A brand's identity, or the face it presents to the world, is more than logos and names. It's also how the company speaks and what it says. At the base level, this communication should position the brand uniquely and consistently across all touch points. Most companies seek to create this integration, first, via a visual system that expresses the brand through color, images, logo treatment, texture and beyond. But truly bringing a brand to life requires not only a unique visual system, but also a written and spoken voice that is a reflection of the brand.
"Branded language" isn't just the development of names, strap lines or messaging, although it works with all of those. Branded language allows a brand to express its personality through a distinct tone of voice, manner, structure and vocabulary system. Like design, branded language takes its cues from brand positioning to ensure that the communication expresses the truth of the brand. Some brands choose to make their language highly noticeable in this way, while others count it as a success that their language simply fits the brand.
The benefit of branded language is not only consistency, but the fact that it also permits a wider scope for creative expression to reflect a brand. For example, Richard Branson's Virgin is always irreverent and fun. This sensibility doesn't just come from the visual identity; the brand uses language to convey these values.
Since the sale of its record label, the company's largest American business may be its airline, Virgin Atlantic. When you fly Virgin, you're part of a club - a flying nightclub with a language conveying a certain friendly exclusivity. A passenger who visits the Web site is often greeted with "Hello, Gorgeous," while the frequent flyer program, "Flying Club," provides "irresistible offers" and the company's first-class cabin, "Upper Class," allows for "drive-thru check-in so you can bypass the terminal and head straight for the Clubhouse."
Sure, Virgin is an unusual brand with an unusual leader who encourages pushing the envelope. But as this example also shows, branded language is not limited to consumer companies having some fun. Business-to-business companies and more conservative consumer brands can express themselves through branded language. If a brand doesn't pay attention to the language in all of its communications, at best it could be missing an opportunity to use language as a consistent, creative expression of the brand. At worst, inconsistent language can sabotage public perception of the brand.
To achieve consistent creativity in communications, a branded language program establishes the language personality of the brand. The process to develop branded language begins with an audit to understand a brand's current communications and its positioning. This step reveals what a brand needs to say, to whom and through which modes of communication. The next step focuses on the positioning and characteristics that drive and differentiate a brand. The findings can then be used when rewriting communications materials. The new, revised copy can be tested internally and externally, both to find out whether it expresses the brand clearly and whether users like it. Once vetted, the brand language is then captured as guidelines, on paper or electronically. Training - to make sure all the relevant communicators, from copywriters to speakers to customer service reps, know how to express the brand consistently - is the final step.
Ideally, branded language should deliver a structure that frees writers to be creative, while providing enough constraint to make sure that nothing off-brand gets through. And often, that's a case of working closely with companies and their writers. Sometimes, this collaboration results in additions and changes to the guidelines to capture what is discovered on applying the brand's language in new areas. If the process seems odd, remember it's analogous to what happens with visual design.
We're used to accepting that strong brands consider color, images and typography when communicating their message graphically. Today, strong brands also consider not just what they're going to say, but how to say it.
Jean Brandolini Lamb is the director of brand strategy for Enterprise IG in New York. Judy Delin, Ph.D., is the UK Head of Brand Language for Enterprise IG in London. (email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org)