When people think of branding they immediately think of those iconic elements that give a brand fame, recognition and hopefully – fortune. Logos and colour come to mind, and for organisations unlocking the full power of visual branding, typography, layout and even motion.
But all too often, brands are under-investing in what could be one of their most valuable assets for creating distinctiveness and connection – crafted content. Marketing today is a machine to be fed – social media, content marketing, video, online-ads and more mean that consumers are exposed to a mass of content all day-every day.
How can organisations provide people with the content they need, at pace, while cutting through everything else that’s out there? The answer may be less about compelling graphics and more about a company’s verbal identity – a unique, recognisable and clear voice.
We spoke to one of Eat’s friends, Chris West, founder of the company Verbal Identity veteran and leader in a field which has helped countless companies find their voice and use it to increase customer engagement, drive efficient content creation and build stronger brands. He shares snippets of wisdom from his upcoming book.
His first point is that we live in an age of performance marketing – the use of technology and channel strategy to capture as much attention as possible. Combined with other marketing approaches, it's possible to target audiences at all touchpoints in their journey. The issue however, is that gaining attention is not the same as doing something meaningful with it.
``We’re giving more money to Google, to Facebook, you’re in this war to win attention but once you’ve won it, you’re not really engaging people.”
According to Chris, the development of technology has actually increased opportunities to differentiate with a strong verbal identity. Most touchpoints - from websites, to investor relations brochures to social media posts are dominated by language, and people are hard-wired to language’s sensitivities.
“People are intuitive forensic linguists. Just show them 80 words of text from two different brands and they will understand the difference”
This is true regardless of industry or audience. Even the most regulated industries – whether it’s finance, healthcare or airlines, can set themselves apart.
“The biggest mistake people make is that they think they can’t do anything with the language… People don’t really know what’s possible right up until you see another company writing in an entirely different way.”
Chris mentions that airlines like Air New Zealand redefined what was possible with their fun-filled safety videos. They really shifted companies’ expectations of how they can communicate otherwise serious topics, and customers’ expectations of how brands can actually make them feel.
The benefits of a strong verbal identity are as relevant inside the organisation as they are outside. The sheer proliferation of channels means that marketing teams are facing more pressure than ever. “Department heads are asked to produce more, in less time, with less budget. A brand voice enables everyone to operate from the same playbook, reducing the time it takes to brief, provide feedback and revise content.”
But what is the right voice? According to Chris, it all starts with the customer. By understanding their needs, and importantly, the personalities of the brands they use in their day-to-day lives, whether that’s Netflix, Apple or their favourite cereal, a savvy marketer can get insight into how they want to be spoken to.
If language is such a compelling tool though, why do companies under-invest in it? It may be that defining a ‘voice’ hasn’t been as tangible or clear cut as, say, rules around logo usage. “When we ask companies if they have a brand voice, they might show us four adjectives on a page… The are concerned that everyone will have a different opinion on how things should be written”
According to Chris, a great verbal identity needs to be constructed on three levels to be both tangible and useful.
“When people talk about a great brand voice, they're not just talking about the 'tone'. An engaging brand voice sounds like it's coming from people with a real sense of the world they want to create. That's the 10,000 feet level - an overarching narrative.”
At the second level, the 1000 foot view is the personality of the brand - what it would say based on its own quirks and characteristics - “Like a person – they’re like this or like that. This is where the tonal values of the brand language are clearest.”
And lastly, there’s the things which are tangible in the written or spoken word, what Chris calls the Ground Level Details. “There are a range of things you can literally put a finger on… Lexicon – there’s the phrases you do or don’t use. There’s grammar, should you be more formal or reflect conversation, as well as things like sentence length. When, if at all, should you use jargon? ”
The value of a strong brand voice isn’t lost for brands operating across borders and languages. Verbal identity has the power to ensure that all content remains on-brand, despite a change in cultural environment. The reason being that it becomes less about translation and more about creating locally relevant, on-brand content that still speaks with a brand’s unique DNA.
“With a strong framework in place, you’re in a position to transcreate much more clearly because you’re guided not by the source words, but the world-view”
In an information age where consumers are bombarded with content, the most important question for brands isn’t ‘how do we get in front of people,’ but ‘how do we form a meaningful relationship with them.’ And just as it is true with people we respect and even love in life, it is important to have a unique and likeable personality and a recognisable voice that one looks forward to hearing again and again.
Chris’ book ‘Strong Language: The fastest, smartest and cheapest marketing tool you’re not using,’ is published on September 28th and is available on Amazon now.