- Why themes are important in tying together the messy parts of your business story
- How to make yourself the future, by identifying and highlighting the past
- How to tie in the original spirit of your business as you evolve beyond its original vision
In January, along with an investment from SoftBank, WeWork CEO and co-founder Adam Neumann announced the We Company, a rebrand that keeps WeWork as one of its branches, along with WeLive and WeGrow.
The idea of The We Company is one the founders had for WeWork since day one:
“The Beginning of a New Story,” a blog post from Adam and his co-founders Rebekah Neumann and Miguel McKelvey, intersperses WeWork’s achievements and promises to “elevate the world’s consciousness” with drawings and mock-ups from before WeWork launched in 2009. Renting out office space was only their entry point into providing everything the modern worker could need.
Tracing this leap in their company’s scope back to their roots, we investigated how WeWork went from a way to work to a way of life, looking at versions of their website to guide us through its development. In this first part, we discovered three copywriting insights that can enable any company to build a dedicated following of customers, fans, and other stakeholders.
Themes build aspiration. Smart small, aim high
In 2010, WeWork’s first website (V1) was only selling New York City “boutique office space” (similar to Adam and Miguel’s previous business, GreenDesk). The website described WeWork — then stylized as We Work — as “beautiful, functional, flexible” and promised to provide “a collaborative and creative environment where innovative businesses and individuals can flourish.”
In contrast with its sparse subject matter, the writing style was unabashedly aspirational, promising to revolutionize the workplace and to be a place “where people come together to create something greater than themselves.” It aimed high, telling customers in deliberate all caps, “WE ARE ONE,” even when they only had 350 members.
Co-founder and chief brand officer Rebekah, who is also Adam’s wife, can be credited with the spirit behind WeWork. According to Adam, she helped shift his priorities before they sold GreenDesk and launched their new venture:
“Rebekah said, ‘Stop. No more talking about money. We’re going to talk about wellness, happiness, fulfillment, and if the money is supposed to follow, it will. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter, because we will be happy and fulfilled.”
The vibrant pink banner at the top of V1 highlighted the opening of a lounge, and the community page boasted networking events, happy hours, and other ways it expected “members to take part in the community.” From day one, working in WeWork’s space means not just renting, but also participating in a new form of shared workspace.
In 2012, WeWork updated their website to V2. They now wrote of their mission, “In addition to satisfying our members’ practical needs, to empower and inspire them to grow - personally and financially.” While V1 had already demonstrated an emphasis on community, V2 made a stronger promise to help smaller companies and entrepreneurs succeed. The Event section relaxed the required attendance, instead saying, “WeWork members are invited to take part in all of our weekly events.”
Their first Members section said thousands of people were using their spaces, “from dynamic start-ups to established enterprises.” The focus was on “creating, connecting, collaborating and innovating” and continued to emphasize creator culture and growth. Including “established enterprises” likely just meant midsize businesses, as they didn’t mention any big businesses by name, but it widened their scope from the “innovative businesses and individuals” of V1.
A young Steve Jobs once considered the computer to be the bicycle for the mind. These days, people (like this one) take that analogy even further, claiming that technology gives people superpowers. WeWork uses their language to be emotionally consistent with this claim, invoking words like, “creating, connecting, collaborating and innovating” and emphasizing creator culture and growth. Overuse has unfortunately drained each of these words of the power they once held. If we were to revert them to their original meaning, we can consider the significance of each one:
- Creating has a prominent, borderline-mystical narrative and history
- Connecting has religious and, because of social media, technological connotations
- Collaborating is about bringing people together
- Innovating conveys progress and a better tomorrow
Creating, connecting and collaborating were all themes that were present in V1, but were more emphasized in V2. By placing its brand new members section at the top of the homepage, WeWork brought these values to the forefront. Adding innovation to the mix encourages creation, connection, and collaboration towards change. Rebekah’s focus on fulfillment is still key to this version, which may mention financial growth but still focuses its tone on creativity and working together.
Already in V2, WeWork tries to intertwine its core business of real estate with the facade of technology. It has a tab in its navigation bar dedicated to Labs, which claims vaguely to foster “collaboration among intelligent, creative and driven individuals who may not otherwise have had the opportunity to connect.”
Unify your growing range of customers
WeWork updated their site again in late 2013 to V3, including the Members sections. “Our members run the gamut - startups, small businesses, freelancers, writers, independent film makers, you name it,” the site said.
Amidst their many different types of customers, WeWork ties them together, saying, “One thing they all share is an entrepreneurial spirit.” Not only does WeWork unify all of their customers, they also ascribe the themes of “entrepreneurial” and “community” to them. They also set the expectation that by paying for WeWork, you become a part of this exclusive, diverse, entrepreneurial community.
One more notable point: their hero text, “Do What You Love,” combines their workspace business with their higher calling. There were mentions of creating, collaborating, and connecting in the “What is WeWork” and “Who We Are” sections. Innovation only showed up in a member testimonial, not in WeWork’s writing. V3 also features much more prominent images of their actual workspaces than V2 did.
There were mentions of creating, collaborating and connecting in the “What is WeWork” and “Who We Are” sections. Innovation only showed up in a member testimonial, not in WeWork’s writing.
Their Event section in this version kept members posted on events in their city, recommended hosting events for business needs and celebrations, advertised quarterly talks from leading business people and creatives, and highlighted WeWork’s yearly events like Halloween and WeWork Summer Camp.
As they expanded to more cities and locations, the events were more catered to and planned by the businesses in each space, with some exceptional events like Summer Camp set up to bring all the WeWork employees together for a big getaway. It’s a combination of office atmosphere and corporate retreats, which continued in V4.
Align yourself not with passing trends, but with shifts in zeitgeist
In later 2014, V4 of WeWork’s website promised “the space, community, and services you need to create your life’s work.” Between V4 and V5 in early 2019, there was a shift from focusing on burgeoning businesses, to speaking to corporations as well.
The writing was heavy on community and creating in this version, from the “Join our community of creators,” slogan to “WeWork is a platform for creators.” Even V4’s member section was called “Our community of creators.” Below it, they built on their technology capabilities, showing off mobile apps, encouraging customers to “stay connected and stay productive.”
Between the rise in independent contractors, freelancers, non-traditional occupations (e.g., professional Fortnite player), and platforms facilitating exchanges, these changes fuel a change in zeitgeist. More and more people make a living without the traditional, 9–5, corporate life that drove the prior generation. WeWork’s own business of renting out office real estate to entrepreneurs is a symptom of this.
And yet the focus on community serves a strategic purpose. Corporations with deep pockets, expanding needs, and a desperation to provide trendy amenities to their employees, could be open to signing longer-term rentals. The community focus would provide their many employees, or potential hires, with a cool place to work.
“Every start-up wants to be an enterprise, and every enterprise a start-up,” WeWork’s SVP and Global Head of Strategic Consulting Veresh Sita told the Atlantic. “We think we have a responsibility to curate some relationship between these two groups.”
Additionally, “productivity” makes its first appearance as a theme. It’s a step away from the previously more spiritual tone. There were still mentions of “your life’s work” and other creative endeavours, but this was the first reference to how efficient and focused employees would be in the space. The “Our Spaces” section said membership “gives you access to our locations in cities around the world.” Prioritizing productivity and international access are key to a more serious tone and an audience of bigger businesses.
Find the antiquated standard, make yourself the evolution
In V5, WeWork toned its website to better suit its increasingly corporate audience. The header said, “Space to Elevate Work,” the only trace of its previous voice is the word, “Elevate.” It also cut away “creating” after the emphasis on it in V4. “Innovation” came back after fading out in V3, “connection” was still a constant, and productivity showed up again after its introduction in V4, to continue to appeal to bigger enterprises.
Right below the fold, WeWork promises they’re the place “Where Company Becomes Community.” It’s a strong positioning move: Identifying the antiquated standard, and making themselves represent the changing standard.
Many companies do only the latter, like Lambda School’s "Your new tech career starts here," and General Assembly’s "We are the future of work.” Explicitly calling out the current, outdated, standard could make each of their statements stronger.
Set your original spirit as the anchor
In the update at the beginning of June (V5.5), the header is “Revolutionize your workplace,” a bit of a throwback to V1’s claim that WeWork was “revolutionizing the traditional definition of the workplace.” The new keyword shows up downpage as well, with the new Case Studies highlight: “Hear from our revolutionary members.”
Throwing revolution back into the mix is noteworthy, but it’s a noticeable focus on the revolutionary work WeWork members are doing, rather than the disruptive nature of the company itself, which positions itself much more maturely than it did in V1. Where it used to tell people what they sell, now they show it. It’s not a sign they ran out of ideas — but instead, that they are returning to the spirit that compelled them to start this business in the first place
Creating (“create soulful spaces”) and innovation (“innovative workplace technologies”) are also present themes, but connection, collaborating, and productivity don’t show up in any copywriting. “Meaningful” and “impactful” have popped up, mirroring the opening line of WeWork’s January rebrand announcement: “Nine years ago, we had an idea. We thought that if we created a community that helped people live life with purpose, we could have a meaningful impact on the world.”
V5’s Enterprise Solutions section, near the bottom of the homepage until the V5.5 update, featured the logos of some of their most prominent customers and emphasized that they have space for the largest and most innovative businesses in the world. This was social proof of large companies who have already used their service. It encourages customers and prospects to think of themselves the same way. In writing, it’s an example of how WeWork widened their base to appeal to a broader category of businesses, beyond getting stuck with the creative, entrepreneurial, niche where they started.
In the 5.5 update, the Enterprise Solutions section changed to the case studies, with the “See all case studies” button leading to a Case Studies page where you can “explore” the stories of “companies of all sizes, around the world” who use WeWork. The previous Enterprise Solutions section lives at the bottom of the Case Studies page.
It’s a shift from specifically highlighting only their large companies to highlighting their range of members with these new case studies, whose links are hosted under the new “Ideas by We” publication (more on that in a future article).
There’s still a strong enterprise presence in the displayed studies, but WeWork eased up a little on the immediate push towards Enterprise Solutions and instead packaged it in as part of the wide range of customizable services they offer.
The progression from working with startups and small businesses hoping to get bigger, to having big customers like Facebook and Microsoft, can be traced through WeWork’s writing progression. They started out focusing on creation, growth and fulfilling your potential as an entrepreneur. Over time the writing got less specific and grandiose, and became more vague, refined, and applicable to a wider and more established pool of corporate customers.
“WeWork had contrived its turnkey member culture to make freelancers and entrepreneurs feel as though they worked at Google; now WeWork would turn around and help employees at legacy businesses feel as though they worked at WeWork,” said the New York Times.
Their more creative and free-spirited writing style in the first few versions worked for them, but could only take them so far. V5 and 5.5 are a lot more clean, sleek, and professional, applicable to growing companies and legacy enterprises alike. Their first versions wouldn’t have appealed to corporations, who don’t need help growing and establishing their businesses, but do want the space to work and to cultivate the ideal corporate culture.
Interestingly, V5 lost the Event section of the website. There are mentions of renting space for member events, and if you go digging you’ll find mention of the regular Happy Hours and Office Hours that WeWork holds for members. But rather than being a selling point like on past versions, it’s now a part of the WeWork Members experience, not something to put upfront.
As customers grew and the corporate companies come in, it’s likely members aren’t as interested in having WeWork do the planning. They just need the space for their own events and meetings, which WeWork’s acquisition Meetup can handle.
The only constant is change
Growing as a company requires a lot of reinvention and alterations. By taking tips from WeWork on theme selection and giving your voice and tone a wider appeal, your website’s copywriting will continue to evolve as you do. As your services or features change, much like WeWork’s events did, so will the way that you write about them. As you start to catch the attention of high-profile customers, you’ll work that into your writing so that other big fish know you can give them what they need.
WeWork understands the power of symbols and words, and makes use of higher-level themes and abstract ideas to unify the parts of their image and story that could otherwise get disorganized.
Amidst the constant change, WeWork draws inspirations from their roots as they need. But they constantly evolve beyond their previous website. They write not just for the market they have established themselves in, but for the one they want to expand into next.
If you liked this piece, check out our deconstruction of Slack's copywriting.