s Got Talent, or running a marathon.

It’s reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig.

It’s 40 years since this quirky blend of mechanics and ideas first hit the headlines, and became the bible of the cool generation. Four decades and five million copies later it’s still going strong.

As I’ve been working my way slowly through it (it’s 400+ pages, and gets very heavy sometimes) I’ve realised some of the things that have have made it successful, and how they’re directly applicable to marketing. And I’ve also learned a few lessons about human nature, and why we do what we do.

  1. Motivation is important.  If you want people to take action, you’ve got to give them a reason to do so. In my case, I persevered with Zen because I’m part of a book club that meets monthly over Sunday lunch and discusses a book we’ve all read. You don’t have to have read the book, but if you haven’t, you’re automatically on the sidelines of the discussion. So it’s peer pressure, plus a sense of involvement, plus a deadline – if I don’t finish it by this weekend, I’ve missed an opportunity.
  2. Headlines matter. Undoubtedly one of the reasons I’ve had this book on my reading list for so long is that it’s got a crazy, catchy, memorable title. Just the other day, I struggled to remember the name of a book I’d really enjoyed when I was chatting with a friend. Though the book was memorable, the title wasn’t. Zen, on the other hand, I hadn’t yet read, but had no difficulty recalling its title. It’s funky and playful, and trips off the tongue.
  3. Testimonials are worth their weight in gold. The first person who mentioned the book to me, years and years ago, was a biker friend who was doing a PhD in philosophy – no surprise he liked it, then. And since I liked him, I trusted his judgement. You’ve got to read it, he said over and over. Every time I saw him, he asked me whether I’d got round to it yet. And every time, I said no. Now, that’s about to change – and in no small part because of his recommendation. And several other recommendations I’ve had in the meantime.
  4. Telling a story is critical. There’s lots of heavy stuff in Zen. Not least Zen, but also Aristotle, Plato, Heidegger, Hume and a slew of other philosophers. At times, it gets quite deep, and you really have to slow down and concentrate – otherwise, you realise you’ve read several pages and taken in nothing. The process, appropriately enough, is Zen-like. But what makes it easier is that Pirsig alternates between the heavy philosophical musings and the road trip that the first-person narrator takes with his son Chris. That variation lightens the intellectual load, and provides a narrative that readers can latch onto.
  5. First impressions count. The edition I’m reading is a special 25th anniversary one that came out in 1999 (see above). It’s got a bright-blue cover with chunky Austin Powers-like lettering in red. It’s like the visual equivalent of an acid trip. It adds to the fun and funkiness of it all, and makes me want to be one of the cool people who’ve read the book and are in the know.

So what are you getting right on your marketing road trip?

  • Are you giving your readers a reason to read what you’ve written? To care about your content? To engage with you?
  • Are you grabbing them with a headline that keeps them reading?
  • Are you following up with satisfied clients to get testimonial quotes and asking them to recommend your products and services to friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances?
  • Is your copy tightly structured with a beginning, middle and end?  Do you tell a good story?
  • And when people land on your site or see your brochure for the first time, are they instantly captivated?

We may not all be interested in motorcycle maintenance (count me out) or philosophy (I think I’m getting hooked) but we can all learn something from Pirsig’s left-of-field take on life, that’s as applicable now as when it first appeared 40 years ago.

I certainly have. And now, I can finally tick Zen off my to-do list.

I’d better start training for that marathon.

Find out more:

Marketing may be an art, but you can always apply a little science

Change one thing at a time. Monitor. Measure. Repeat.

Marketing may be  an art, but you can always apply a little science | marketing  | copywriter [Image courtesy of Pong at]

Just recently, I spoke to somebody who wanted to increase her conversion rate online. She was getting visitors, and they were buying. Just not as enthusiastically as she was hoping.

She’d just changed her pricing, which followed hot on the heels of a website redesign and restructure (with a knock-on effect on search-engine rankings).

Now, for good measure, she decided to change her copy as well. It was the sort of belt-and-braces approach she thought would create that quantum leap she was looking for.

She’s not a client. Or at least, not yet.

The copy isn’t perfect – no copy is – but it’s good enough for the moment, I told her. And if she changes that on top of the structure (more streamlined) and the pricing (lower) how will she know what to attribute success to, if and when it comes?

So she’s letting it all settle down while she tracks, analyses and draws conclusions.

Conversely, I’ve also recently spoken to somebody who’s been having great success with his site.

Why? He’s not sure.

The copy is something that was ‘thrown together’ when the site launched, and he’s always thought it could be better (see above). Once again, he’s not entirely certain how, but it’s one of those niggling little things that keep him awake at night.

Monitor, measure, tweak

Both of these examples demonstrate the infuriating un-pindownability of marketing. Is it an art? Or a science? Can you easily identify cause and effect? Can success (or failure) be attributed to a specific action or actions?

The whole discipline is shrouded in uncertainty, but three things are clear.

First, you can’t manage what you don’t measure, so you need to measure relentlessly. Hits, sales, calls, ad responses, conversions, effectiveness of calls to action, click-through rates. Not to mention price points and seasonal fluctuations. Headlines that work, and tweets that are retweeted. Keywords that set sales alight, and offers that hit the sweet spot.

The second thing that’s clear is that you shouldn’t change everything at once. Instead, you should tweak and measure. Tweak and measure. Perhaps tweak back in the other direction and measure.

And that leads to the last thing: sometimes, you may never reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Every little doesn’t help

Consider Tesco, once the UK’s favourite supermarket chain. They were growing like topsy, with stores popping up right across the country. They had better prices, better service and better coverage (there are four big stores in Cambridge alone, plus a slew of little ones) than the other chains. Everything was going their way.

And then suddenly it wasn’t.

Earlier this month, Tesco revealed its worst results in decades. It’s the latest in a series of lacklustre figures, and the decline seems unstoppable.

Partly, it’s down to positioning. They’re taking a hammering from cut-price rivals (Lidl and Aldi) at the lower end, and are not perceived to be as upmarket as Sainsbury’s and the reassuringly expensive Waitrose at the top of the food chain. They’re stuck in the middle, and are as squeezed as we’re being constantly told that middle is.

And yet they’ve made a big effort to win – or win back – customers.

In times of crisis, changing one thing at a time is not always the best approach, so you throw everything you’ve got at the problem. As a Tesco customer, I can see that they’re pulling out all the stops: lower minimum purchase for online groceries, cheaper delivery slots, endless promotions, £5 off vouchers.

Tesco is love-bombing the market. In fact, it’s been doing so since its poor performance over the Christmas period. But the results just aren’t there. I’m feeling all loved up, but there’s a limit to what I can do – or anybody else for that matter. People are voting with their feet, and Tesco is having a hard time seeing why.

But don’t feel too sorry for them. They have bags of money, decades of experience and some of the best marketing brains in the business. They’ll figure it out sooner or later.

In the meantime, we should all just make a note to self: change one thing at a time, monitor and measure, and tweak. Get all the little things right, but avoid the trap of perfectionism. Control what you can, and don’t worry about what you can’t. Stuff happens, and what matters is how you react.

Accept that marketing is an art, but remember that a little dash of science never goes amiss. And last but not least, tell a good story, which is an art in itself. Or if you can’t, get somebody in who can.

You get my drift.

Does your copy have these two key ingredients?

Why people and stories will always make a winning recipe

Does your copy have these two key ingredients? | writing marketing copywriting  | copywriter [Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at]

Eey. Hüü’pü’k. Hitta*l. Püüxi.

OK, here’s a challenge for you: can you name this language? (And no, it’s not Klingon.) In case you’re thinking of cutting and pasting the words into Google Translate, let me save you the bother. You won’t find them there or virtually anywhere else.


Well, they’re part of a disappearing language in Mexico called Ayapaneco. Until recently, it had only two speakers, both in their 70s. And although that could in theory provide at least a glimmer of hope of reviving the language, there was one insurmountable problem.

Manuel and Isidro hadn’t spoken to each other for years – ironically, because of a a bitter argument over Ayapaneco. So they waged a silent war that promised to hasten the end of this fascinating tongue (just look at all those umlauts, not to mention the asterisk).

Hooked yet? Of course you are. So was I, and so was everybody who heard the story.

Beginning, middle, end (& sale)

Stories are the lifeblood of marketing, and of all copy everywhere. And not just any stories, but stories about people. The words reach out form the page and pull us in, involving us in the lives of others.

And if those lives, and that story, are used by a canny marketing department, they can keep their brand in front of us much longer than any sales pitch could. Not to mention the positive vibes they receive as they bask in the warm glow of doing something good.

And what was that good?

Saving the language, of course. Getting Manuel and Isidro to talk to each other after all these years. Setting up an Ayapaneco school, so that kids could learn and use the language. And putting an Ayapaneco language site online where you can hear the two septuagenarians speaking words and phrases for you to imitate, learn and remember.

And not just that. You can ‘adopt’ a word, record yourself saying it, and post the video online.

It’s the ultimate feel-good marketing campaign that flies below the radar. And the company? Vodafone, who bring people together and get them talking (benefit) with its mobile phone network (feature).

It’s a very clever move on their part:

  • It chimes perfectly with Vodafone’s marketing. Just remember their catchline a few years back: It’s good to talk. And it’s even better to talk if it’s saving a language.
  • It’s got just the right amount of what TV programme makers call jeopardy - the chance that everything could go pear-shaped and the project could fail.
  • It’s got legs, so people will continue to be interested in the fate of the language over the coming months and years.
  • It involves people: the adopt-a-word idea is a master-stroke, as it means that you too can get that warm, fuzzy feeling of doing some good in big bad world.

As humans, we can’t fail to be moved by stories. And all marketers tell stories, all day every day. So next time you sit down to write some copy or run a campaign, think not just of the stories, but the people behind them. And remember that sometimes, a light touch is all that’s needed.

As you’ll see from the Vodafone video, it doesn’t take much to draw us in (if you’re reading in email, click here):

And what about those words I opened with? Well they’re Ayapaneco for hello, corn plant, grass and man.

See? You’re halfway to saving the language already. Now doesn’t that feel good?

Find out more: 

Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes

Saying what you mean, loosening up and getting the little things right

Hey you! started the email, which is always a good way to get attention. Nothing like a little directness. Whatever happened to Copycam? Or have you stopped snapping?

And you know what? He was onto something, my direct emailing friend. I haven’t stopped snapping – or sniping come to that. Every so often, I’ve been taking photos of copy that could have been more elegant, or clearer, or even omitted. Unintended meaning, misplaced punctuation and clunky prose.

It’s just that I haven’t been posting it. So hold onto your hats, and let’s get started.

Funny you should mention that

I’m a big advocate of humour in small doses, when it comes to writing in general and copywriting in particular. There’s rarely a faster way to connect with people and show them there’s a beating heart behind the business.

You don’t want to lay it on with a trowel (it fasts becomes tedious) or make it dodgy (it soon offends), but a little dash of wit here and there never hurts.

And it if has a topical hook, so much the better. About this time last year, when Margaret Thatcher died, the laundry up the road from Copy Towers was quick off the mark:

Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes | marketing ideas copycam  | copywriter

It’s clever without being corny. It refers to a controversial figure without being openly partisan. And the speed with which it appeared was remarkable. As was the speed with which it disappeared, to be replaced by another laundry-related pun.

Staying with the theme of ladies, I spotted this one day when I was in town:

Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes | marketing ideas copycam  | copywriter

One for the gentlemen, I thought. Who could resist at that price?

And yet I can’t really throw the first stone. We’ve all been there – you, me, and everybody who’s ever picked up a pen or hunted and pecked on a keyboard.

Afterwards, you look back in horror and wonder did I really write that? You did. And so did I. But what we didn’t do was review it after leaving it to one side for a while.

My rule is simple: write once, edit many times. Read even more times.

If in doubt…look it up

Let’s stay with with fashion, but move departments. H&M decided to avoid humour and simply tell it like it is:

Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes | marketing ideas copycam  | copywriter

Unfortunately, they forgot the all-important apostrophe. Yes, yes, I know it’s just a small thing, but all the small things add up to a lot of big things. Lack of attention to punctuation could just lead to more serious lapses. Or is that just the word geek coming out in me?

Perhaps you’re right, so let’s move on. But before we do, I should tell you that I found the missing apostrophe a few streets away in a pub window:

Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes | marketing ideas copycam  | copywriter

Small but perfectly formed. And speaking of misplaced punctuation, here’s another example:

Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes | marketing ideas copycam  | copywriter

Which makes you wonder just how good those crêpes really are. And whether they shouldn’t simply have stuck with pancakes, which is mercifully accent-free.

Say what you mean

More serious than a misplaced accent or apostrophe is a tone that jars. And yet it’s one that we find time and again in business copy – and anything that has to sound ‘official’. The giveaway is a construction that’s unnecessarily complicated and roundabout. Much like this sign I saw in Cambridge Central Library:

Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes | marketing ideas copycam  | copywriter

What’s wrong with it? Well it’s inconvenient for people who want to use the machine, so there’s no may about it. And any isn’t really necessary. Take it out and what changes? Nothing.

Lastly, we are sounds more distant and formal than we’re.

Put it all together, and what do you get as an alternative version?

We’re sorry for the inconvenience

See the difference? It’s more honest, it’s shorter, and it doesn’t mince its words. And it’s friendlier, so people are more likely to be forgiving.

Crème de la crème

But let’s finish as we started, with a dash of humour. It doesn’t take much, so use it sparingly. As this cosmetics shop did to entice people in:

Doublespeak, humour and errant apostrophes | marketing ideas copycam  | copywriter

How does it work? Where does the old hand cream go? Is it helping the Third World or Children in Need? What hand creams qualify for the amnesty? Is it free or free*? Are there strings attached?

Who knows. And in a way, who cares. None of those practical questions matter – all that matters is that it hooks your interest, makes you smile, and gets you to go into the shop.

I almost did. But then I looked at the state of my hands and moved quickly on.

Great service, little white lies and free coffees

Customer loyalty: sweet success or a bitter taste?

Great service, little white lies and free coffees | marketing customer service  | copywriter

Image courtesy of Stoonn at

I’ve been reflecting recently on three service experiences, and how they’ve affected my perception of the brands.

The first, unfortunately, involves an embarrassing admission on my part. Having vaunted the benefits of mindfulness and being in the present moment, I have to put my hand up and admit my mind went AWOL.

Yes, we have no bananas

A couple of weekends ago, I was doing my weekly supermarket shop online, and I ordered the usual pack of eight bananas. Or at least I thought I did. It was only a few days later, when the order arrived that I realised I’d absent-mindedly put ‘8’ in the quantity box before clicking add.

So that’s 8 x 8, a sum total of 64 bananas.

Now I’m as fond of bananas as the next person, but there is a limit. The delivery man looked on with a bemused smile as I lifted bag after bag of bananas out of the crate. Just as well I’d discovered the power of mindful breathing, as it was the only thing at that moment between me and a sense of panic.

Only just, though.

But you know what? It was fine. The supermarket not only takes back substitutions that you don’t like. They also take back things you’ve ordered in error, or quantities you’ve got wrong.

“Don’t worry,” said the chirpy delivery chap. “Mistakes happen. I’ll just scan them back in, and we’ll refund you.”

Two days later, the refund still hadn’t come in, so I phoned the helpline.

“No problem,” said the oh-so-accommodating call-centre woman. “We’ll refund you.”

And so she did. In vain did I tell her that the delivery guy had scanned the excess bananas, and that it was just possible that he hadn’t yet done a data upload from his handheld device.

“That’s all done,” she said brightly. “Anything else I can help you with?”

There wasn’t, so I thanked her and hung up. The next day I checked my account online. And there was not just one, but two refunds, for the same amount. There had been a delay in the data upload.

I’ve thought many times about changing supermarkets, but it’s little don’t worry moments like this that keep me loyal. Well, that and the double refunds. I considered calling them up and explaining that I’d got more than my just deserts (yes, pun intended) but I just know what the response will be. Don’t worry.

So I won’t.

Who you gonna call?

If you’ve followed this blog along the highways and byways over the years, you’ll know that when it comes being seduced by operators, I’m a serial offender. I’ve changed partners five times in eight years.

The most recent change was a few weeks ago, when I discovered that my personalised voice-mail message had disappeared for the third time in 18 months. Instead, it reverted to the default message, which features a blokey Geordie who says things like ‘Nice one!’ when you press a button to make a choice.

Now I have nothing against Geordies, but the blokey thing did grate. But it wasn’t just that. It was also the fact that I finally saw how I’d been manipulated by the marketing people – and for the marketer, that’s reason enough to up sticks and go.

It’s a pay-as-you-go operator who played a very clever slowly-slowly-catchey-monkey game. First, free unlimited internet. Then, limited internet. And finally, a price hike in calls. Which made their rolling 30-day contracts seem more and more attractive.

Bait and switch, I hear you say? My thoughts exactly.

The final straw came when they were undercut by one of their rivals – by a good 70% on the call-per-minute rate – and simply dropped them from their price-comparison table.

So I felt manipulated and deceived. It was time to get a PAC code.

You want coffee with that?

My last service experience mirrors my first one. It’s my favourite cafe, where the coffee is piping hot and the welcome is always warm. Recently, the tills have been randomly printing out ‘Free drink’ on the top of the receipts, inviting you to fill in a customer-service survey online and claim your prize.

So I did, and got a free coffee on my next visit. The receipt after that also offered me a free drink if I completed the survey. So I did, again. And the pattern has been repeating itself for three months. I’ve been paying for only one coffee in two.

Now the service is great and the coffee tastes good – especially when it’s free. But I’m sure they can’t want to hear my admittedly valuable opinion quite so much. When I mentioned the surveys to one of the staff, I was told that you could only complete one a month from the same IP address.

But that’s not true, as my weekly feedback shows. I didn’t have the heart to tell her. And here’s the thing: I’ve actually stopped doing the surveys now, as I feel so positive about them I actually want to pay for my coffee. It doesn’t feel right not to.

Yes, it’s a marketing tactic, but unlike my mobile experience, it doesn’t leave me feeling manipulated.

It’s not Starbucks, by the way. They’re off my Christmas card list after they downgraded my rewards card at the beginning of the year. But that’s another story, which I’ll tell you another day.

Over a coffee, perhaps.