• Transform magazine
  • August 18, 2022


Opinion: Brand language


Sholto Lindsay-Smith, Industry

We recently took our team on an away day from the office to experience a Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) course on voice. If you are an introvert like me, it would have been an excruciating day, but the following simple exercise taught me everything about tone of voice.

First, say in a suggestive sexy voice, ‘You know what I mean?’ Now switch to an aggressive voice and say the same thing, ‘You know what I mean.’ You have to speak this out loud in front of a mirror to really appreciate it. One phrase, two totally different meanings.

Today, too many brand guidelines focus on the mechanistic rules of writing rather than the emotion of writing for the brand. The question we should be asking is not ‘How should we write?’, but ‘How do we want the audience to feel about our brand?’

It’s the difference between the Economist Style Guide and an advert for the Economist. One passes in one ear and out the other. The other hits you between the eyes.

Take for example this wise but worthy extract from the style guide: “Long paragraphs, like long sentences, can confuse the reader. ‘The paragraph,’ according to Fowler, ‘is essentially a unit of thought, not of length; it must be homogeneous in subject matter and sequential in treatment.’ One-sentence paragraphs should be used only occasionally.”

Compare this to two captivating headlines from the Economist’s long running advertising campaign: “Leave no answer unquestioned” and “Is your indecision final?”

In truth, advertising agencies have always been much better than brand agencies at creating a strong tone of voice. This is because they see copy as part of the creative solution from the start. Whereas traditional brand agencies have been design-led, with brand language something of an afterthought. As a result, the tone of voice section in the brand guidelines typically gets written in the vein of a style guide.

Take this example from an anonymous brand guideline: “Use brand attributes as examples to illustrate how they guide the way you communicate and support the personality you want to portray. For example, if one of your brand attributes is ‘welcoming,’ then your site might use language that’s friendly and inviting, knowledgeable but not overly academic.”

This is a lost opportunity.

If as much effort was put into brand language as the visual language, the result could be twice as strong. Too many times I’ve seen a brand manual that says our brand is friendly and illustrated with the word ‘HELLO’ on the cover of the brochure. It’s banal. In this example, we should question whether ‘friendly’ is the right starting point in the first place. What about ‘joyful?’ Picking language that expresses real human emotion is a better starting point.

Written imaginatively, brand language can add colour and personality and a depth of understanding. A great example is Innocent, which has no rules or guidelines for its tone of voice. Actually, its only rule is ‘no swearing’! The result is a series of simple messages that leave behind the old rule of ‘don’t write as you speak’ to become in fact ‘write as you speak,’ and therefore it delivers a brand language that is friendly, playful and inspires trust.

Brand writing style guides usually set out the rudiments of good writing. But not the language of the brand. There is a difference between an authentic brand voice and merely plain speaking.

So who does it well? Here are a few:

Innocent: “Here to save the peckish.” (Playful).

Apple: “Thinner. Lighter. Faster.” (Clear).

Ben and Jerry’s: “Utter Peanut Butter Clutter.” (Eccentric).

Virgin Atlantic: “BA doesn’t give a Shiatsu.” (Irreverent and witty).

When it comes to writing the ‘tone of voice’ section in brand guidelines, the challenge is to illustrate it rather than describe it. As the old adage goes, don’t tell me you’re funny, tell me a joke.

Sholto Lindsay-Smith is partner at strategic brand consultancy Industry

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Sholto Lindsay-Smith, partner at the strategic brand consultancy Industry, will lead the delegates at The Middle East Brand Summit in a panel discussion between brand language experts Syed Hussain from Nestle and Alistair Herbert from Linguabrand, all about how a brand’s choice of words can change an audiences perception on the brand.

2 June, Dubai. Book here


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