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Copywriting

Audience & purpose

Copywriting product descriptions well relies on knowing your audience and purpose.

J Peterman: purveyor of fine clothing and accessories for men and women. Incidentally, home of the world’s best product copy. (Whenever I bring on a copywriting intern, I hand her a battered copy of a J Peterman catalog and tell her to aspire to the greatness within.)

Sadly, my favorite example, the Suede Pigskin Vest, is no longer live. If it was, you’d see this…

from JPeterman.com via Archive.org

For a slightly later example, check out the Classic B-6 Bomber Jacket. I don’t think it’s as good as the vest above. But still.

Now let’s look at something completely different.

Utilitarian product copy: GE SCS Clear 1200 silicone sealant

GE® 1200 is a one-part building and glazing acetic cure silicone sealant that cures to a tough, flexible rubber through the moisture cure process.
Basic Uses
Used to seal building joints to prevent the penetration of rain, air, and noise. It effectively weatherproofs junctions of building materials and can also be used for sealing curtainwall, mullion, and other building construction joints, and for glazing steel and aluminum windows, painted and plastic coated wood windows, interior glass partitions, and skylights. Permanent watertight bonds are made with this sealant, in combination with glass, ceramic, steel, plastics, and painted surfaces. In addition, many maintenance applications are possible where long life, reliability, and sealing properties are required.

Listen — I have no reason to pick on DK Hardware specifically (they’re friends of mine). And it’s fairly clear that the JPeterman customer is different from the DK Hardware customer.

So what’s the difference?

Audience. Purpose.

Who is JPeterman’s audience? Without access to their marketing team meetings, here’s what we can glean from the site and product copy:

Willing to spend $200 on a pair of pants.

Who have the patience to read long product descriptions.

Who connect with phrases like:

Unlike the horizontal striped Breton that the French Act of 1858 made regulatory for French sailors, there is no law for these stripes.

And

I first spotted them at the Aegean Rally, known officially as the International Aegean Sailing Rally in Greece, on various shipping tycoons in attendance at Faleron Bay for the start.

Jpeterman.com, Faleron Bay Linen Shirt

Ergo, they’re well-traveled and have a sense of, or at least an interest in, history.

So what’s really on sale here? I’ll tell you: it’s story. It’s a connection to a wealthy, well-traveled, cosmopolitan lifestyle. These aren’t products for nouveau riche types who are willing to drop $1500 on a pair of Gucci jogging pants because their peer group will recognize the logo.

Notice the JPeterman products don’t even use actual photography — they rely on 1930s-style illustrations which aren’t even photo-realistic, just painterly enough to be obviously illustrations.

Portis Hats full-page ad in Gentleman’s Gazette, 1935

WHY? Why in an age of easy, inexpensive, multi-megapixel cameras everywhere would JPeterman invest the time and money to hire an artist to draw and color their main product image?

(Hint: Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics would tell you that a more abstract, less precise image gives the viewer a larger role in processing the image — and also renders the image more accessible and universal.)

Because it’s not about the product. The entire raison d’etre for JPeterman is to sell their audience the dream of being the kind of person who chills at the Aegean Rally and shares a martini with pals and notices the shirts.

In the same way exercises equipment is sold by pictures of lean and brawny Übermenschen aglow with sweat, and weight loss snake oil is sold with highly suspicious before-and-after pics, JPeterman sells not the product but the DREAM of the lifestyle of the product’s owner.

Contrast this to the GE silicone product description:

Used to seal building joints to prevent the penetration of rain, air, and noise. It effectively weatherproofs junctions of building materials and can also be used for sealing curtainwall, mullion, and other building construction joints, and for glazing steel and aluminum windows, painted and plastic coated wood windows, interior glass partitions, and skylights. Permanent watertight bonds are made with this sealant, in combination with glass, ceramic, steel, plastics, and painted surfaces. In addition, many maintenance applications are possible where long life, reliability, and sealing properties are required.

Far from aspirational, right? This is straight-up practical — little more than a list of applications. Let’s rewrite it to be more visceral, to appeal to the customer:

One and done! There’s no reason to load anything else into your caulking gun — seal any building surface permanently against water, weather, air, and noise. No need to come back next year for a do-over because the GE SCS 1200 formula lasts longer than most marriages. Don’t bother lugging a dozen different tubes around. Just load up the GE SCS 1200 sealant and you’ll be at the corner watering hole by happy hour.

Light on specifics, heavy on benefits, hmmm? And a bit of storytelling about divorces and afternoon beer to appeal to a hypothetical target demo who’s into that sort of thing.

The existing DKHardware product copy reads like this: “Feature. Feature. Feature.” Which is appropriate for a B2B construction website where product differentiation between over 100 different caulks and sealants is excruciatingly fine. I mean, you can’t really bring much romance to the world of screws, bolts, nuts, and washers, can we? You’re not selling the dream of fastening two things together — at some point, it’s just size, thread count, and finish. (Although even then you could emphasize the long life of the stainless steel finish, or the classic Age of Sail elegance of brass…)

Here’s the take-away: Keep your audience and their purpose in mind when you’re writing your product descriptions. Never promote a feature when a benefit will do.

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