What is Verbal Identity? What your choice of words says about your brand

All languages evolve. Words and their usages appear and morph, reflecting the cultural conversations of the times. But much like everything else in 2020, the rate of change seemed to speed up last year. Indeed, Oxford Dictionaries even abandoned its traditional word of the year in favour of a ‘Words of an Unprecedented Year’ report, which listed ‘coronavirus’, ‘lockdown’, ‘circuit-breaker’, ‘furlough’, and ‘Black Lives Matter’ to name a few. 

This begs the question: if language, like all of us, has to adapt rapidly and repeatedly, why is the language of brands often so static and out of touch? And what can we do about it? 

In this piece, we answer the question of what is verbal identity and explain why brands need to mind their language.

What is verbal identity - and why should I care?

Verbal identity is the set of tools a brand designs to craft how it speaks and what it says. It guides everything involving words - from product naming to UX copy to physical environments.

Internally, it fundamentally affects how people talk about themselves and to each other. It shapes written and spoken communications such as internal announcements, recruitment messaging, and onboarding and training materials.

Externally, it works in tandem with visual identity to engage a brand’s many audiences. It informs both the loud and the quiet moments - from advertising right the way through to claims forms. 

Put simply, its remit is huge. Without the right words, everything else just feels... off. 

How can I build a good one?

2020 was the ultimate stress test for any verbal identity. Brands unused to saying much of anything to the world were forced to speak - from the heart and from the boardroom. They had to move quickly and without the usual safety nets, working through complex issues - from the pandemic to Black Lives Matter - publicly. 

Brands with a clear sense of who they are and a strong verbal identity were those best placed to enter difficult conversations in a thoughtful and meaningful way. We have been creating these kinds of powerful verbal identities for many years, helping businesses use language to move into deeper customer relationships and lead conversations in engaging and rewarding ways.

Here are some top tips:

1. It starts with personality

As the name suggests, verbal identity is about bringing a brand’s identity to life through its words. So, nailing a brand personality that is both memorable internally and directional is a great place to start. 

Take Wendy’s, for instance. Wendy’s uses Chris Pratt from Guardians of the Galaxy as a representation of its personality; clever, interesting, resourceful, likeable and a little bit cheeky. It’s this characterisation that allows the brand to dish out the Twitter roasts and clapbacks for which it has become so famous. 

Netflix, on the other hand, uses a one-liner internally to capture its brand personality: “We’re fans too.” For writing, this means that the brand meets users on their level, mirroring their excitement and hyping up shows, actors, and creators in the same way that any fan would. 

2. Get smart on voice versus tone. 

The language of ‘tone of voice’ leads to easy conflation of voice and tone. In reality, the two are complementary but quite different. 

Voice is: an expression of a brand’s personality. It often takes the form of a simple set of principles, unpacked into detailed writing guidance. A brand’s voice should be recognisable and come through everywhere it speaks. 

Tone is: one level down from voice. It acknowledges that a brand’s voice is composed of a number of principles, but that each one can be dialled up or down to suit the audience, message, and medium. Think about pretty much anyone that you know. They likely have a distinct voice, but the way they speak shifts depending on where they’re talking and who they’re talking to. This is no different for brands. User journeys and empathy spectrums are great tools to use to map out this tonal flex. 

3. Open it up. 

Verbal identity is too often forgotten - or treated as the work of a lone copywriter. A few dusty and vanilla principles hidden inside an onboarding pack, read once and never revisited. But it touches every department in a business and informs almost every touchpoint. 

We have a six-step process to creating a verbal identity. We engage teams from across a business throughout these six steps to ensure that any guidance that we create is universally relevant and helpful. Our sixth and final step is embedding and localisation.

Through workshops and interactive toolkits, we make sure that internal teams and agency partners alike have the tools to deliver the verbal identity correctly and confidently. And we make it useful globally through translation and transcreation. 

ViacomCBS case study: a global media company

What ViacomCBS needed: 

Following a monumental merger, these two very different names needed a cohesive brand strategy and unifying verbal identity that would allow them to tell their new story to the world. But with one known as a respected news institution, and the other known for Spongebob and reality TV - not to mention the additional challenge of needing to speak to both creators and investors - the tool we created needed to be highly flexible and differentiated in a crowded media landscape. 

How we helped:

Off the back of a rigorous brand strategy and identity creation process, we co-created a set of voice principles for the new ViacomCBS brand. We also built a tone spectrum to guide writers on how to write for the brand’s many audiences - from creators to advertisers to investors. 

We then tested and iterated on the toolkit with teams from across the business, to make sure that the work was clear and usable for everyone. This led to the creation of a further voice toolkit specifically for ViacomCBS’s streaming brand in the US and international markets, and also informed the business’s naming strategy. 

TikTok case study: an entertainment ecosystem

What TikTok needed: 

A verbal identity that could flex all the way from cheeky social media posts to serious legal communications, and from casual browsers to die-hard creators to governmental bodies - across 150+ countries and over 75 languages. 

TikTok’s meteoric growth had meant that it was no longer merely speaking to users within an app; it was a big part of popular culture and needed an identity that showed up in the right way, everywhere. 

How we helped:

We defined a brand personality for TikTok with the help of cross-function working groups from across the business. We used this personality as the foundation for three voice principles and accompanying detailed writing guidance for how TikTok should write and speak. 

We also built a messaging tool composed of long-, medium-, and short-form responses to six questions that we had identified as the drivers behind almost everything that TikTok needed to talk about. 

To show all of this guidance in action and give writers additional inspiration, we created before and after illustrations of all of TikTok’s key verbal touchpoints. Lastly, we created guidance around the usage of ‘TikTok’ as a brand name - to build equity and ensure consistency across the brand experience. 

A final note

The past year may have left us all speechless, but what 2020 showed us loud and clear is that no brand can afford to be lost for words right now. 

Against a backdrop of uncertainty and upheaval, it demonstrated just how important it is to speak with authenticity and empathy, and to do so in a voice that is your own. 

Whether as an individual or as a brand practitioner, we invite you to think about the untapped power of your words: when, where, and how am I speaking up? Are my words inclusive? Do they reflect who I am?

If you want to find out more about our approach to verbal identity and the work we’ve done with other brands, please get in touch: clientslondon@wolffolins.com or clientsnewyork@wolffolins.com