9 things you should know about branded language

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President Obama word cloud

1. Language is one of the most important definers of any brand. The language you choose, the language you don’t choose and the language you choose to replace are a reflection, and in some senses a definition, of your priorities.

2. Language underpins perspective: it not only reveals how an organisation feels about a matter, it also signals how that organisation might be expected to approach and resolve that matter in the future.

3. Language defines relationships. Your tone reflects how at ease you feel in your own brand skin. Formal brands use formal language, and that formality rubs off into their dealings. Relaxed brands use more informal, chatty language and help their customers feel at ease. If your tone and manner don’t reflect your values and your personality, your communications will always feel awkward.

4. Language is instinctual. You may need rules to start with – but in time you should know whether a communication is “on brand” or not from how it feels. The best brands have language that goes without saying. It is embedded in who they are, and therefore how they express themselves.

5. Language must communicate. Truism, yes – until you look at all the gunk that pours out of brands and realise that too many of them have too little to say of any significance or interest. If you’re not adding to the meaning, say nothing. It means more.

6. Language should be jagged. It should have sharp edges that cut across the normal patter. Here’s an interesting challenge. Run a word-cloud on your website like the one that Jason Morrison ran on Obama’s speech to Congress (above) and see what it comes back with. If you spy nothing but the same, safe, predictable language as everyone else, you need to make some changes. Try finding new and exciting ways of talking about what you do. Take your language cues from your values, your worldview, your personality (naturally) and most importantly of all the personas of your customers. Talk with them, not at them about the things they want to hear about. Take your cues for this from your social media results – most searched words, hashtags that people are interested in, most popular categories for you etc.

7. Language is keywords. In addition to re-expressing your brand, look to own a small collection of words in the minds of your customers and your staff. Martin Lindstrom found 74 percent of consumers associate the word “crunch” with Kellogg’s. Another 59 percent consider the word “masculine” and Gillette as one and the same. Disney, he says, owns a whole lexicon built around its kingdom of fantasy, dreams, promises, and magic. over 80 percent of the world’s population directly associates “dreams,” “creativity, “fantasy,” “smiles,” “magic,” and “generation” with Disney. The result is what Lindstrom describes as a “smash-able” brand. You can take any piece of any experience and, even with no visual cues, it is instantly recognisable as Disney. Same with Absolut vodka. In their case, their name is so integral to their language that it functions as a language anchor.

100 Absolut ads
8. Language changes perceptions.
As Frank Luntz says it so perfectly, “It’s not what you say that matters, it’s what people hear”. When NGOs talk about what’s wrong in the world, customers hear a brand that is negative. When they talk about what could happen and what they’re aiming to improve, people “hear” a brand that is uplifting. When Oxfam found that their “against poverty” message wasn’t working, they very successfully shifted to a way of talking that was “pro-humanity”. Receptivity surged. That’s because changing the language changes the premise. It redefines/ refreshes/challenges meanings that people feel they know. It requires people not just to rearticulate what they believe but to express that belief in a way that they may well never have thought of before.

9. Language should shift. Or at least it should as you become more familiar with people and they become more familiar with you. The way you talk to a prospect should be noticeably different than the dialogue you have with a loyal buyer. Plotting those transitions is critical. See this post on the MotivationMap we use at Audacity for more details.

Word cloud of Obama’s speech to Congress generated at and posted by Jason Morrison. Sourced from Flickr.

Image of 100 Absolut ads sourced from

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