Kate Hamilton is the co-founder of Sonder & Tell, a business that helps brands find their voice and express themselves through storytelling, tone of voice and creative copywriting.
She wants to build a world where words are considered as early as possible, with brands looking to words, language and stories as the starting point of brand building, and not a last minute addition. Sonder & Tell has worked with brands such as Airbnb, Bumble and Lick Home on content strategy and tone of voice.
In this episode of Conscious Commerce, you’ll learn why businesses don’t have to use a serious tone of voice to talk about topics like sustainability and social impact, the most common storytelling mistakes Kate sees brands make and how to use the power of language to be remembered and recognized for what you do in your business.
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Find more of Sonder & Tell and subscribe to their newsletter The Word: Check out Sonder & Tell's website, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Read the article Elly referenced that Kate wrote: Your About Us Isn't Really About You.
🎧 Full Podcast Transcript Below
Elly: So today on the Conscious Commerce podcast, I am joined by Kate Hamilton, who's the co-founder and story director at Sonder & Tell. Welcome, Kate!
Kate: Thanks Elly for having me. I'm excited to be talking to you this morning, or this evening for you.
Elly: Yeah, opposite sides of the world! And so we start off the podcast by getting to know you as a person a little bit better. So what's the fun fact about you that not many people know, or do you have a party trick?
Kate: I feel like the fun fact is maybe linked to my party trick. Anyway, so I used to live in Alabama when I was younger, in the South, like, the very deep south USA, because my dad had a job that was posted there. So I was this real Southern belle and went to Bible camp. And like more dungarees, and yeah, I was just really Southern, and then is linked to my party trait, which I'm kind of nervous to say because I know what the next question will be. But I'm quite good at accents.
Elly: Okay, but a Southern American accent or any sort of accent?
Kate: Well, I could do Alabama, but I can do Northern Irish Liverpool.
Elly: Well, let’s hear the southern Alabama one.
Kate: Well, it's a little bit like this. It's kind of a drawl. Like, you have to go real slow. Make the vowels real open. There you go.
Elly: That's amazing – that's like such a juxtaposition from the English lass I'm looking at right now on video.
Kate: I know, I know, It's funny.
Elly: And noissue's community is from all across the globe, so we like to give people a sense of where our interviewees come from. So where do you call home in the world? And what's great about it?
Kate: Kind of linked to the last question, I grew up in different places in the world: Hong Kong, America, different parts of the UK. So I don't have a sense of home in terms of the place that I grew up but now I call London home. And it's actually the place that I've been for the longest. And I kind of love that anyone can do that, I think you can come from wherever and just live in London and suddenly call it home. And although it's kind of been compromised, we'll definitely been compromised in the last year with lockdowns and things in general, I think it's the energy that I love about it. But yeah, just the sense that kind of anything can happen.
Elly: How would you describe London to someone that's never been there?
Kate: I keep coming back to this word energy. But yeah, it is energetic, which also means it's hectic. But I think it's quite open as well. I think British people can be a little bit stiff, I think there is still the kind of openness and friendliness and some definitely compared to somewhere like New York. People will help you out a little bit more. And I love London also feels like it's made up of all these different villages. Like I love that you can go from, I don't know, Columbia road and Hackney to pack them in South London to where the Hampstead Heath ponds are. And they all feel like very different places. And architecturally as well, it's amazing. You just feel like you're walking through history.
Elly: And if you weren't heading up Sonder & Tell, what industry or job do you think you'd be working in?
Kate: So I think if I never gone and set up Sonder & Tell, I was a travel journalist before at a magazine called Suitcase. And I think I probably would still be not necessarily at Suitcase, but I'd probably still be in journalism. So I guess it's similar in that I'd still be working with words and writing and editing but for editorial publications, rather than for brands. Although I think that's changed. Now, if tomorrow I had to leave Sonder and Tell I would stay in the brand writing space rather than editorial journalism, although there's the skills that's quite interchangeable in some ways, because you're always kind of interrogating a story, asking who your target audience should be and how you should write and tailor things to them.
Elly: Yeah, I come from a journalism background as well so I totally resonate with everything you're saying. And as a child, I think a certain type of person comes into these kinds of jobs as well because I used to read the dictionary as a kid and I don’t think that’s normal.
Kate: I love that, that’s so nerdy.
Elly: So when I was introduced to Sonder & Tell as a brand, I was like, Oh my gosh, I love this because it's perfect for language nerds like myself. So where do you think your love for words and storytelling began?
Kate: Yeah, I think I was, like you reading a dictionary, I was always one of those kids who wrote stories and read a lot, furiously kept diaries as a child and teenager which are hilarious to read now, especially the Alabama years, kind of like complaining about boys who wouldn't kiss me and stuff like with like incredible self confidence. But I think, aside from that, there was a time when I was at school, do you know Innocent Smoothies? They make smoothies and plant-based milk now as well, but they are in the UK. People reference them a lot because they have this very kind of cute and cuddly tone of voice. And they were one of the first brands to do that. Anyway, when I was at school, my friends and I always would love Innocent Smoothies and would always buy them and read the back of the pack. And then we wrote, we wrote to them and said something like, we love your drinks and signed off pie face and tea cake. I'm not really sure why. Anyway, they wrote back to us and we're like, we've just eaten some of your friends for lunch. And that was the first time that I kind of got, even though I didn't talk about at the time. But that was the first kind of time I remember brand communications and like brands having a tone of voice that a story and being able to engage with them as if they were human. Because we literally wrote to Innocent we were like, wow, they replied.
Elly: I love that they wrote back to you as well.
Kate: They're very like that, their social media is worth checking out. On Twitter, they're really funny.
Elly: Do you get writer's block?
Kate: Yes, I just read this quote the other day from one of our interviewees, Pandora Sykes, who was like, you don't have writer's block, you have a deadline, which I thought was actually getting over it. Yes. But I tend to get out of it by reading, so I think that's so useful. If you're struggling to come up with creative ideas, just read someone else's not to say that you're going to copy them, but it'll kind of get you out of the funk of I can't think of anything at all.
Elly: Yeah, that's very good advice. And how did you and Emily (Sonder & Tell's co-founder) meet and then decided that you wanted to run a business together?
Kate: So Emily and I met in Barcelona, we were both studying Spanish at university. And we just kind of hit it off straight away. We both had weird things in common, like we both lived in America, both love writing for magazines and Emily at the time, was started writing a column for Suitcase, which then was sort of an online blog. So and it was called Buena Vida, she started in Barcelona, I then moved to Madrid and picked up the other half our columns that we alternated about life in Spain. And then when we graduated, we both went to work for suitcase full time. So that's where we met and our relationship grew. And I think while we're at Suitcase, we just had a sense that we worked well as a partnership and, you know, I would come up with ideas, then she would ask me to edit things. And we just had a good kind of rhythm and sense of flow. And Emily headed up Suitcase’s agency, I was editor in chief there. But I think she was saying definitely the world of brand content could benefit from a lot of the journalistic skills that we had. So that's when we decided to jump ship and do our own thing.
Elly: Can you share the inspiration behind the name, Sonder & Tell?
Kate: Yes. So it took us so long to name our business, which I think is probably when you build a business about the importance of words and if you think of your name as like the destination of all of your words.
Elly: Yeah, there’s so much pressure riding on it.
Kate: Exactly. Yeah, I think we put too much pressure on ourselves. But anyway, we finally came across this word called Sonder which a friend sent me. And there's a linguist in the US called John Koenig and he's started this project called the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows and what he was trying to do was find language or making up words for human emotions that didn't have language yet. So one of the words was Sonder and it means the moment you realize that everyone around you has their own story. So it's like when, pre-COVID, if you've been on the bus or the tube, and you kind of look around, and think, Oh, I wonder what that person is thinking about? Or that person must have something interesting to think about. So it's kind of tuning into people around you realizing that everyone has their own story to tell so there's that idea, and then we help we help them tell it.
Elly: And at what moment did you and Emily know that you were onto a good thing with your business?
Kate: Yeah, so there wasn't one lightbulb moment. It was more of a kind of gradual realization that actually, this is right, what we're doing is good. And it's really valuable. And I think it came when we started working with a couple of smaller start-ups. And what we initially set out to do was help brands become publishers, and then help them craft their brand story and tone of voice. But I think what we've realized is that once we started getting people's stories right and they were able to implement it, it actually helped so many other things than just marketing. There was one start-up who we've worked with recently called Home Things who are direct-to-consumer cleaning products with glass bottles and dissolvable tablets. We helped them create their brand story, but they actually use that brand story to craft their pitches for investors and it almost informed some of their business decisions as well as their brand ones. And we've also seen the power of a story not just to be able to communicate with customers, but for whole teams to suddenly understand what our business is about and internally, you can really rally behind a good story or a good positioning. So it started with smaller brands and then we now do it for bigger brands. But I think it's that it was that realization that stories aren't just something that should sit in your marketing team. If you get them right, and your tone of voice too, then it can actually have this impact across all different areas of your business.
Elly: Yeah, it's very holistic. And I just want to take the opportunity to give a shout out to two great pieces of content of yours. So I first heard about Sonder & Tell when you wrote an awesome blog post for us called Your About Us Isn't Really About You, which was super well read and well written. And then I subscribed to your newsletter called the word and you broke down Bridgerton and its use of newsletters in a modern context how to write a great EDM. And I just think, for anyone interested in brand storytelling or language, you are a must follow, so I just wanted to give a shout out there. But from one content creator to another, we know how important it is for brands to tell a story that engages their audience. But there's also so much content out there online. It's absolutely saturated. So how exactly do you help brands express themselves uniquely?
Kate: Yeah, and thank you for shouting out The Word, by the way, we put a lot of time into that so that's great that you're enjoying it and Bridgeton too, obviously! So for a story to be unique, it has to be rooted in something that's unique about you. And that we tend to use brand positioning to frame a story. So they also need to be true, right? So it has to be ownable, and it has to be genuine. So we tend to look at consumer truth, product truth and brand truth, to figure out the role that you play in your customer's life. So your consumer truth is a kind of insight that you might have about your customer into the problem that they're experiencing. So it could be I want to make a dent on the single use plastic problem. But I don't want it to really inconvenience my lifestyle, for example, then look at your product truth as the answer to that. So your product truth could be, you know, well, I'm just using home things here as an example. We have direct to consumer cleaning products, which are delivered to your door so you don't have to cycle to the refill store, for example. And then your brand truth is all about the world that you believe in your values and what you are about beyond just selling products. So for home things, we did a lot of work into that. But it became this narrative of single use plastic is bonkers, home things make sense. So it's like there are so many things that are going on that are mad the world, the single use plastic problem in your own home doesn't have to be one of them, we can help you address that. So I think it's about rooting your story in your positioning. And you need to make sure that those truths are different from all of your competitors, that no one else in your space could be saying those things, and then use them to build off your story.
Elly: And what are some common mistakes you see with brand storytelling that could be quite easily avoided?
Kate: Yeah, I think the biggest one which I mentioned in that blog post is not making the customer the hero of your story and making your brand or it's often your founder the hero of the story, which I think is a very common pitfall, especially for smaller brands who perhaps haven't built up this whole team and architecture, perhaps you are only three people and it's very natural to go to your about us and you know, say I started this business because I felt this, this, and this. Actually, you need to flip that. And ask yourself, what is the customer getting out of your business? What problem are you solving for them? And how can you position that? So you can even start with the problem to get right into the customer’s headspace, outline that and then show how your product is addressing it, but just never start kind of I, I, I. I think the other problem is just not committing to a positioning and trying to say 20 million things at once. And I think it can feel scary because when you are the founder or when you know, you've put a ton of work into something you obviously think it's interesting in 10 different ways. And you're like, Oh, no, but we've got this stitching and this material. Ultimately, customers don't care as much as you do and it's like what is that one thing that we can hammer home that we do better than anyone else that we're going to be remembered, for recognized for and that people can then repeat about us? And I think people get a bit icky about committing to one thing. And of course, you can build a nuance later, but I just think in terms of your position and your story. It's got to be really clear and defined.
Elly: Yeah, and I think with the amount of channels that are out there from digital to offline, people do sometimes get a bit confused with the messaging across the different platforms and don't have that consistency. So getting that one strong message to hone in on across all platforms is so key, right?
Kate: Yeah, and when you do it well, you then see your customers repeating your messages at each other and spreading the word in that way, which is amazing to see. We've worked with a small start-up food brand lately and they've really just taken the story and they say it over and over every day and then we've been looking at their tagged posts, it’s all about supporting independent food suppliers. With this recipe box that they've created, it's called on the table. But when you look at their tagged posts and people sharing stories about them, it's all like the best independent produce boxed up, supporting the butcher, the baker, the natural winemaker, which is all stuff that they've been saying. So it's obviously just sticking in customers’ minds, and then never repeating it back, which is what you want.
Elly: Yeah, Would you say that's a sign of success when the customers repeating the messaging back to the brand?
Kate: Yeah, repeating it back, also making it their own as well, right? I don't mean that as a kind of robotic thing, but like they've assimilated it and now it's part of their story. And I think that's what happens with storytelling is, there's this thing called neural mirroring or something like that. And it's when you recognize a story. So if you were telling me a story, I enjoy it, take it on board, and then I'm going to go and tell it to someone else tomorrow as if it was my own. I think it's called coupling and that's what happens with good brand stories as well as like the customer takes it on and then they kind of repeat it as if it's as if it's theirs.
Elly: They might have changed some of the details in terms of their own experience as well.
Kate: Exactly, yeah.
Elly: What advice do you give new businesses who are struggling to nail their story?
Kate: I think the positioning piece can be a little bit complex. So thinking about your consumer truth and your product truth, I think if in really simple terms, if you think about the starting with a problem and a solution, I think that's a really good framework to think about and actually, it's the basis of any good story, right? It's like Harry Potter, his problem is Voldemort, he goes on a quest to get rid of the problem – it’s the basis of any good plot. So start with the problem that you think your customers are experiencing, we often try and break problems down into two parts. So there's the external problem, which is the world trigger. So for example, it could be I want to make a dent on the single use plastic problem. But then there's an internal problem, which is how your customer feels about it. So that could be something like, but I don't want it to really inconvenience my life. So I think brands often sell to the external problem, but you want to think about how you can tap into those internal feelings as well. And also speak on that emotional level to your customer. So yeah, customer's problem, your solution, which is your product, how you're going to take this customer, your hero, on a journey to help them overcome this.
Elly: Yeah, I think that's a great point, especially with sustainable brands, because people will often say I want to support ethical brands, sustainable brands, that's the option I'll opt for. But then when push comes to shove, maybe their behaviour doesn't actually reflect that. So that's those two clashing areas, right?
Kate: Yeah. And is that because they're confused? And if so perhaps part of your solution and your brand tone of voice has to be about clarity and helping them make these decisions, or is it because they don't understand it? In which case, it has to be more about giving them the right information? So they can make an informed decision? Or is it because they feel scared and in that case, it's because you have to reassure them a little bit so that that internal problem, their feelings around it is quite useful in terms of framing a tone of voice as well. And I think the other point for new businesses, if you can afford to get a copywriter in earlier, even to work with you on just the brand story, I think it's always a good idea. Because I think if you can get the words right, then they can end up informing so many other parts of the business. I know, sometimes it's not something that people want to spend money on in the early days, but even if it was, you know, a freelancer who you trust, who can help you go back and forth with these narrative elements. Because it's quite good to do it in collaboration, then that could be really useful.
Elly: Yeah, because sometimes you can be too close to the brand, right? So it's good to get that third person perspective as well.
Kate: Yeah, exactly, exactly. You can be too into all of the intricacies of what you're doing. And you kind of need someone to almost play the external role of the customer and be like, this is interesting, say this. Don't say that, leave that out.
Elly: And you count some amazing businesses as clients from Airbnb and Bumble, Lick and Rude Health. So when it comes to communication, what do you think they're doing really well? Is it their brand story being linked to a strong sense of purpose?
Kate: Yeah, so I think it's being linked to a strong sense of purpose and that point of positioning as well and that they've really committed to what they're about. So just to take Bumble as a top level example without going into how we worked with them. But we always say that it's interesting because Bumble exists in a sea of kind of dating apps. So you've got Hinge, Tinder, and Bumble, they're all there. And yet, they're all able to access because they've really committed to their position and the role they play for their customer. So, Bumble is for women to make the first move. And the whole idea is, you know, you make the first move in dating and then you can go on to do that in so many aspects of your life, whether it be friendships or careers, that's a confidence thing. Hinge is, their tagline is designed to be deleted. So that all about finding the person that you're going to spend the rest of your life with. And then Tinder is for hook-ups. and they all they're all able to exist that all consoled solving that consumer problem of finding a partner, but they all have different angles on that. So I think that's always really interesting to speak about with them and Bumble just commit and over-commit to that position of being for women.
Elly: I already know their tagline before you said it, because I've heard it so many times that the recall is there.
Kate: Yeah, exactly. And it comes out in all the campaigns they do, which are always about women, cheering one another on, pepping one another up. Often, it doesn't even have to be about dating, it's kind of just more about the confidence and empowerment message. And one we've worked with recently are Rude Health. So they're a plant-based milk brand which are bigger than UK. And when they came to us, they were essentially saying too many things at once. So we're natural, we're organic, we're healthy, we're British, we're wholesome, all these different things. And we helped them refine that position around flavor. So I think when you've got someone like Oatly, who's essentially trying to match milk, Rude Health is actually the more delicious option. They're kind of bringing in this new world of flavor and foodiness to plant-based milk, which isn't there yet. So we called that positioning the bright way. And then they use that as a North Star for their brand storytelling sense. So we are, we've written a newsletter for them called Bright Relief, which is all about a kind of bright alternative to your news cycle and the same way that they're plant based milks are a bright alternative to dairy. So it's kind of finding that territory that you're going to own and then pulling things off of it. And that's also impacted the language they use, because that should also come out of that positioning.
Kate: Another really good brand for tone of voice is there's this water in a can called Liquid Death. And if you think about the category conventions of water, it's that it comes in a plastic bottle and it's all about vibrancy. They are challenging that because obviously they've put water in aluminium cans as an environmental thing. They flipped the whole convention and so therefore they flipped the language and it becomes Liquid Death, murder your thirst, which I just think is really clever.
Elly: Yeah, that's awesome storytelling. Is there any other brands you're admiring right now for the use of language?
Kate: I think Bloom and Wild, who are a flower delivery service in Europe are doing a really good job. So I think their tag is don't just send flowers, care wildly, and they have this thoughtful marketing initiative where you can opt in or out of things like Mother's Day campaigns if you find it triggering, so they're taking the idea of caring wildly and making sure that they as a brand go above and beyond to care for their customers. I really like StarFace as well, I don't know if you've heard of them, they are a super Gen Z brand essentially for acne. So they have these little pimple spots in the shape of stars that you put on spots to dry them out and help your skin and they come in the shape of the star and they've made it almost cool to wear spot patches on your face.
Elly: Yeah I was gonna say that’s very Gen Z.
Kate: Yeah, exactly.I don't know who does their social but they're so hot on every trend and their brand story on their website is this kind of star face story. So it's like a long time in a galaxy far, far away there was the war on acne, and it's just really fun. I always feel really old looking at that stuff.
Elly: That’s how I feel about TikTok.
Kate: Yeah, exactly I’m like such a boomer. Who else? There's a fake meat company called This, which is doing really well. And their whole thing is they did a marketing campaign a couple of years ago where they got a fake Ed Sheeran to serve to serve that fake burgers, but he looks so much like Ed Sheeran that they had this whole streams of people down the street queuing to meet Ed Sheeran. And then you got up close and you're like, this isn't Ed Sheeran, and their whole thing was like, this isn't meat either. So they do really fun stuff.
Elly: That's genius.
Kate: It's so good.
Elly: And besides helping brands find their unique voice and helping your followers see the beauty of words, how are you building a sustainable agency?
Kate: Well, our team, there's only four of us so we're quite low impact at the moment. We're not in office, none of us are commuting, we'll see how we go when the world starts coming back to a bit of normality. But I think more than that, it's probably in the way that we communicate with brands that we work with and what we encourage them to do because I think from the start, we've always said that we want brands to be more than just about selling a product, encouraging them to build their own positive culture beyond just making something, so it might not even be directly sustainability in the environmental sense. But it could be, you know, if you're a book platform, can you support children's literacy?
Elly: Is it International Women's Day there at the moment, or was it yesterday?
Kate: It was yesterday.
Elly: Because something I noticed was how many brands were jumping on the bandwagon for International Women's Day, but it was all the same message and it was like extremely fatiguing to just have it over and over again, from different companies. Like there wasn't really any new material in the storytelling there. It was just like, celebrate women and that was it. Did you find that your experience?
Kate: Yeah, I think International Women's Day has almost become a bit comical for that over the years, because it is it becomes like, yay the girlies, without actually thinking, what are you doing to support women? Or, you know, are you making donations today? We've worked with a sustainable fashion brand called Birdsong who have this meme that is like when you post on International Women's Day, but your garment workers don't have rights or don't have minimum pay. It's that kind of thing. You need to make sure that you're supporting women at every level of your business and not just shouting out on International Women's Day. Because yeah, it becomes this thing where you just feel like you have to have an opinion. And if it's not ingrained in your culture in the way that you kind of rigorously look at your products, then you shouldn't really be talking about it.
Elly: Yeah, when people when businesses just jump on a train that's quite easy to see right through it, right. Like the there's not a deepest sense of storytelling or meaning there. It's just like a shout-out on a special day.
Kate: Yeah, or slogan that just is boosting your profits, but not actually doing anything meaningful. I saw a lot of kind of tongue in cheek memes about it yesterday as well. So I don't know if consumers are also wising up to that, because I feel like that's been quite gradual. It's like, Okay, sure. That was interesting to see.
Elly: I'll have to look those memes up. When we talk about the language, around having a business purpose, or even sustainability, I think it can get a little confusing for people and lost in the communication between people and brands. So have you seen businesses struggling to articulate their efforts in that area? And what's your advice to them usually?
Kate: Yeah, I think it's a tricky one, both from a business point-of-view and as a copywriter. And I find it interesting because we've done quite a bit of work with FMG food brands doing bits of packaging copy and when it comes to a message like health, there are so many things that you just can't say, at least in the UK and Europe, I'm sure it's the same with you. But you can't say healthy unless there's a specific health claim related to it on pack, which makes sense to me, because you don't want to mislead people. There are so many regulations around, ‘Yeah, say this, don't say this.’ And then you come to a word like sustainability, which is so broad, but there's no regulations around and anyone can say ‘We’re sustainable’ without any sort of parameters as to what it means. So I think the most helpful thing that brands can do is try and avoid these kind of high-level claims of sustainability and try and get as specific as possible to sign post, actually, what that means for your brand. So is it that you use renewable materials, or recyclable materials, or is everything compostable? Or if you're using a word like sustainability, then then just signpost it with the kind of details on what that actually means so that they can understand it a little bit more as well. Because even we worked with a client the other day and it they were writing industrial compostable was part of the claim, and it sounded good looking at it, and then we dug into what it means it actually meant that you can't compost it unless you send it off to the Council, which in the UK is nearly impossible to do because they don't collect it. So it's like, okay, maybe that's not the right message then. So trying to be as helpful as possible to the consumer and giving them the information without overwhelming them is I think, the best.
Elly: Yeah. And also as you said, defining what it means to you as a business and the actions you're taking to get there. Because I think it is such a broad umbrella term, it's used to mean so many things, so you've really got to distill it down to its essence.
Kate: Yeah, and you don't have to say everything that you're doing at once. We actually have an interview on our site with an impact strategist called Amirah and she was like, it's okay to say, “We're doing these things, and we're working on these things.” So you know, people don't expect you to be perfect, they just expect you to be clear.
Elly: Yeah, transparent.
Kate: Exactly. And I think there's also something to be said for talking about your type of sustainability in your own brand tone of voice. Because I think there's a real tendency for people to adopt a quote, unquote, serious or formal tone, when they're talking about serious issues like preserving the planet. But actually, I think the bigger challenge is to do that in a way that feels like it's going to be relevant to your audience. And don't be afraid of humor or things like that. So Home Things is a good example of that, because they've got this kind of challenging, irreverent tone or overtly right, there's got a serious message, but does it in this kind of dry, witty way. So I think if you can be really clear on what you want to say, but then try and say it in your own tone as well, without sort of making the customer feel like this is all serious is a good way to deal with it.
Elly: Yeah. And that leads quite nicely to my next question, because, here in our issue, we define sustainability as the ability to exist indefinitely and think long-term about the future of our planet and of our businesses. And as I was researching, I found that sustainability comes from the Latin word sustinere, which means to support, maintain, or endure, so taking it right back to its origin. So that's how we're defining it as a business and the perspective we have on it, but how long-term are you thinking with Sonder & Tell and the change that you want to see in the world?
Kate: Yeah, it's a good time to ask this question actually, as we've done some work with future strategists this year so looking at how the world of brand communications is going to shift, I think the biggest change that is kind of on our radar is AI being developed. And that day-to-day copywriting before too long, will probably be in the hands of machines, rather than of people, which asked us like okay does that mean we're out of business? But actually, there's going to be even more need for people to be able to strategize about the kind of right position positioning and creative concepts that go into tone, even if it's not going to be a human, enacting them day to day. So it's kind of helped us think about how we can future-proof our business. So it's perhaps front loading the sort of strategic creative concepts that go into a tone or a story, and less the sort of actual implementing of you know, day to day blog writing, and that sort of thing is where we're going to try and get a little bit more work in the future.
Elly: Yeah, I feel like we've seen so many of those articles that say the robots are coming for your jobs, but it's like, when are they actually going to be here, taking our jobs? You know, it's always been predicted, but it hasn't happened. But maybe it is actually getting that little bit closer now in 2021?
Kate: I know. Well there was a New York Times piece lately where they'd got a few different machines to write, I think it was some versions of their love stories, and they were really good. They're definitely getting smarter at simulating human writing.
Elly: So even romance novelists will be out of a job soon.
Kate: Yeah, I guess it's like how you define different versions of creativity. I think what this impact strategy has really helped us think was to try and think of these advances in tech as allies. So how can we work with them rather than against them?
Elly: Yeah, I think creativity is still very much the human domain, right?
Kate: Yeah. Well, we were talking about it and wondering if that'll be almost the tagline in the future, like a tag of pride will be like, written by humans, or made by humans, you know, even how it's now like no animal testing, a consumer will buy into something that is made by a human, not by a robot.
Elly: That's a really interesting train of thought, wow.
Kate: I know, we got quite deep. This was probably like 30 years in the future, but we have been thinking about it. And it has definitely shifted our mindset, even how we approach brand stories. We're like, okay, does this have longevity in it?
Elly: Yeah, the question was like, how long term are you thinking and I think you're thinking pretty long-term, which is good – you're prepared for any outcome with the robots! And has Sonder & Tell had a COVID pivot as such, or has everything been business as normal?
Kate: We've been really lucky to be honest, it's hard to know what business as normal would have been because we were still such a young agency starting out. So it's hard to know what a non-COVID Sonder would have been. But I think that, in a way, brand communications, especially digitally, became more important than ever, because a lot of brands had those face-to-face interactions with consumer, whether it be in-store or events, or marketing activations taken away. So I think a lot of brands started asking about their tone of voice.
Elly: And what's your advice for someone that wants to start a business around their unique set of talents, but doesn't know where to begin?
Kate: Yeah, if you don't know where to start, I think a good place is to actually look at the competition. So people who you think are doing things in a similar area, not to copy them, but to define yourself sort of against them. So if they are saying this about themselves, they can you say something slightly different? And yeah, if you're building a service-based business, like an agency, then what can you stand for, apart from your services? And can you build a real niche? Like, can you be known for working with direct-to-consumer food brands, for instance? Yeah, and I think then you'll kind of build up a very specific audience around that and those people can then communicate your services as well.
Elly: Yeah, definitely. And how do you define success for Sonder & Tell and also for yourself, personally?
Kate: That's such a big question. I think with Sonder & Tell, we'd love to build a world where every brand looks to words, language and stories as the starting point of brand building. We get quite a lot of briefs where people have gone to work with design agencies, have built out this kind of beautiful logo, typeface, color palette, illustrations, which look amazing, but then they've not thought about the tone of voice or the story or if they have, it's kind of an extra slide at the end, which shows your tone of voice should be kind of friendly, authentic and human, but they haven't gone deeper than that. So I think we're always kind of fighting for words to be really considered as early as possible. And I guess the flipside of that is for us to have this team of super nimble copywriters and strategists who are really valued for their words and what they do. I think down the line as well, we've spoken about potentially looking at opening a separate studio for much smaller businesses and founders who need words. And I guess for me personally, as success is kind of having that balance between strategy and creative as well, and being able to kind of get lost in a concept in a world but then also kind of being a bit more direct, which I'm starting to do now anyway, but having feet in different part of the business.
Elly: Yeah, because Do you think brand storytelling hasn't been as much of a priority? Or are the times changing now?
Kate: I think I think the word storytelling is super broad as well, but I definitely think brand copywriting hasn’t.
Elly: Copywriting, yeah, the language, the tone.
Kate: Definitely, I don't think I don't think language, tone copywriting has been valued enough. I do think things are changing because I think consumers are becoming so much more discerning. But I think it still is often an afterthought. A really common brief for us is ‘We've done the design, we just need the copy’ but it's never just the copy, it's like, okay, if you don't have the copy or the tone, then you don't really have a strategy for how to communicate with your consumer. And I think that's the kind of argument that we really get on is, start with the words, if you can, lead with the words, use that as a brief for design, you know, there's so much power and the ability for a founder or a team member to be able to sum up exactly what you're doing in a sentence or a few words. If you can do that, then your whole team can get behind it. You can have really focused team meetings.
Elly: Yeah, it's so true even for, you know, start-ups with their investor pitch. If they can nail their elevator pitch succinctly, then you know success will follow. Like the words are so important that you use as a company.
Kate: Exactly. We always say you can't, you don't really understand something until you name it. And I think that is the same as like, you can't really process an idea until you put words and language around it and can say it in a sentence or two, so that's what we're trying to get all brands to, to realize and sign up to.
Elly: It's like my former editor used to say, what would you tell your mom about this? How would you explain it to your mum in simple terms, and as that's always stuck with me.
Kate: Yeah, like Bitcoin to your mom or something, I can’t even explain that to myself.
Elly: I can’t even wrap my head around either! Cool, we'll leave that there. But thank you so much for your time today.
Kate: Thank you, Elly. It's been really lovely talking to you.