How Dungeons & Dragons Can Help You Write Better Marketing Copy


What does the art of copywriting have in common with fighting demons and swinging swords using pencils, paper, and weirdly shaped dice?

As it turns out, a lot.

I’m assuming you’ve at least heard of Dungeons & Dragons© (often simply referred to as D&D), perhaps it’s this game you’ve seen the characters of Stranger Things play, or something you’ve heard that one nerdy friend talk about that one time. For me , it’s a fun hobby, something I do with my friends.

So what does this have to do with marketing in the “real world?”

Well, the fact is  D&D is principally a storytelling game. More than that, it’s a collaborative storytelling game between the Dungeon Master, who facilitates the game, and the player characters, who shape the story through their decisions and actions. If the Dungeon Master does their job well, the players are rewarded with a rich playing experience as they watch their characters engage, act, and shape the world they are playing within.

So it is the same with copywriting. copywriting works on many of the same basic principles. It is brand storytelling made collaborative between the copywriter and the client. The copywriter’s job is to facilitate the ideas and decisions of the brand owner in a way that is compelling to read and engaging to the target audience. The only difference is that, while in D&D, the player is the hero of the story, in marketing the customer is the hero, for whom we create a rich experience of engaging with the brand. The brand owner, my client, takes on the role then of not a hero in the story, but as a guide for the customer, helping them move through their experience with the brand.

As someone that has been a Dungeon Master, I’ve had to learn how to translate how a desire of one of my players (say, to improbably jump over 60 ft. over the teeth of a vicious dog onto a wooden wall), and take their goals and their dice rolls, and not only let them know whether they succeed in their feat, but also describe what happens and how the world around them responds (the dog jumps up and attempts to grab their leg in its teeth as they go sailing by). They then make further decisions based on that outcome.

As a copywriter, I do much the same: I take the client’s goals, brand values, and important information about their product and service and compose it into something that responds to the situation of the target customer. I try help them present a compelling solution to the problems they have and motivate them to take the next step (buy, sign up, subscribe, etc). However, instead of using dice and imagining how a fantasy world works, in real life we use data and analysis to find out the outcome of our campaigns and marketing experiments, and adapt accordingly.

So, at the heart of it, how has this hobby helped me be better at copywriting? And how could it help you?

Tell Better Stories

For one, it is probably the best example of why the nature of copywriting, and marketing in general, is all about telling a great story – Games like D&D are a fun, easy way to practice collaborative storytelling. If you can get a group of people to join you and buy into going on a quest to slay a fearsome dragon, you can use those same skills to persuade them to sign up for your business’ subscription services.

The Hero is the Customer

It has taught me, not matter what industry or client I’m working with, to always put the customer at the centre of story. Human beings are the heroes in the epic narrative that is their own lives. Whether in around the game table or in the marketplace, if you can appeal to that essential nature of people, you are always off to a good start.

Use Your Imagination!

While there is certainly a lot of aspects of copywriting and marketing can be rote and repetitive, great copy and branding all call on you to be creative and use your imagination.  Just like the thousands of games of D&D and games like it are unique and specific to their players, every brand needs to be unique and specific to its core customers. What that means will be different in every instance, but I can guarantee that a great brand is always based on a creative idea or fresh take on what it does.

How to Market Something Awful: Be Honest

It’s the last days of summer, and I’m thinking about cough syrup.

Specifically, I’m thinking about Buckley’s.

I grew up with Buckley’s -- although not too early on (I must imagine that my parents thought the taste of it would be too much for a very small child). For my entire life, I have known it principally by its slogan, “It tastes bad, but it works.”

What drew my attention to this recently was a thought about what makes this such an outstanding piece of advertising copy: its uncompromising honesty. It doesn’t shirk from the fact that Buckley’s does categorically taste awful. It sells itself on the fact – balanced with the fact that despite its taste, it is very effective at suppressing cold symptoms.

I understand that there is some solid medical science behind why this is, although I suspect that part of it has to be with nothing could ever possibly be as bad as taking a spoonful of Buckley’s, making the cold seem bearable by comparison.

The tagline is the product of one of the pitches that Peter Byrne, a copywriter working for a Toronto agency at the time, now retired co-founder of Toronto marketing agency Bensimon Byrne, gave to the Buckley’s CEO, Frank Buckley, in 1986. Frank, clearly prepared to take a risk that day, decided to go with it. It would skyrocket the brand to the top of its product category: from maybe the 9th best-selling cough syrup in 1986, to 1st by 1992, and (although I have been unable to find more current information) was still the top-seller when Buckley’s was bought up by the multinational Novartis in 2002 (it now belong to GlaxoSmithKline, who bought it from Novartis earlier this year).

The point of this is though, that, when properly positioned, honesty can help you sell. Even when the honest truth might be a bit unpleasant, or at least, not something considered to be a positive feature of the product or service. It is authentic and genuine, which inspires trust in your customer because it shows that will not hide important information that influences their buying decision.

What is more, I believe, is that, while the Buckley’s campaign was conceived in the 80’s, when it was considered a fringe marketing technique its example is tremendously more profound in the age of internet marketing. It is practically impossible to keep secrets from your customers when it comes to your product or service, and will and is making honest marketing the default for brands in Canada and the rest of world. Maybe not as front-and-center as bad-tasting cough syrup, but the ability to hide anything is quickly vanishing.