Re-Verb: Noisy Markets Demand a Brand Voice
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
As interesting and important as micro-blogging and other momentary, disposable bits of culture might be, I tend to be more interested in the larger patterns they can help reveal — not the chatter itself. Recently, the former has helped me tune into something intriguing: an emerging meme about brand voice.
In the last three weeks, I have read no fewer than five separate efforts that consider the subject of “branded language” in one way or another. By way of summary, there were the following:
“The Branding of Language,” covering the largely tired subject of referencing brand names through verb-form usage (“I FedEx’d the package.”), thus rendering them closer to semantic generics.
“Absolut Branded Language,” which presented the straightforward, lexigraphic view (Disney, for example, frequently uses “dreams,” “magic” and “fantasy,” among other key brand words).
“The Power of the Human Voice,” an honest effort at transparency from a massive health insurer to say “we hear you,” though it, unfortunately, presents more noise than clarity around any subject.
“Voice Beyond Petulance,” a cultural read of the public finger-pointing and lack of needed discourse, post-crash.
“Today’s Lesson on Possessives Brought to You by ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’,” a review of Disney’s move into “branded education” and the teaching of English to the company’s future Chinese customers.
All of these pieces are dancing around the same topic: the need for brand voice. Brand voice is not simply referring to the brand as a verb, nor is it using an approved set of words in copy. In fact, brand voice is much more about how a brand speaks, rather than what it says, specifically. In today’s networked, transparent world, a brand likely has to be elastic enough, malleable enough, narrative enough to say almost anything, to cross subjects and audiences and still remain relevant. How it says that “anything” is increasingly the challenge for brand managers.
Compare brand image to brand voice: brand image is made up of countless parts, not just one set of photographs or illustrations, yet it always conveys the same impression to the customer. The fun Coca-Cola Creator site proves just how stretchable and consistent brand image can be — fun, exuberant, joyful, personal, all at once. Or consider the brilliant and complex brand management at Louis Vuitton these days, where the brand image is at once old and new, luxury and street, sophisticated and playful:
Building brand voices with such nuance is no less challenging. One might be tempted to say “but we must control the words, or it will all be lost.” Creative directors at Coca-Cola and Louis Vuitton would likely say something similar about image — but they also know that brands today are about defining parameters for narrative play, not a single word, note or idea. ING Direct has done a singularly good job at defining a post-crash brand voice in the banking sector through their social media “We The Savers” manifesto:
And through their traditional outdoor buys:
In both cases, ING Direct is simply giving straightforward financial advice ( i.e, “Savings is the basis of all stable wealth” ) that could have come off as scolding ( i.e., “Why didn’t you save instead of spend, you indulgent consumers?!” ). It is also a marketing call-to-action for deposits ( i.e., “Keep your money in our bank, so we can loan it out and make money during this crisis”). If we simply look at these as “messages,” we miss the very good work done here on brand voice. The tone of the messages are light, worry-free, smart — the feelings that come from having one’s finances in order. The voice also adds considerable nuance to the workaday tagline, “Save your money.” In context, this becomes not a scold, but a heroic quest: rescue what is at risk, what you have earned. The tagline becomes a moment of enlightenment — You, Mr. and Mrs. Consumer, are the rescuers here, not the government. With a brand that is “in voice,” the outdoor buy perfectly complements the social play based on a “financial declaration of independence.” The brand voice is given to and shared with the consumer in entirely overt ways.
The power of the verb is key here. Verbs determine action: “declare,” “keep” and “save” shape ING Direct’s brand voice. These are, ultimately, more powerful than treating the brand name itself like a verb. “Jack hits Jill” is a vastly different story from “Jack hugs Jill.” Verbs shape brand narratives and voices. Rather than focus on image words (e.g., “magic,” “fantasty”), which are by definition nouns, brand managers would be well-advised to define what their brands do...what their verbs make happen when voiced. It is time to re-verb brands for the work they need to do in today’s economy and always changing, networked world.
Crafting a brand voice is not about word choice, per se. It is about viewpoint, structure, syntax, euphony, semantics. It is about carefully structured and purposeful meaning — not parroted repetition of key words or messages. Without a clear view of brand voice, ING Direct would offer nothing but a tired, category-level claim “save, save, save.” Marketers have invested billions in building brand image, but not nearly enough in crafting brand voice. Why? Because brand voice requires incredible clarity of thought and intent; one must have something of substance to say as well as an ownable way of saying it. In an increasingly noisy marketplace, a clear brand voice is an increasingly valuable intangible asset — and the one over which marketers still have the greatest control. The consumer is craving dialogue. Are you able to listen...and respond...and still be “in brand,” no matter what you need to say? Just buy more noise? Or sit there silently?