The Verbal Identity of a Brand
by Dennis Bruce


The phone rings. You pick it up. The person on the other end doesn’t identify herself.  She doesn’t have to.  You know immediately who it is by her voice, by the way she uses language.  That’s verbal identity. You open a book. You read a  paragraph or two. You recognize the voice of the author.  That’s also verbal identity.

In marketing, we give a lot of thought to visual identity – logos, symbols, typefaces, colours, design, and so on.  Visual identity is critically important to the life of a brand.  Many companies have paid millions for a new visual identity. But what about verbal identity?  How many give it the same thought and effort?

In his book, The Invisible Grail, John Simmons, a British brand consultant, maintains that it is the words and stories that constitute the verbal identities of brands, and create a  positive emotional connection with consumers.  He calls that connection the Grail (after the Holy Grail). It lies hidden, he says, beaten down by the continued overemphasis of visual impact.

There’s no doubt we live in a visual age.  Everywhere we are beset by pictures, by images, by graphics. Art directors rule.  Many ads are wordless save for the logo. Others have pictures, but what passes for copy is designed to be seen but not read – tiny, gray type set in an oblong or a circle or some other design element.  The word has been “humiliated” said French sociologist and philosopher, Jacques Ellul.  And with the humiliation of the word, language shrivels up and we babble platitudes, clichés, jargon.

A few years ago,  we asked a number of corporate executives what their brand stood for.
After a moment’s silence, we were told, “excellence”, “product quality”, “a tradition of proactive customer service.” Sound familiar?  Every company says the same thing. They’re just clichés, the clichés of commerce. “People who use excessive jargon do so to hide their own deficiencies, to confuse others and to say ‘keep out,” says Simmons. “With jargon, we have to point out that the emperor has no clothes.”

Could it be that your cherished brand, despite an impressive visual identity, lacks the words, the voice, in which to clothe a persuasive message? 

Some years back, we put a dozen different bank ads on a wall and asked focus group participants to talk about them.  In every group across the country, we got  the identical response. “They’re all the same.”  But clearly, they weren’t.  They had different logos, colours, pictures and designs.  What was going on here?  “They all say the same thing,” said participants. “The language is the same.”  They all spoke bank-speak. 

How many TV commercials begin with the pompous, self-important cliché, “Announcing…”?  What a tired boring, turn-off to start your message with!  So much advertising is marketing jargon set to a jingle and a few fast cuts.  Marketing jargon will not cut it any more. Today’s consumers are marketing literate.  They understand the language, techniques, pretensions and tricks of the game. And the game is up. You can’t fool them anymore.  If your message doesn’t resonate with them, they won’t cooperate.

Everyone, it seems, is reading the backs of food packages these days.  We all want to know what’s in them and if it will nourish our children.  What an opportunity to make a connection with your consumer and tell your brand story!  Here is the copy from the labels of two brands of fruit juice.  First, from a perfectly good product, Ocean Spray Cranberry Cocktail. “Ingredients: Filtered water, gluctose-fructose, concentrated cranberry juice, cranberry juice, ascorbic acid (vitamin C).”   Now from the label of a British brand, called Innocent Drinks. “My mum’s started buying our smoothies (and that’s after a whole year, the skinflint).  I’ve got to behave and not say anything too rude or controversial.  So mum, they are really good for you.  They are made with 100% pure fresh fruit.  And they contain loads of vitamin C (a day and a half’s worth). They are as fat free as an apple or banana , and that’s because they’re just fruit.  Is that good enough for you mum?  Right, I’m off to smash some windows and have a fag.” Now honestly, which of these brands did you feel an instant connection with?

Ah! that’s Britain, you say, land of Monty Python, something like that would never fly here. Why not?  Have you read the label on Newman’s Own Balsamic Vinaigrette?
“In 1602, in Modena, two brothers of the Vinegar clan, Balsa and Mick, due to a piddling insult, dueled to their deaths.  Their grieving mother, Violette Vinegar, who was pressing a new grape from their vineyard, named it in their memory – Balsa-Mick Vinegar.  Thanks to Newman’s Own, their names live on.”

Despite its ups and downs over the years, one brand that’s managed to maintain both its visual and verbal identities is one we’ve mentioned before in this series of articles.  After more than 40 years Volkswagen is still using the same simple graphics and Futura typeface.  And it’s voice is still warm and human.  Here’s some copy from a classic ad written by Julian Koenig way back when.

“Once upon a time, a young lady visited our plant.
‘What a sweet little car’ she said.  ‘It looks just like a beetle.’
Now we’re a pretty down-to-earth bunch.
At that moment we were figuring how much larger our brake area would have to be if we stepped up our horsepower.
She stopped us cold.
After we’d made some discreet inquiries, we found out that a good many people shared her opinion.
But we also found out that people never said “beetle” nastily.
Always affectionately.
So we grew resigned to our nickname, and finally rather pleased with it.
It seems to say a lot about our attitude to car-making:
determined, painstaking, unpretentious.
After all, some people try like mad to create a favorable impression.
We’d simply tried to make the Volkswagen a practical car.
And we’d gotten our very own image.”

Why talk about your brand in clichés and sound like everyone else when you could use a human voice and give it a distinct verbal identity?


©2003 Mindset Creative Planning Inc. All Rights Reserved.