The language of a brand is really decided by two things: where you are looking to position your brand in the marketplace; and the personality that you choose to adopt.
Brand leaders speak with authority and surety. Their language focuses on stability, history and confidence. Brand challengers speak with defiance. They seek to challenge the way things are so their language focuses on change, hope and (sometimes) revolution. Cult brands focus on exclusivity – so their language is peppered with tribal terms. Artisan brands focus on craft and attention to detail so their language tends to be quieter, more insular and focused on the work. Budget brands often use language based on frugality (how much you save) or generosity (what you get). Quality brands seek to be steady and trustworthy.
In all cases, the language you use as a brand is directly aligned with your value proposition because, of course, language is a very powerful way of capturing and expressing how you see yourselves as a brand and how you want others to think and talk about you.
Adding personality to language
Personality picks up on these points of view and defines them more specifically. This helps brands in busy and highly competitive markets to distinguish their brand where there may be several brands competing in or for a market position. Here are three of the most important ways to evoke personality through language:
Formality – the type of language that a brand uses is a strong indicator of the type of relationship it is looking to form with customers, and of how the brand sees the exchange between them and their consumer. Upmarket brands often use structured, aspirational language built around sophisticated concepts – or, if they are a global brand, they may look to express much of their personality visually and with a distinct lack of words. More populist brands look to break down the jargon and acronyms of an industry and talk to consumers in language that is much closer to how buyers themselves speak. Professional brands tend to be the most talkative – although this doesn’t always work in their favour because they can become self-absorbed very quickly. Lifestyle brands are often cheeky and carefree, and their language reflects that casualness.
Dialect – every brand should seek to own language of its own; a way of talking about what it does and what it stands for that complements the visual identity and adds colour and texture in terms of how the brand speaks. The critical insight here is that if your brand only ever speaks in the language of the industry, it will quickly blend with everyone else. I always look to associate a brand with a ‘word-cloud’ of ideas – a range of language reference that the brand can own based on where it wants to be positioned, the audience that it is looking to talk with and the abiding conventions of the sector.
Rhythm – every brand needs a speech pattern. It needs to speak at a certain speed, in particular ways, so that consumers consciously or sub-consciously ‘hear’ the brand’s voice in every interaction. Having said that, there are clear sectoral dialects. Retail brands, particularly high street brands, often speak quickly and with energy to convey urgency and opportunity. Lifestyle brands, because they want to be seen as relaxed, often adopt a tone of voice that is also fast-moving and non-grammatical but attuned to the mannerisms of their consumers. Professional brands, on the other hand, tend to adopt a more measured, carefully structured style of speaking that uses much longer sentences, involves more ideas and is much more fluent. This reflects their desire for credibility, authority and reliability. Consumers would quickly become confused if an accounting firm adopted the speech pattern of a high-street retailer, or vice versa.
Take your verbal cues from the frontline
Once you know where you want to position your brand and you have established a personality that speaks to the strategy and distinguishes the brand from competitors, a really sensible next port of call is the frontline. Speaking with sales reps, contact centre people and those working in stores is a highly effective way of gauging what customers are looking for in exchanges with the brand, what they like about how they interact now, and where they would like to see clear changes in the tone of communications. These insights should then be applied to content and structuring of information as well as to tone.
Language and behaviour must align. That’s what gives a brand congruency
Too often brands fail to make all these changes. They develop a new tone of voice to sit alongside their visual identity but they only apply it to a slither of the interactions they have with consumers. So, for example, the new tone of voice may appear in advertising and some external communications but it’s not present in other forms of correspondence or in digital environments. When a brand fails to carry its new voice through to all its touchpoints, it quickly muddies expectations and experiences. Customers expecting the brand to behave in a particular way find themselves being spoken with in a different, often conflicting, way elsewhere within the same brand.
Here’s my rule. A brand may speak in multiple languages – but it should look as much as possible to speak in one distinctive tone of voice everywhere.