For Sale: Nike shoes, never worn

The power of concise copy, and where to start

There’s an old – and possibly fabricated – story about Ernest Hemingway and the concise but powerful writing style we know him for today. Maybe you’ve heard it. 

The story goes that he and some fellow writers made a bet to see who could write the best story in less than 10 words. The writers scribbled out their attempts, and read them aloud one by one. 

Hemingway went last. His story simply read: “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” The writers paid up without a word.  

Whether or not this ever actually happened, it’s the truth at the core of the story that resonates so many years later. That Hemingway – or whoever made up this story about him – was able to cover so much narrative ground with so few words illustrates the power that great writing can have over an audience. It also shows us something about how great writing often works.

What does a famous writer of Great Literature have to do with marketing copywriting? The two types of writing couldn’t seem further apart. And this is true. In marketing your business, you’re trying to sell a product or service, not make people weep. The medium—written words on a page—may be the same, but the purpose is completely different. 

It all starts with purpose 

Understanding your purpose in marketing is key to determining the things that make up your written brand—its voice, tone, narrative, and message. If you’re trying to sell basketball shoes, you don’t want to make your target market too dejected or sad to want to play in the first place.  

However, that doesn’t mean you don’t want to evoke powerful emotions. Take Nike, for example. The Nike brand has always been thick with emotional over and undertones: the joy in victory and agony in defeat, the confidence that comes with hard work and skill, the pleasure of feeling and looking your best. All of these emotional notes amount to the undeniable power of their brand. The feelings a viewer now attaches to that brand influence their desire to attain the product. 

Less is more

The power in Hemingway’s six-word tragedy is similar to that of a really great Nike advertisement, but for a completely different purpose. They both evoke powerful emotions with very few words. 

In Hemingway’s story, the words raise more questions than they answer. With Nike’s classic tagline “Just Do It”, the audience is left to wonder almost as much. Just do what, exactly? What am I afraid to just do in my own life? And what’s holding me back from just doing it? Of course, Nike would like us to decide that what we need to just do is buy a pair of Nikes. But a lifelong association of Nike’s brand with bold, passionate action isn’t too bad either. 

So what does this mean for your own marketing strategy?

A few things. 

First, you can’t underestimate the importance of great copy to take your brand to the next level. It’s what can elevate it from simply more information that your market sees and ignores, to an emotionally resonate message that sticks with them and, hopefully, moves them to action. Even without their massive budgets and influence, Nike made an impact on their market with authentic, emotional branding that still resonates today, resulting in the kind of brand loyalty that most companies can only dream of. 

Of course, this is a lot easier said than done. Good writing takes time and talent, and there’s no tried and true formula to make it happen. But it also doesn’t have to be a mystery. Part of Hemingway’s brilliance derives from his very practical training as a journalist, where he learned to cut unnecessary words without remorse. His style is built on a clear-eyed pursuit of his purpose, and every word he chose served some function in achieving it.  

Seek out copywriters who possess not just a way with words but a way with getting rid of them. Respect that the writing process takes time, and that editing is where most of the “magic” happens. Just like graphic design, web development, videography, or whatever else, good copywriting is a craft. So, hire writers who treat it as such—with both professionalism and levity—and trust that they’ll come back with the goods. 

It’s one thing to say “make your copy emotional,” but it’s quite another to actually make it happen. It doesn’t mean filling your copy with flowery, emotional words, or telling sappy, self-serious stories. It doesn’t mean imitating your competitors, or trying to shock your market with gimmicks and gags. It means taking the time to understand the desire within your market, and finding the words to illustrate your unique ability to fulfill it. 

You don’t have to be Ernest Hemingway to move people with writing, and you don’t have to be Nike to create an impactful brand. All it takes is a few purposeful words.