It's how you say it...

'I wandered lonely as a cloud'. 'I walked around by myself'... Yes, we all know how we say things (as well as what we say) has an important effect on the people we're trying to communicate with. Yet strangely, companies' use of language - the style, tone, vocabulary, phrasing and so on of their verbal and written texts - remains a neglected field when it comes to branding.
While most companies have design manuals, very few have language manuals. While marketers are happy to use every insight or device they can from the most mind-numbing jingles to the deepest neuroscience, linguistics remains strangely neglected.

But now, leading-edge companies are beginning to realise that their use of language could be one of their biggest untapped marketing and brand building tools, deeply affecting everyone from staff to customers, influencing what they do as well as how they feel about the company.

So how does language impact brand building?

Inconsistent and thoughtless use of language can easily destroy a brand experience. How about the friendly, helpful utility or bank that overwhelms the customer with threatening formality and legalese in its billing, or as soon as there is a late payment? Few companies are consistent in the language and vocabulary they use across every occasion and all media, from the TV ad, to the bill, to the spoken word at the call centre.

Language can also help to define and build a brand. You know you are reading The Economist for its self-assured, to-the-point style which is designed to establish its authority. Virgin stands out from the crowd via the funky, informal language it uses. One way First Direct, the UK bank, distinguishes itself is by talking to customers in an adult-to-adult way, rather than the traditional adult-to-child stance adopted by its peers. (Why is it that we 'apply' for a mortgage or a loan, but 'buy' a car or holiday?? Does your bank write to you 'regarding' an issue or 'about' it?)

Language also permeates organisations' cultures, and can be used to signal change. How does senior management talk and write? Is it cold, pompous, formal and distancing as if to reinforce separateness and authority? Or is it warm, relaxed, personal and engaging? If how companies talk to themselves internally is different to how they address their customers externally, the inconsistency (and insincerity) will soon show through.

Specialist linguistic analysis like that deployed by Enterprise IG's Information Design Unit can speak volumes about a brand's real relationship and attitude towards its customers.

Themes to watch out for include:

Tenor. Does the use of language establish closeness with or distance from the reader or listener? Does a brochure talk about the brand as if it were a third party, or does it talk about 'you' the customer and 'we' the company? Is it trying to evoke a sense of solidarity with the customer, or establish its status in relation to the customer?

Presupposition. What knowledge, beliefs or attitudes does the writer take for granted among his chosen audience? A brand wanting to address connoisseurs may deliberately assume a little specialist expertise and use a little technical jargon. Using the same approach for a friendly, helpful no-nonsense brand could be disastrous.

Transitivity is about ascribed roles. What kinds of things is the brand doing? What kinds of roles are left to customers? Are customers informed, requested, or told to do things?

Language branding is more subtle to implement than visual design. A designer can specify a particular Pantone number, but there are no equivalent Pantone numbers for tone of voice or tenor. Everyone relies on language to communicate, so we tend to take it for granted: its influence is often as subtle and unconscious as it is pervasive.

Also, for obvious reasons, language branding is not as simple to apply internationally, but by carefully combining user research and linguistic analysis, it is possible to create guidelines for different languages that result in equivalent impacts on customers.

But the central message remains. Language isn't just a tool for talking about behaviour, it is a central aspect of behaviour. Marketers overlook this at their peril.

'It's how you say it' is taken from Issues volume 4. Issues is an Enterprise IG publication for brand and identity decision makers. To subscribe to further editions of Issues please send an email together with your complete contact details to .
10 Aug 2004 11:59


Martin Hattingh
Bring it closer-
A very valid area of importance, especially since technology is enabling us to mover closer to the marketer's dream of "1 to 1" (CRM or something). Personal contact is something we all strive towards, and marketing communication needs to understand and reflect that. Can we call it "Content Styling"?
Posted on 3 Aug 2004 15:53