• Transform magazine
  • December 13, 2018

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Opinion: Neil Taylor asks, "How can brand language facilitate stakeholder relations?"

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When writing terms and conditions and dealing with legal language, there are fewer limitations than most communicators think. Tone of voice isn’t just for branding types, says The Writer’s Neil Taylor


“Legal will never approve it.” That’s a line I’ve heard probably a thousand times in 10 years of running workshops on tone of voice for big brands. Marketing, brand and comms people profess that they want to write more clearly or more distinctively, but they’re hamstrung by conservative stakeholders who insist on the status quo.

Well, I don’t believe it. These bogeymen and women of the corporate world – legal, compliance, regulators, the board, HR, whoever – are too easy a target. And when we meet them and, even better, work with them, they turn out not to be the ogres they were made out to be.

But now we have some proof. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) – one of the usual suspects, if you were to believe my financial services clients – has told financial services brands that they need to do away with the jargon in their communications. And not just that; those brands also need to get creative in how they explain financial concepts to their customers. Gone is the defence of “The FCA insists on it this way.’

These brands aren’t just being lazy, they’re missing a big opportunity. The FCA, among other regulators – is also pressuring the businesses it oversees to cut the complaints it gets from disgruntled customers. Well, here too, language helps. We’ve seen businesses cut repeat complaints – and save tens of thousands of pounds in the process – by changing the structure and tone of their responses. It’s not complicated: start with what matters to the customer, and do it in language they understand. It’s a relatively quick and simple change, but it has a disproportionate effect.

And they’re missing a brand opportunity, too. The brands that do find interesting, consumer-friendly ways to explain the usually ditchwater-dull world of financial services to their customers will stand out a mile.

So back to those poor old lawyers. I love working with them, because the law is a linguistic profession. They care deeply about words, even if they wouldn’t always write a sentence the way I would. The danger in most organisations is that the lawyers have become used to dictating not only the content of brands’ communications (after all, they know what legally a business can or can’t say), but also the tone.

Now, there’s no reason why they should have the casting vote in the latter. And when we’ve challenged our clients’ legal teams to try something new, they’ve always played nicely.

Our client O2 did a massive campaign around Priority – gigs, events and offers you get before anyone else. But lurking in the corner of the ads was the legal stock phrase, “Priority tickets are subject to availability.” After a wee bit of negotiation with their legal team, those ads now say, “Once they’re gone, they’re gone.” Same message, much more O2.

These supposedly scary stakeholders weren’t trying to be obstructive; it’s just that no one had talked to them about what the brand was trying to achieve, or asked them to do anything different.

This idea of what stakeholders want – or, usually on the basis of even less evidence, expect – is often ill-founded in the first place. If you’re a middle-ranking someone who has to make recommendations to the board, those board members can seem far away from you. Older, more experienced, more expert. But the last bit isn’t always true. Board members – particularly the non-execs – are smart, but not necessarily experts in the day-to-day business of the companies whose boards they sit on. And they’re busy –regularly having to read reams of dense board papers in little time. They’re often crying out for someone to explain what they have to say in simple terms: that’s what helps them form clear opinions and make good decisions.

I’ve got bolshy with those communication experts who blame everyone else for why they’re not changing. We’ve argued for years that tone of voice is a secret weapon in business, but you’ve got to have the guts to wield it. You’ll find more people on your side than you think.

Neil Taylor is creative partner at The Writer, the world’s largest language consultancy, and the author of Brilliant Business Writing.

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