Finding your voice and speaking up

This year more than any other has demonstrated just how important it is to speak with authenticity and empathy, and to do so in a voice that is your own.  Brands with a clear sense of who they are and a strong verbal identity have been those best placed to enter difficult conversations in a thoughtful and meaningful way.

For example, it wasn’t very long ago that the idea of a brand speaking up loudly on topics such as race was so radical, it seemed like only the Nike’s of the world—brands built on boldness and daring—could do so. Today it’s seen as complicit not to.

Brands unused to saying much of anything to the world and more comfortable strategizing and testing everything they do have been forced to speak - from the heart, from the boardroom and from the social media community manager.  They’ve had to move quickly and without the usual safety nets. 

Recent events in the US (and beyond) are forcing us all to think more deeply, not just about our own unconscious biases, but about how we work through them publicly. And the language we as individuals and brands use to express this journey and our commitment to change really matters.

It’s proving the ultimate stress test for any verbal identity—the set of tools brands design to craft how they speak in the world and what kinds of things they say. Throwing a spotlight on brand voice principles, flexibility of brand tone, and the carefully-crafted messaging strategies that were likely never designed for a moment like this one. 

For sometime now at Wolff Olins, we’ve believed that the next era of great brands will be defined by what we call “conscious brands”—yes, those who understand their role and purpose in the world, but just as importantly, those who find ways to behave in a way that is both responsive and responsible. These principles are critical not just in crisis moments in culture, but also in everyday interactions with customers and employees. 

In moments of crisis and complexity—one of the first questions to consider when looking to address a topic is who exactly speaks for the company and brand? With such sensitive subject matter, the faceless brand with a generic typeset image may not be seen as authentic or compelling. Is it a message from C-suite leadership or a founder? Or is it an opportunity to share a personal employee story? Or will that only further highlight that the organization doesn’t have a coherent message or policy? 

To illustrate this point, we can take a look at how a few prominent brands have performed in the moment. 

For Airbnb, belonging, inclusion and opening your world to a broader community is a matter of mission. The challenge of racism and the need to focus on diversity and inclusion is central to achieving their purpose of creating a world where anyone can belong anywhere. In 2020, Airbnb reinforced this message with the announcement of Project Lighthouse, a data-led initiative intended to root out bias and racism on its platform. To promote this position in social media, Airbnb claimed their belief that this work is important “because a world where we belong takes all of us.” 

Additionally, Airbnb highlighted some cold, hard facts to support their brand claim: “Since 2016, we’ve removed 1.3MM for declining to treat others without judgement or bias.” The message and its tonality highlighted the work the company has done to date without overclaiming or becoming a generic bandwagon joiner. A strong message is delivered via their brand voice principles of being “straightforward, inclusive, thoughtful, and spirited.” 

A very different example is that of General Motors, the global automotive manufacturer. As part of broader diversity and inclusion commitments, GM chose to amplify a more personal employee story. Gerald Johnson, EVP of Global Manufacturing was featured in a simple (and presumably shot in a socially distanced way) short film about his own experience as a Black man in America. 

Although the statement embodied only the experience of one individual, GM clearly wanted to send a direct message, especially in the face of past claims of racist practices in some of its manufacturing centers. This is a good example of a brand “passing the mic” and not highlighting an expected source like CEO Mary Barra. But rather, asking a high-ranking employee with potentially more believability or intimate knowledge of the topic at hand to play a central role. 

This kind of choice should, of course, be done with care, so as not to highlight the wrong kind of behavior—tokenizing or asking Black employees to take responsibility for an entire company’s practices. In this instance GM was able to create a straightforward and clear message, and deliver it directly. 

Because of the timeliness of the anti-racism movement in the US, we’ve highlighted speaking in solidarity as an acute moment in which verbal identity can play an outsized role. The anti-racism movement will continue and although the acute social media-driven scrutiny may subside, it’s likely that brands will find themselves in the spotlight again—needing to speak outside of their core expertise or beyond their products and services, more as a corporate world citizen and an employer seeking to have a relationship with its employees and customers. 

Verbal identity—from brand voice to messaging to naming strategy—is playing an increasingly-critical role for brands in helping them to lead conversations in engaging and rewarding ways. 

For many years Wolff Olins has been creating verbal identities for brands like Uber and Tesco, helping them use language to move into deeper customer relationships and more empathetic ways of engaging. 

Here are a few simple principles to help you and your brand step up and into more meaningful conversations:

  • Show your spirit, not your strategy: Part of using your verbal identity wisely is using your principles as a guide, in a way that’s flexible and allows your brand to demonstrate real empathy 
  • Find words you can use with meaning:  Balance your unique and authentic brand voice with using words that connect you to the bigger conversation—on social issues or just in the culture your customers operate in 
  •  Done is better than perfect:  While you want to avoid empty rhetoric, a sincere comment related to your business and role in the world helps you enter the conversation meaningfully 

No brand can afford to be lost for words right now and the right verbal identity toolkit will ensure you won’t be.