What if you want to look professional and competent but your business copy is secretly undermining you? Would you be able to see what you’re doing wrong?
Many don’t. But some do, and they know how to use language to appeal to different demographics. That’s why I found this recent article about the copy that Taco Bell uses on its menus so fascinating.
Quick recap: Dan Jurafsky, the author of The Language of Food, sat down with a writer for Mother Jones and compared two menus side-by-side. One menu was from Taco Bell, and the other was from U.S. Taco Co., Taco Bell’s new upscale spinoff . Not surprisingly, the two menus have radically different copy based on what markets they’re targeting.
The upshot? Many of the things that Taco Bell does are things that you shouldn’t apply to your own business copy. Let’s look at a few.
Too many descriptive words
One of the first things that Jurafsky noticed was that Taco Bell’s menu uses a lot of descriptors like “fresh” and “fluffy” in its copy:
“So there’s all of those adjectives and participles,” he says. “‘Fluffy. ‘Seasoned.'” That’s one thing that’s common on cheaper restaurant menus — as if the restaurant feels the need to try and convince its diners of the quality of the food. A fancier restaurant, he explains, would take it as a given that the diner expects the eggs to be fluffy and the pico de gallo to be freshly prepared.
“Notice the word ‘flavorful,'” Jurafsky says. “The cheapest restaurants use these vague, positive adjectives. ‘Delicious.’ ‘Tasty.’ ‘Scrumptious.’ Wonderful. Again, more expensive restaurants take all that as a given.”
In contrast, the menu for U.S. Taco Co. is more spartan:
“What the really upscale restaurants these days are doing is just listing their ingredients. They don’t say “and” or “with.” It’s just a list.”
You’ve probably read more than your fair share of fluffy, meaningless writing yourself: adjective- and adverb-stuffed text talking about how “amazing” or “innovative” some product or service is, rather than what it actually does and letting the thing in question speak for itself.
Too many options
Another big thing that Jurafsky noticed was that Taco Bell’s menu had far more items on it than U.S. Taco Co.’s did:
There are dozens, if not hundreds of items. “The very, very fancy restaurants, many of them have no menu at all,” Jurafsky says. “The waiter tells you what you’re going to eat, kind of. If you want, they’ll email you a menu if you really want it.”
One of the first things I learned when starting out as a freelancer was to focus on a few things and do them well. How many times have you met someone at an event and heard about the dizzying variety of services they offer, some of them completely unrelated to each other?
Focusing on complementary services or sectors is fine — but do any more than two or three, and you’re beginning to look unfocused at best, and desperate at worst. In fact, that’s why this year I narrowed my focus even further to just writing and editing, letting the WordPress side of my business go.
The little things count
A third thing that Jurafsky noticed in both menus was their differing attitude towards Spanish. Here’s Taco Bell:
…. the word “jalapeño” is missing its tilde — the little squiggle over the “n” that signifies a “nye” pronunciation in Spanish words. Jurafsky isn’t sure whether the missing “ñ” is linguistically meaningful, but keep it in mind, because it will become important when we look at U.S. Taco Co.’s menu.
In contrast, here’s U.S. Taco Co.:
“There are more unusual Spanish words on this menu,” he [Jurafsky] says. Taco Bell has “burrito” and “taco.” Everyone knows those. But “here we have ‘molcajete’ and’cotija.’ Every item has at least one Spanish word. And there’s the “ñ” in jalapeño!
A single letter may be trivial, but it means a lot — in this context, it shows one restaurant trying to be more authentic (a loaded word, I know) than the other. On top of that, the more upscale menu is using more obscure words — it’s trying to be a bit more culturally diverse. (Though honestly, considering Taco Bell is the parent company, I’m trying not to read too much into this.)
What does this mean for you or your business?
These lessons can be boiled down easily because they follow well-known rules of good business copy:
- Don’t fluff up your copy. Stick to concrete details — nouns and verbs, what your product contains and what it actually does — and cut the meaningless puffery.
- Know what you’re doing and do it well. Don’t try to be everything to everyone.
- Get the little details right because people will notice.
More importantly, what does not following these rules mean?
It means you look cheap. There’s no other way to put it.
Think about the content mills that charge writers only one or two cents a word. Those writers have to keep their heads above water, which means that they can’t afford to spend time writing copy that’s concrete and well-informed if they have to meet a certain word count — it’s much faster for them to slip in filler words “really” and “quite” to put them over the top.
If you don’t value your business enough to invest in clear, concrete writing, then you’ll probably attract customers with a similarly cavalier approach to value and price. When it comes to your business, is that really the impression you want to give?