Creative Kickstarts: The Importance of Words

Creative Kickstarts: In a visually driven industry, it can be easy to forget the power of the written word. Here’s a case for dusting off the dictionary before your next project.
Posted July 13, 2009

Since I was a kid, I’ve loved words. I love how they sound. Kalamazoo. Liquidity. Buffoonery. Chiffon. I love how a few words together can evoke a precise moment, like the infamous headline: Kennedy Dead. Or how you can make someone feel like a princess with the name of a lipstick: Regal Rouge.

Now that I’m grown and running a retail branding and copywriting firm, I’m often dismayed at the lack of words in retail design.

Why, at a time when people seem as hungry for words and ideas as for things, are retailers falling silent? Think of the explosion of thought-sharing going on via Twitter and Facebook today. The young readers who devoured the verbose “Harry Potter” stories a decade ago are now feasting on the high word counts of the “Twilight” series. And didn’t we elect our latest president on the strength of his words? Yes, We Can.

Words are as important to communicating a brand as color, lighting, space and materials. If you master using words in retail design, you strengthen your arsenal for hitting your target audience.

Put words in 3-D. A while ago, I clipped a photo of a white upholstered chair screen-printed with a furniture store’s brand message. Recently, The Limited put a seasonal message on three different T-shirts and dressed store mannequins in them. At Logan’s Roadhouse, WD Partners (Dublin, Ohio) created “rebel energy” by including music-inspired graphics with evocative quotes and phrases, such as “We keep your seat warm & your longneck cold.” Words can also create layers of information for customers to discover. Try imbedding phrases in architecture or fixtures – on the edges of shelves, tables or soffits, on stairs, lamp shades or under merchandise. When Giorgio Borruso designed Zu+Elements in Milan, he started with poetry rather than sketches. The poems ended up stenciled on the ceiling.

Place words where you can’t go. Most purchasing decisions are made in dressing rooms – yet words seldom appear here. In this intimate setting, words can persuade, reassure, instruct and foster communication. Why not label doors with brand attributes and let customers choose which one to enter? Provide chalkboard labels for associates to organize merchandise by type, collection name or favorites. Label hooks for sorting choices: No. Maybe. Definitely. Create a “help” sign that customers can hang outside the door. Or simply post a thank-you note for trying on the merchandise.

Be social. Think of how chat rooms, blogs, Facebook and Twitter work. You send a message out; someone responds back. You could bring social media into your store with a digital welcome desk or message center where customers can post their thoughts and experiences. Project a large version of your web site or Facebook page in stores and invite customers and associates to join in live.

Engage in word play. Words can speak directly to consumers – and their funny bones. Recently, we proposed a funhouse mirror for a chain of chocolate shops that appeared to make consumers look thin, while a nearby sign said, “You need more chocolate.” And which retailer is going to be the first to use face recognition software (or a coded loyalty card) to “recognize” customers when they enter … and trigger a personalized hello?

Tell a good story. Putting your creed on the cashwrap can share your brand story and remind customers why they came in. So what makes a good story? It connects with people emotionally and has a point of view. It makes you feel like you’ve been somewhere and back. And it has a satisfactory ending.

Entertain while you sell. Several years ago, we worked with Chute Gerdeman (Columbus, Ohio) to install a monitor at a LensCrafters store that broadcasts humorous cross-sell and lifestyle messages to consumers waiting for eyewear. To promote readers, the screen displayed the headline “Tongue Twister” followed by the copy “Ready-made readers mean reading’s easier. (Say that three times fast!)” For a Lane Bryant sale in January, we tapped into the post-holiday mood with signs that went beyond price-and-item messages to: “Didn’t get what you want? Not to worry. We’ve got it on sale.”

Use words to speed shopping. Not every shopper has the time or the inclination to browse. Help maximize her time by offering a merchandise guide or checklist at key entrances. Make a sign or handout highlighting seasonal items. Or turn a whole wall into a communication tool on the latest product offering.

Don’t just draw a picture. There’s a running gag in “The Hudsucker Proxy,” in which ceo-savant Tim Robbins shows people his big idea: a circle drawn on a napkin. But until he builds one and demonstrates it, no one knows it’s a hula hoop. A few well-chosen words might have made the sale quicker (or the movie shorter). The same is true with consumers: They won’t buy what they don’t understand. With just pictures, ideas can be easily misinterpreted. Or completely misunderstood.

I’m not suggesting that you completely forget visuals. They do many things well, like capture moments, show universal emotions, and, through repetition, turn an ordinary image into an icon. Used consistently, colors, shapes and visual styles allow people to quickly decode where they are.
But what you say is as important as what you show. Ask yourself: Are you speaking in generalities or with a finely tuned message? Are you creating complex relationships between ideas? Are you expressing emotional concepts? And, most important, are you building a credible argument to support the impulse to buy in a time when consumers need it most?

These are all things that words can do. Don’t forget to use your words.

Laura Sommers runs Whole-Brained Creative (Granville, Ohio), a retail design, branding, and marketing firm, with her partner, Scott Sommers.