How to get a ‘verbal identity’ (and why you should)

by Simon Grover on

Have you thought about how your company should look? Of course you have. You’ve probably spent a ton of money on getting that right and making sure people stick to the rules. You’d thrash anyone who used comic sans or pasted your logo on top of a photo. But what about how your company should sound?

A verbal identity is good for business

It’s self-evident that it’s a good idea to make your communication look interesting, distinctive, consistent and well thought out. But relatively few companies take as much trouble with how their communication sounds. If logos and colours are your ‘visual identity’, what about your ‘verbal identity’?

There’s a huge opportunity to use words in the same way as pantones and image libraries – to reflect your company’s purpose and personality, to connect with your customer, and to stand out from the crowd. And, like any other improvement to your business, getting a verbal identity in place can give you measurable results. We’re big fans of measuring the impact of words, and can happily bore you with how this project helped increase responses by 17 times, and that one helped clinch a £2m deal.

Let’s take a quick look at how some very successful brands use verbal identity.

Successful brands talk about me

Lots of companies like to talk about their products, prices and processes. Companies that deal in complex, regulated, intangible products – like financial services, health or energy – are particularly prone to this. They feel they need to explain everything they know, to educate us.

But other brands know what I’m really interested in is me and my world, not them and theirs.

Apple and AirBnB don’t try to entice me with gigabytes or how they have 37 different options. They are all about the feeling I get from using their products. Google doesn’t tell me how their algorithms work or how difficult it’s going to be to find what I need. They strip their words back to the minimum, simply inviting me to ‘google’ something, and giving me an empty box to do it.

Even some financial services firms do this. Firstdirect knows I’m not interested in banking. They give me only essential information, and promise to be there “whenever and wherever you need us”. And smartphone-based bank Monzo offers a “powerful, fast and beautiful” app that’s all about what I can get out of it. Both brands are enormously popular with their customers.

Your verbal identity doesn’t have to be in-your-face

Firstdirect’s tone of voice stands out, but they’re no Innocent Smoothies. They don’t invite you to give them a squeeze or promise not to put a lawnmower in your drink. They don’t need to. In the world of financial services, it’s enough for them to talk like a person (instead of a corporate machine) and talk about me and my world (instead of their products and processes). Just doing these things makes them radically different from 99% of their competitors.

Make simple changes to transform how you sound

If you’re in a conservative, regulated world – rather than selling trainers – you can do a huge amount with tone of voice without upsetting your customers or your regulators. In fact, both will thank you.

These kinds of businesses would come a long way if they stopped talking like this:

The charge for sending paper statements and valuations in the post recognises the costs of production, postage and processing applying to all aspects of administering paper accounts, and includes contract notes, corporate actions and share offer confirmations.

…and talked like this instead:

Printing things and posting them to you costs us money. You pay towards that in charges. If you opt to get your statements and valuations online instead, we’ll charge you less.

What have we done here? Here are three things:

  1. We’ve cut out some nouns – ‘things’ like the costs, aspects, accounts – especially the abstract ones – ‘things you can’t see’ like production, processing, confirmations. They create a corporate feeling. Instead, we’ve used verbs – like printing, pay, get. These give a sense that something is happening.
  1. We’ve put in some people – we and you. Now we have some characters in our story. It’s easier to understand who is doing what.
  1. We’ve split one long sentence into three short ones. That gives the reader time to take in each point. It also helps us see which bits we really need, and what order to put them in.

So if you want your business to sound better by making these kinds of changes, how do you actually go about it?

Do some research to find your voice

Start with some research into your company’s culture. A tone of voice exercise is only going to stick if it’s based on how people feel about your business. So you need to understand that first.

Ask your staff and your customers: what sort of business are you? What are you all about? Are you about facts or feelings? Formality or friendliness? And ask them what you should be talking about. What sort of business do they want you to be? Then show everyone lots of your communications and ask them what works and doesn’t work, and why.

When we talked to people at TSB, we found they were all about helping people. At the Institute of Cancer Research, they liked writing that reflected the positive power of science. Your answers don’t have to be startlingly original. But they do have to be true.

Write a practical tone of voice guide

After some analysis of your research, your ambition and your communications, you need a guide to help people communicate in the best way. This isn’t about imposing something new, it’s about recognising the best communication and helping everyone aspire to that. It’s about making people’s jobs easier and their work more effective. It’s about giving them a toolbox of how to get it right.

So your guide has to be practical, simple, helpful. And short. Really short. If it isn’t, nobody will look at it, let alone use it.

Make a fuss, and train people on the job

If you want your people to take your verbal identity seriously, you need to show them that you do. Get visible and vocal buy-in from your executives. Launch it with a fanfare. Train everyone who needs to know about it, and keep training them on the job. Appoint champions to keep people fired up about it and to celebrate the great things people are writing.

Measure the results and build on what’s working

Finally, as you would with any other business development, measure the results. Survey staff and customers before and after the changes, to see what they like, and do more of that. Take advantage of digital to A/B test your old and new versions for open rates, clicks or enquiries. And get hard figures on how many forms get filled in right first time, how many sales calls you’re getting, or whatever measures are important to you.

This isn’t fluffy stuff that’s ‘nice to have’. It’s what differentiates the world’s most successful businesses. Companies we’ve worked with have used tone of voice to triple sales, halve complaints and save millions of pounds they expected to lose. How does that sound?


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