The Verbal Brand and its critically important stakeholders

The Verbal Brand and its critically important stakeholders

At a time when communication is increasingly hailed as shorter and more visual, the way brands choose and use language (the verbal brand) continues to hugely influence a plethora of channels, from social media to search engines to advertising, public relations, website content, direct marketing and more.

Language is responsible for expressing and persuading, for informing, declaring and characterising, relationship building, telegraphing and storytelling. Words are indeed, as Rudyard Kipling once described them, the most powerful drug used by mankind.

Style versus tone

Style guides spell out the grammatical rules surrounding corporate language. They say how to write. Tone and manner guidelines speak to the nature of the language that should be used. Usually these are a checklist of characteristics, dos and don’ts. However such guidelines seldom consider the influence of the brand promise, the brand essence and the all-important brand values in shaping the brand in words and the checklist itself is often so broad that the guidelines could be interpreted any number of ways in different situations. Neither document addresses why writers should write what they write. The best verbal brand guidelines, by contrast, take their cues directly from the core elements of the brand strategy and articulate how to consistently apply the spirit of the brand at every verbal touch-point.

It’s tempting, whenever we talk about forging the language for a brand, to believe that there is one key audience that really needs to understand the mechanisms and structure – the writers themselves. After all, they are the people responsible for crafting the communications. It is tempting too to believe that tone and manner guidelines and a style guide will cover things off nicely.

However the people responsible for moulding the verbal brand need more than ‘why’ and ‘how to’ if the verbal brand is to work to its potential. They actually require a consistent verbal ecosystem around them that is committed to endorsing and reinforcing the verbal identity. That’s because no verbal decision is made in isolation. It is governed on either side of its creation by influencers with a great deal of say in what words end up being used. It is critical therefore that in forging a powerful verbal brand that companies involve and align three distinct groups:

  1. The commissioners – the people who brief in the work and therefore define what the words must achieve in any given situation
  2. The writers themselves – the people who define and create the brand’s language and who bring the tone and manner to life through the communications they work on.
  3. The evaluators – those responsible for assessing the work and signing it off. They include not just the marketers of course but also product managers (technical accuracy), the legal team (risk and compliance), brand owners and communications management.

If the people commissioning the work choose to see the language in a light that differs markedly from how the brand needs to be expressed, the results can be very confusing. If the writers work as they see fit and without reference to the rules, then the creative work will lack consistency and ‘fight’ with the brand’s personality. If they don’t understand the nature and reasoning behind the brand style, the legal team or other approval signatories can quickly seek to mitigate risk or elaborate on benefits through additions and conditional qualifications that destroy flow and integrity.

A shared understanding of what’s on-brand verbally

Unless all three groups have a clear and consistent understanding of what is on-brand verbally and what is not, things can quickly go wrong. Get it right – and the verbal brand is remarkably effective at engaging audiences and conveying understandings that it would be difficult to ‘claim’ in any other way.

Innocent Drinks for example is a master at balancing simplicity and a certain deliberate naiveté. There’s something incredibly playful and pure about the brand’s use of puns, lower case letters and child-like graphics. Innocent indeed. It’s hard to believe that this brand is a market leader in a fiercely competitive and crowded sector – which makes its approach a breath of fresh (and noticeable) air. The Economist too has stood out in a wordy and noisy business publications market by reducing its marketing communications to its trademark white words on a red background. It goes without saying (perhaps because it is so heavily implied) that those who read the magazine regard themselves as erudite.

A brand without its own language has only noise.

Brand language this clear and this good doesn’t happen by chance. Nor does it happen in isolation. It builds because the people responsible for collectively bringing the verbal brand to life understand that good words, strong words, lovely words, powerful words are a rich source of affinity – and judgment. They take risks. They push verbal boundaries. They resist the urge to say anything other than what needs saying. And everyone involved in bringing the words to life understands that.

They work so hard on their verbal identity because they know that brands are judged this way. As much as they are judged visually. If your brand doesn’t speak in a language that you own, you don’t have a voice. You are noise.

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