Copy Is King, But It Needs the Queen

If anybody believes “Copy is King,” it’s AWAI Wall-of-Fame copywriter Gary Hennerberg.

And at dinner the other night, he told me a compelling story about fruitcakes to make his point.

That’s right. Fruitcakes.

Here’s the gist of his story.

A few years ago, a bakery in Texas was struggling to sell its fruitcakes through the mail. It wasn’t that the cakes tasted bad or anything. In fact, most customers said the cakes tasted absolutely delicious!

The problem was the word “fruitcake,” which is considered a derogatory term in American English. This, Gary believed, inhibited sales big-time. So he came up with an idea …

“Why not reposition the fruitcakes as ‘Native Texas Pecan Cakes?’” he suggested. “After all, the fruitcakes contain pecans grown along Texas rivers and streams, right?”

The bakery agreed.

After the name change, the bakery mailed an all-new package, which offered prospects tasty, authentic, one-of-a-kind “Native Texas Pecan Cakes” at a great price. The result? A massive 60% increase in response rates … and an avalanche of revenues for the bakery.

So … if copy is king, will it work all on its own every single time?

I’m not so sure.

In fact, Gary told me just a moment ago that it wasn’t just the name change that made the difference. Another key component also played a big role in the promotion’s success.

Call it “The Queen” of a direct-mail promotion.

Graphic design.

You see, not only did Gary come up with the name change, but he also oversaw a complete revamping of the package’s graphic design – everything from the outer envelope to the photography. And it worked like gangbusters.

His story made me realize how much I’ve still got to learn about graphic design.

That’s why I was so ecstatic to see that one of the most highly sought-after graphic designers in the direct-marketing industry – and an award-winning copywriter – was giving an in-depth presentation on graphic design today.

Jason Gaspero here. I’m your official “Roving Reporter” for Day Two of AWAI’s FastTrack to Copywriting Success Bootcamp.

In the next minute or two, I’d like to share with you some insider secrets I picked up from today’s fantastic presentation on graphic design.

I’ll spill all the beans in just a second.

But first, I’d like to make a quick comment about Bootcamp in general. You know, when I first heard about Bootcamp a few years ago, I assumed it would be only about copywriting. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Now that I’ve been to two Bootcamps, I realize these events are about so much more than copywriting … although there is plenty of copywriting skill-building going on here.

In the past few days, I’ve sat in on presentations about direct marketing, information publishing, time management, self-promotion, and more. It’s way more comprehensive than I ever gave it credit for, and definitely worth the time and effort to check out.

OK … back to those graphic design secrets I promised you …

Earlier this morning, I sat in on Graphic Designer Lori Haller and Freelance Copywriter/Copywriting Coach Donna Doyle’s presentation called “What Copywriters Need to Know About Design.”

It was fun to finally meet Lori face-to-face. We had worked together on a direct-mail package earlier this year, yet we had never met in person.

Lori’s been a graphic designer for over 20 years now, and has experience designing packages for just about every industry you can think of. She’s done it all!

And Donna Doyle may be a name that’s familiar to you. She’s none other than the AWAI 2006 “Copywriter of the Year,” joining the ranks of esteemed copywriters such as Bob Bly and Clayton Makepeace. Donna specializes in the self-improvement and health industries, and has been creating winning direct-mail and advertising copy for over 15 years.

Here are a few great tips I took away from their presentation:

Research Past Winners: When considering what design approach to take, it can be a real help to take a look at past promotions and formats that did well. Ask your client what design formats they’ve tested … and for any helpful marketing data they can share with you. And, keep samples of everything that’s mailed to you. This information is pure gold!

Learn the Lingo: Do you know the difference between a slim-jim and a self-mailer? A magalog and a bookalog? Or a #10, a #14, and a 6x9? To get proficient at working with graphic designers, it’s in your best interest to learn the jargon. Don’t worry, though. There are relatively few terms to learn, so the learning curve is short and sweet. (By the way, Lori’s putting together a Graphic Design “Cheat Sheet” which will be published in an upcoming issue of The Golden Thread .)

Choose the Right Format: To choose the best format for your promotion, it pays to see what’s working in your industry. Are tabloids a hot format in the financial industry? Magalogs for nutritional supplement packages? Or 6x9 component packages for newsletter promotions? Ask the designer, your client, fellow copywriters, and anyone else whose opinion you trust on formats to get a good idea. Do as much homework as you can before choosing the format you’re going to go with.

Design for Skimmers: Most people don’t read a package from beginning to end in a linear fashion. Instead, they skim through the package, looking for something that catches their eye and interests them. Keep this in mind when you write copy and work with a designer. Make sure your copy is selling them no matter what page their eyes wind up on … even if it’s smack bang in the middle of the package.

Become Your Prospect: You need to train yourself to become the real reader – both as a copywriter and as a graphic designer – especially once your package has been completely designed. When this is done, sneak away with a fresh printout of the package and grab a comfy chair. Now, become your prospect. Imagine how old they are … if they’re male or female … how much they make … what they do … and anything else you can envision about your prospect. And then ask yourself, what stands out? What pops out and impresses you? What bugs you? Then … make a note to FIX IT!

Find Inspiration: If you feel the need to get inspired, don’t despair. The world around you is practically bursting with ideas! Look at magazine racks and the covers of best-selling books and make note of what grabs your attention and why. Tear out interesting and easy-to-read graphs and charts and save them for future inspiration. Keep a file of packages you like. And keep up with current trends in fashion, design, architecture, food, entertainment, sports, and whatever else interests you – always making note of fonts, colors, and designs that are used.

Meet Your Deadline: Designing each page takes careful planning. If you wind up rushing the creative process, it’ll show. You don’t want an embarrassing typo or other mistake to slip in there before it gets printed in mass quantities. Give your graphic designer enough time to get the job done – on schedule. Keep communicating with your designer and make sure you’re always on the same page.

In a nutshell, the more you know about graphic design, the better. If you can speak the language, know what’s working, have a vision of what you want, and communicate this clearly to your graphic designer, your chances of landing a new control will skyrocket.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »


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Published: November 14, 2008

1 Response to “What Copywriters Need to Know About Design”

  1. Thank you for writing this great article Jason. It’s extremely informative - the tips you listed are a perfect check list for future copywriting projects, as well as to review past assignments to make them better, stronger. By using what I’ve learned here about the importance of both the king and the queen of direct mail promotion, I’m not going to be a copywriting court jester, and look like a fruitcake! Instead, I’ll become a princess in the copywriting kingdom!

    June FrostDecember 16, 2017 at 11:27 am


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