Many business founders will at some point have invested more time and money than they wanted to defining a brand identity. They will have spent hours discussing minor variations in logos, or looking at a page of similar fonts and colour palettes.
They might have enjoyed getting into these details and setting rules for how others should use them. Then, as something of an afterthought, when the marketing team was pulling together a book of brand guidelines, someone might have added a paragraph on tone of voice and language. But no one will have paid it much attention, even when the guide was new.
This is a huge missed opportunity, as Chris West, best-selling author and founder of Verbal Identity pointed out in a recent expert online discussion for Helmmembers. In his latest book, Strong Language: The fastest, smartest, cheapest marketing tool you’re not using, West highlights how too many businesses fail to invest properly in their verbal identity (it should arguably be on a par with visual identity). If evidence was needed, he proposed that brand language and the quality of copy is the main point of difference between two otherwise largely indistinguishable oat milk drinks, Rude Health and Oatly. The other big difference the one with the stronger brand voice (Oatly) is worth £13bn, compared to £70m for Rude Health.
A more complex picture than ever
West highlighted that in a world where there are more channels than ever, more challenger brands appearing, where consumers are more demanding and expect brands to take a stand on social issues (defining what they are for and what they are against) and also expect them to be always-on, “language is working everywhere, all the time and with greater velocity”. Hence the reason more people are beginning to pay more attention to brand language.
There is some good news in that we are all intuitively psycholinguists, even without training. To demonstrate this, West ran a simple exercise highlighting two pieces of copy from car brands Mini and Ferrari. Even without being car experts or expert linguists, it was obvious from a quick glance which brand was which and how language was being deployed to support wider brand messages.
A framework to help all brand owners
Having run through the exercise to identify how consumers might instantly tell one brand from another, West revealed a powerful, but simple framework that all brands could and should adopt when it comes to framing and defining their brand language.
The framework consists first of what West calls the brand’s worldview (back to the things it stands for and against and its view of the world it hopes to create). It then considers how this view fits with and shapes the brand’s personality (expressed via key tonal values) and only then starts to consider the sort of details that brand guidelines – to the extent they consider language at all – focus on, namely the basic nuts and bolts (preferred words and jargon, grammar preferences and structural items like sentence length).
Humans are, as West described it, “the language animal”. And used well, brand language and verbal identity have the ability to attract new customers, retain existing ones and reshape or “de-position” rival brands. But to have any chance of achieving these outcomes, a company has to define and master all three levels of language and then train everyone to understand it.