In conversation with

Rishi Dastidar

Head of Brand Language at BrandPie

Introduction

Introduction

In November 2020, we launched our copywriting community, The Wordsmiths. A Slack channel that operates as a space for copywriters to talk shop, share recommendations, ask questions and, yes, post the odd grammar meme. Through this community, we’ve met some great writers, from graduates just starting out to those who have been in the business for 20 years.

Rishi Dastidar is one such experienced Wordsmith. Having been a consultant and senior writer penning copy for brands like O2, EDF Energy, Škoda and onefinestay, Rishi is now the Head of Brand Language at BrandPie. When he’s not working with brands, Rishi is writing poetry (he has published two collections as well as a guide on the craft of modern poetry), or providing valuable advice – and excellent book recommendations – on our Slack channel.

We spoke to Rishi about why brand language is so important, the brands who are getting it right, and why he’s enjoying being part of  The Wordsmiths.

Question and Answer

How do you define ‘brand language’?

It’s hard not to get pretentious with definitions but right now I think of brand language as being: the words a brand uses to tell the world its story. Hopefully those words are arranged in a way that’s unique to it, so it communicates its own unique point of view or attitude.

I’ve used ‘unique’ there twice for a deliberate reason – more often than not, brand language ends up getting bogged down in a feeling of ‘same-ness’, because people forget that bit – that what you say might be similar to a competitor, but how you say it can be your own.

Brands and organisations can struggle with this, because, deep down, they don’t have a point of view that is compelling, different, or interesting – if that’s missing, its always going to be hard to find language that does similar, for audiences within the organisation, and outside it.

Why is it such an important part of building a brand world?

Simply: because of the volume of communications that a brand puts out that involves words at their core; not just the obvious ones, the website, the emails, the socials, but the customer letters, the UX instructions, scripts that people on the phones might use, or rather the AI bots that do customer service now, remarks the CEO and other leaders make, the front of the annual report…

So: even if you don’t want to try and impose a regularity upon all this chatter you should, if you are the head of brand, or person responsible for it, at least have some view on the kind of impression these words should leave – and whether they should contribute to some sense of a bigger picture (hint: they should, otherwise what is your brand there for?)

Which brands do you think have been particularly good at defining their brand language and following through on their comms?

With apologies for the predictability of what follows:

Nike remains a touchstone for its ability to speak in a way that shapes sport, our own athletic involvement and by extension, wider culture.

I remain a fan of the relative warmth and directness of First Direct, especially in their service communications, though I will admit some of the more recent above-the-line advertising feels off-beam.

Of newer brands, WeTransfer is always on it. They just gets their audience so well, and know how to appeal without trying too hard.

And: one I don’t especially like (I don’t consume the product for starters), but Brewdog at least always sound like themselves, as self-regarding as that might be. A useful lesson in actively courting differentiation through a more ‘in your face’ attitude, by daring people to like them even if they might come across abrasive. It can be a successful approach.

Personality or consistency? Which is the most important for brand writing?

During the earlier part of my career, I would have said consistency without fail: how else will you build recognition, without that steady drumbeat?

Now, not so much: there are so many words out there, the same thing again is less likely to cut through. So I veer towards trying to encourage more personality (this is, of course, a spectrum, not an absolute).

Plus, if you commit you can make this dichotomy work: compare and contrast the Arena Flowers website with its (marvellous) Twitter feed and, well, marvel.

What’s been the best piece of advice about copywriting you’ve read or been given that you would pass onto copywriters?

Verbs are your superpower: make them as unexpected as possible
Write like you speak – you really are more likely to capture people’s attention that way
Leave it overnight before sending – you will improve it and/or catch obvious howlers too.

What do you enjoy about being part of a community platform like the Wordsmiths?

I’m quite long in the tooth – I’ve been doing things in and around brands, copywriting and marketing for getting on for 20 years now – and when I started there just wasn’t a community like Wordsmiths around. I learnt in part by doing, and whenever I met or came across other writers, I sort of seized upon them for any knowledge I could.

So I’m very happy to that there are now platforms around where we can all swap insight, get help on problems, that sort of thing. Someone once (partially in jest?) suggested that the collective noun for writers is ‘a grumble’, and having access to a space where you know there are people who understand the professional tribulations you might be facing, that’s vital. And of course, there’s always a pleasure in knowing that you might be helping people solve their professional dilemmas and issues, in however small a way.

“Someone once (partially in jest?) suggested that the collective noun for writers is ‘a grumble’, and having access to a space where you know there are people who understand the professional tribulations you might be facing, that’s vital.”

Do you have any favourite tone of voice or writing exercises?

My current favourite writing exercise is to get people to try and write haiku. I’ll give them a news story, and ask them to compress it into 17 syllables. And then try to repeat that for a product, a service, a proposition. People quickly understand that getting to the core is important, what details are really crucial and what aren’t. Plus it hopefully shows people that constraints when writing are useful too – when you embrace them, you can reach somewhere you weren’t expecting, and hopefully push your language to unexpected places. And that surprise tends to be what captures hearts and minds.

You’re on the board of trustees for non-profit, Spread The Word, which helps London writers make their mark. Can you tell us more about the organisation and why you think this work is so valuable?

We’re one of the UK’s writer development agencies, and we have a threefold role: 1) to encourage people from backgrounds that are under-represented in all genres of writing that it is a pursuit they should try; 2) working with writers we’ve identified (through competitions and other schemes) to nurture and develop their talent; 3) to campaign for the publishing industry more generally to open up, and become more representative, both in terms of workforce, and the work it publishes. Some of our more high-profile talent-finding initiatives include the London Writers Awards, the Life Writing Prize, and the Young People’s Laureate for London.

Why is the work valuable? Partly because we help to start the careers of writers such as Caleb Femi and Theresa Lola, who will dominate our literature for years to come. More substantively: because if we want a more equal society, it needs to be one where voices and stories from outside of the mainstream, that are non-traditional, are told, sold and heard by as many people as possible. So who gets to tell stories, to us and about us, is absolutely vital. And our job is to help people know and believe that they should be out there, telling their stories, and helping industry gatekeepers to nurture and bring this talent to the readership which we know is out there, and is hungry to hear new and diverse voices.

And while I have you: as a charity, we rely on donations and sponsorship to continue our work, so if you are reading this, and you work for a brand (or are very philanthropic) and want to help the next generation of London’s storytellers to come through, please do drop me a line.

When you’re not copywriting and strategising for brands, you’re writing poetry. Can you tell us about why you write poetry, how it impacts your writing and whether it fuels your creativity?

Big question with lots of dimensions! I write poetry mainly because I’ve found that it’s the way I think best about the world – leaps of logic, not having to worry about making overt, literal sense; these are things that appeal to me. And, fundamentally, it’s space where the only person I have to please is myself, there’s nothing at stake beyond making the poem the best it can be, on its own terms. The joy is in the doing, and then if it finds readers after that, that’s joy again.

I think I’ve definitely become a better copywriter since poetry came into my life; I’ve learnt technical things for sure, but more fundamentally about what risks you can take with language, and how you can use it to subvert and or reinforce expectations. I should say that I don’t view my two worlds as separate at all; they collide into each other in unexpected and pleasing ways, and I draw a lot from what I encounter in the marketing world as fuel for the poems.

That said, right now, I’ve just finished a manuscript for what I hope will become book 3, and that’s focused a lot on the sea – I’ve been writing in the voice of Neptune, who’s been left weary at what humanity is doing to the oceans. And inspiration? That comes from everywhere and anywhere: an image, an overheard phrase, a smell, a memory. That’s why its important to travel through the world (even when we’re mostly at home) with our antennae switched on, capturing and recording how we feel in it. All of that stuff, that becomes the fuel for every type of writing, whether for you or a client.

Rishi's Storylist

Books

  1. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
  2. Bluets by Maggie Nelson
  3. Unreliable Memoirs by Clive James
  4. Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd Robinson

Magazines

  1. Private Eye
  2. The Economist
  3. Gridiron
  4. Brixton Review Of Books
  5. The Rialto

Newsletters

  1. The Tiff Weekly by Tiffany Philippou
  2. What Writing Can Do by Tom Sharp
  3. Storythings
  4. Atlas Obscura
  5. Monocle Minute

Podcasts

  1. Backlisted
  2. BBC Fighting Talk
  3. BBC In Our Time
  4. The Media Podcast
  5. The Guardian Football Weekly

Digital Platforms

  1. Tweetdeck
  2. Bandcamp

Websites

  1. Public Domain Review
  2. The Guardian
Previous Story
Kishani Widyaratna

Editorial Director at 4th Estate

Articles

Featured storytellers

View all

Sign up to our newsletter