The Content Strategist

What Murakami and Other Literary Giants Learned From Brand Writing

During his trip to Seoul, Colin Marshall discovered something unexpected. Before novelist Haruki Murakami became an international literary giant, he was a brand writer for apparel company Onward Kashuyama. But he wasn’t just cranking out traditional ad copy—he was writing branded fiction.

In 1985, Onward launched a campaign to market their U.S. apparel brand J. Press. According to neojaponisme, the ads were typical fashion fare: a model wearing the brand’s clothes, accompanied by a bit of ad copy. Soon, however, Japanese pop culture began to veer toward the avant-garde, and Onward decided to do the same.

The brand tapped Murakami, already an up-and-coming novelist in his native Japan, to write short stories that would take the place of traditional ads. More importantly, these stories never pushed or even mentioned J. Press or its products. The only brand mention on these full-page ads was a small J. Press logo tucked in the lower left corner.

“Just have fun with it”

The stories Onward commissioned were rarely—if ever—about fashion. Shigesato Itoi, the writer and editor who originally approached Murakami on the project, told the novelist: “Just have fun with it.”

Murakami seems to have taken this advice to heart. Over the next two years, he crafted inventive and fanciful stories with titles like: “Hotel Lobby Oysters,” “Donuts, Again,” and “Takayama Noriko and My Libido.” Onward quickly struck gold with the concept, and Murakami’s stories appeared monthly in a number of popular Japanese magazines for the next two years.

With free rein to write whatever he pleased, Murakami’s fame as a writer of charmingly off-kilter fiction quickly grew. Even after becoming a national celebrity for his 1987 novel Norwegian Wood, Murakami returned to writing sponsored fiction, this time for Parker Pens. These were even more experimental than his work for J. Press. His first story for Parker, “The Spider Monkey Comes at Night,” begins:

I was sitting at my desk at 2:00 in the morning and writing. I pushed my window open and a spider monkey came in.“Oh, hey, who are you?” I asked.“Oh, hey, who are you,” the spider monkey said.“Don’t copy me,” I said.“Don’t copy me,” the monkey said.“Don’t copy me,” I copied him.“Don’t copy me,” he copied me in italics.

The freedom to write experimental fiction—and the luxury of actually getting paid for it—undoubtedly accelerated Murakami’s literary development. But he isn’t the only literary giant whose career was impacted by brand work.

Say a lot with a little

Murakami may have been allowed to write as he pleased, but as any brand writer knows, that’s the exception rather than the rule. Decades before Murakami penned his groundbreaking sponsored fiction, acclaimed novelists Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo were busy writing copy for Ogilvy & Mather. While DeLillo doesn’t speak highly of his time at the advertising giant, Rushdie has attributed a much of his success to the sense of economy he developed at Ogilvy.

At an advertising award ceremony, the author said, “One of the great things about advertising is you have to say a lot in very little. You have to try to make a very big statement in very few words or very few images and you haven’t much time. All of that is, I feel, very, very useful.” Useful indeed: Rushdie quickly achieved success within the agency by crafting catchy taglines like, “Naughty. But nice.” and “That’ll do nicely.”

The demand for short, effective copy also helped Elmore Leonard graduate from brand work to literary acclaim. Long before he wrote bestsellers like Get Shorty and Rum Punch, Leonard wrote ad copy for Chevrolet trucks through the Campbell-Ewald Advertising Agency. This is where he learned to pen the short, punchy sentences that populate his distinctive prose. As Leonard famously noted in his 10 Rules for Writing, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Good writing is hard work

Agency life also taught Rushdie and Leonard the value of discipline when it comes to writing. Even now, Rushdie writes as though a client, creative director, or account manager is waiting on his work.“I write like a job. I sit down in the morning and I do it,” he said. “And I don’t miss deadlines.”

Leonard, meanwhile, chipped away on his first novels before and after the work day, while still maintaining a successful career within the agency. The New Yorker’s Bruce McCall recalls: “He’d be in the office by eight in the morning, bashing away at his typewriter…” This kind of work ethic undoubtedly helped Leonard, one of the most prolific novelists in recent memory, pen more than 50 novels, nine screenplays, and dozens of short stories over a career spanning nearly 60 years.

Murakami, Leonard, and Rushdie aren’t the only literary luminaries who got their start on the brand side. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Morris, Kurt Vonnegut, James Patterson, and Joseph Heller—among others—all used their brand experience to hone their writing chops. The deadlines, creativity, and tight copy that great brand writing requires has proven to be fertile ground for many of our literary giants.