What Just Happened to Brand Language?

The critical role of voice in a changing world

When society changes, shouldn't the way a brand shows up in society change as well? And after three massive shocks to society—BLM, Covid, the climate crisis—isn't it time to think about how our brands are talking?

Why focus on a brand's tone of voice?

Of course, there's an ever-increasing number of channels. And we know that consumers want to be in a dialogue with brands they love.

But while our brand might be forgiven for looking slightly out of date, we'll be called out—rightly—for saying the wrong thing.

This isn't about policing our clients' lexicon. It's about all the different parts of a brand's verbal identity.

The model we use suggests there are three levels to look at. 

Driving every great, compelling brand voice, there's an overarching narrative guiding what the brand chooses to talk about, and what angle it takes on that. 

Come down a level and you have the personality of the brand voice. And the impact of a brand voice can be quickly undone unless the tone of voice guidelines include definitions of the Ground Level Details, such as grammar choices, sentence length, and yes, the lexicon.

Here's a little diagram we use at Verbal Identity:

Hope that helps.

In the last couple of years, some brands have updated their brand voice to reflect the society they want to play a role in.

Those changes spread across all three levels.

At the 10,000-foot level, brand teams are consciously moving discussion of their world view out of their annual report and into their employee brand and brand comms.

$2 billion is a lot to pay for some oats in water, but Oatly's stellar valuation was driven largely by not talking not about oats in water but instead talking about why they're a viable alternative to the dairy's impact on the climate.

Other brands are also moving their purpose into their mainstream voice and communications, including, of course, BrewDog:

As well as sharing a 10,000-foot worldview, both of those brands use a confrontational tone of voice at the 1,000-foot level. 

It's starting to look decidedly out of date for BrewDog as they face other challenges about their support, and we can see how other brands might share a 10,000-foot narrative but are changing at the 1,000-foot level.

DASH shares a concern at 10,000 feet about the impact of agriculture on the climate, but at the 1,000-foot level its brand tones are conciliatory and persuasive instead of aggressive and confrontational.

When more things are going on in our heads, it makes sense that not every brand wants to show up swearing and pointing the pointy finger.

What should a brand owner or agency team do when they want to look at the 1,000-foot level of their brand voice? The first stop is always to check you have tonal values that mean something differentiating (rather than just "human," "friendly," "warm" and "approachable").

If they mean something, but something wrong, think about how you can keep your 10,000-foot narrative as it is, but turn up differently in your brand voice. 

That evolution needs to happen with the Ground Level Details, too.

Is grammar a class war? 

The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. thinks it is:

And I think they're right. We might laugh at the grocer for not knowing where to put his apostrophe, but do we call out the bookseller for slamming on a whole line of exclamation marks on their promotional posters?

"Correct grammar" might represent artificially created authority, but that doesn't mean you should leave it to the individual. Look at where you can pitch your grammar so it supports your worldview and personality (formal English professor to modern conversation to street style), then get agreement and move on.

Naming is included at this level. In the U.K., a well-respected college has just removed the Latin motto from its crest because it's considered elitist. The name of the college might still be seen as problematic, though:

When you're navigating changing words, a great resource to check is the website Conscious Style Guide. It pulls in information and thoughtful pieces from different sources, including journalism, to identify what might be as out of date as my Von Dutch jeans (must throw them out).

Finally, nothing changes when you change the guidelines … unless you immerse your writers in them and retrain them.

Language is working everywhere, all the time, and with a greater velocity than ever before for our brands. And right now, it's never been a more important time to get it right. 

Profile picture for user Chris West
Chris West
Chris West is the CEO of the brand tone of voice agency Verbal Identity, working with writing and brand teams from organizations as diverse as Alphabet's moonshot factory to Saas digital startups. He is author of the book Strong Language, which launched in September.

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