6 Marketing Lessons You Can Learn from an English Degree

Can we let you in on a little secret?

You don’t have to have a degree in marketing to know a thing or two about communication.

The same principles that make a great story apply to marketing materials. The tools you use to write and analyze literature are equally useful for copywriting.

Want to learn some copywriting secrets from an English major? Here are 6 marketing lessons we can take from a B.A. in English.

1. What is a hero?

We use the hero’s journey a lot in marketing—it's the basis of nearly all the stories we tell to and about our customers.

But the word “hero” can be a little misleading. We don’t mean that all your prospective customers are wearing capes and saving the day. Instead, let’s think about a “hero” like an English major.

A hero, or protagonist, is a person who makes a choice.

Every great story, from microfiction to doorstopper novels, is about a person making a choice and experiencing change. Luke Skywalker chooses to make the trench run in the Death Star. Elizabeth Bennet chooses to defy Lady Catherine de Bourgh and will not promise not to marry Mr. Darcy. In “Hills Like White Elephants,” the girl chooses to speak up against the man.

Your potential customers may not wear capes, but they do have to make a choice. When they choose to purchase your product or services, they will experience change. In marketing, your job is to make that choice as easy and obvious as possible for your protagonist.

2. Not all guides look alike.

The hero’s journey always features a guide who helps the hero take action, like old Obi-Wan Kenobi teaching Luke Skywalker to trust his feelings and use the Force.

When we think about the hero’s journey in marketing, your brand is the guide to your customer as you illustrate the steps they need to take to make their life better.

But not all guides look like Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Think about snarky, reluctant Haymitch in the Hunger Games, wise and whimsical Gandalf, kind-hearted, sisterly Glinda the Good Witch. They’re all very different from one another, but they share a few traits in common.

They are experts in their fields, and they are the guides that their particular heroes need.

Your brand doesn’t have to be grandfatherly and stoic like Obi-Wan if your audience isn’t plucky and naive like Luke Skywalker. Not every hero needs a guide who uses four-syllable words and professional jargon.

Be the guide your customer needs, the figure they’ll trust to help them solve their problems.

3. How to tell a story in just 4 words.

Here’s a neat trick you might have learned from an English class: just about all stories can be reduced to this 4-word formula: Somebody Wanted But So.

Somebody (the hero) wanted something, but they encountered problems, so they turned to their guide and made a choice.

When you’re telling a success story about how your brand has helped past customers, use this formula. Establish who the protagonist is, and demonstrate the problems they had before your business came along. Then show how the hero chose your brand and found a solution to their problems.

You might be tempted to gloss over the “but” part of the formula, the negative elements of the story. But not only are the problems relatable to prospective customers, you’ll also have a more compelling resolution to your story when you can show a complete “before and after.”

4. The little things matter.

If you took any college-level English classes, you might have done some “close reading.” It’s the process of analyzing a text sentence by sentence, word by word, instead of looking at the broad strokes and archetypes.

It turns out that close reading is invaluable for copywriting and editing.

Great marketers pay close attention to the minutiae of language and know how to use those details to communicate clearly. Like this:

How does putting a comma right there affect the flow of a sentence? Does it change the meaning? Slow the reader down? Add clarity or bog down the eyes?

Why use the word “discover” in this sentence? Do the connotations fit with the ideas you’re trying to communicate? Is there a better alternative you could use here?

Even though most of your audience won’t be close reading your copy, you can’t be sure which readers will read and absorb which sentences. That’s why it’s crucial to make sure every bit of copy contributes to the larger story you’re telling.

5. Subvert expectations (but not all the time).

Human beings love patterns. We love to see two or more things that look the same, and when we spot something different, it stands out. Language is no different.

Think about sentence or paragraph length. If all your paragraphs look the same, they’ll run together. But if most of your paragraphs are 2 to 3 lines, you can surprise your audience with the occasional one-liner.

Like this!

Changing up the established pattern and subverting expectations adds emphasis, keeps the eyes engaged, and gives your writing a dash of excitement.

Just don’t overdo it.

The more often you pull a stunt like a one-liner, the less effective it’ll be. Just like learning to write poetry, it takes experimentation and practice to learn when and how to create and subvert patterns in copywriting.

6. Grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive.

This last lesson might ruffle some feathers with more traditional literary buffs. While grammar rules may be strict and unyielding in academic writing, they don’t hold the same power in copywriting. Grammar should be a tool that helps you communicate, not a barrier that prevents you from reaching your audience.

Language changes with time and use, and the rules around language change, too. Try not to worry too much about “correct” grammar while copywriting. As long as your writing is clear and not confusing, grammar can take a back seat.

Meet your readers where they’re at. Don’t expect them to jump through linguistic hoops to communicate with you. Use the language your audience is familiar with.

The best way to position your brand as an authoritative, trustworthy guide to your protagonist (see lessons 1 and 2) is to communicate with them in a way that they understand.


Still trying to figure out what kind of hero your ideal customer is? Not sure what story you’re trying to tell about your brand? We can help with that. Schedule a call today, and let our team of storytelling experts lend a hand. We’ll tell your business’s story, so you can focus on growing your reach and gaining new customers.

Ready to tell your story? Let's get started.

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