Verbal brand identity: find your own voice and make it heard

12 September 2023

Your verbal brand identity is the set of linguistic expressions of your brand. It bundles the tone in which and style with which you communicate to all your target audiences through all mediums. Together with your visual brand expression, your verbal brand expression conveys who you are, what you stand for and what you can do for your customers. In this blog, we will explore your unique voice together.

Having a round table meeting

What is verbal brand identity?

Your verbal brand identity is formed by all your verbal building blocks, such as: 

  • your brand name 

  • your brand signature/slogan 

  • your brand story 

  • your brand message 

  • your mission/vision/values 

  • your manifesto 

  • your tone of voice 

  • your language 

  • your brand-specific vocabulary 

These verbal brand building blocks in turn serve as a touchstone for all your linguistic communication. Think web texts, mailings, newsletters, blogs, messages on social media, radio and TV spots, podcasts, advertisements, street posters and leaflets, but also your own voice when you talk to a (potential) customer or employee.

Consistent and recognisable

Your verbal brand identity should be coherent, consistent and recognisable during every contact moment with your target groups. That way, you cultivate an identity for your brand internally and an image around your brand externally. No strong brand without a clear verbal personality. Customers and employees expect that from you. They want to feel a clear direction. A brand that changes its ethos and voice at the drop of a hat is adrift and inspires distrust.

Don’t mimic your target audience

Your verbal identity should set you apart from your competitors. You sometimes hear that you should talk the way your target audience talks. I don't agree! An established, classic brand that suddenly starts churning out trendy words to appeal to a younger target group loses credibility. Moreover, "talk like your target group talks" means that competitors aiming at the same target groups cannot distinguish themselves from each other verbally, which is exactly the intention.

Instead of mimicking your target groups, look for a voice that coincides with your own character and personality. This is sincere, more pleasant for everyone and therefore easier to sustain. Of course, you want your voice to be clear and appealing to your target audience, but it does not have to coincide with theirs.

Find your own voice

In your quest to find your own voice, it makes sense to find out where your brand is on a few spectra, for instance through a workshop - which we are happy to organise for you. Popular spectra for this exercise are informal versus formal, funny versus serious, respectful versus witty and enthusiastic versus factual. The US Content Marketing Institute recommends summarising your brand voice in three words, e.g. 'casual', 'informative' and 'friendly'.

Sometimes witty, never gratuitous

Do you opt for a serious voice or a touch of humour? Playful words are tempting to stand out or elicit sympathy for your brand. Humour can also reduce stress and anxiety by releasing endorphins. A humorous brand voice has also been proven to increase your brand awareness and build trust. However, this only applies if the tone is in line with the rest of your brand personality and if your target audience is open to it. Certain jokes may be fun for one target group, while others may find them offensive.

A dime on its side, then. I do dare to advise that exaggerating in any direction is usually wrong. Gratuitous buffoonery becomes highly irritating, while dry seriousness turns into a tough bite. Find the right balance.

Not too friendly

Do you know what also causes brand damage? An overly friendly tone of voice! Nielsen-Norman studies have shown that this undermines the perception of trustworthiness and professionalism. In turn, a very witty, confident tone usually scores well when talking about your service, product or specialisation, but is less suitable for addressing your target audience. An overenthusiastic or uninhibitedly emotional tone is also likely to cause irritation. Another useful tip: never try to impose a certain feeling out of the blue, but first listen carefully and build on emotions that are already (dormant) present. Know that your tone has an impact on your target audience's emotions and that emotions in turn influence purchase intentions. People quickly forget exactly what you said or did, but rarely forget how you made them feel.

Beware of translations

Say your locally anchored business is doing well and you decide to internationalise. Totally great, but what about your carefully constructed verbal identity? Well, you will have to fine-tune it for each new market and language area. What comes across as funny and smart in the Netherlands may offend Germans. And at iO we know from experience that Flemish copy is often not quite ready for the Dutch market. Or vice versa, for that matter. Conclusion? Stay yourself abroad, but make sure you have a locally adapted version of yourself. Translating blindly is not a good idea.

Instead of mimicking your target groups, look for a voice that coincides with your own character and personality.

Jan Schuddinck

Jan Schuddinck, Copywriter

Document your verbal identity

Once you have defined your verbal brand identity, it is important to document it clearly as well. Merely defining it is not enough, because the tricky thing with words is that they mean different things to different people. Suppose you have defined your brand voice as 'spontaneous'. But what does spontaneous mean? User A may mean something different than user B by it, leading to problems like unnecessary rounds of revisions. So provide plenty of practical examples of how things should and should not be done. Solid documentation helps both (current and future) team members and external staff to quickly pick up the right tone.

Therefore, in addition to your mission, vision and values, don't forget to include your well-documented tone of voice in your brand guidelines. The same goes for a proper manifesto, which often gives a very useful idea of the verbal style you have in mind.

Don't overdo it though

If necessary, draw up a list of words that go well with your brand, but don't jump to rigid conclusions. For an accounting firm, I once wrote the cover text of a brochure with the header '8 pieces of advice for alert accountants' and the headline 'How to become the bookkeeper of the future'. Well, the firm replaced 'bookkeeper' in the headline with 'accountant' without my input. They preferred the - to me, at least - irritating repetition in the header/headline combination to the association with the word 'bookkeeper'. Just because accountancy is more than bookkeeping to them. Fodder for discussion, I don't judge. But you understand what I mean when I say you don't want to be too rigid with your vocabulary. Quite a few people assume that more expensive words come across as more professional. I dare to doubt that.

Don't brag using fancy words
Sometimes it is better to avoid certain words. Are you an outspoken luxury brand? Then do not describe yourself as 'premium', because it brings down your premium image. The same goes for 'trendy': those who proclaim that about themselves rarely are. Worse still: to inflict a quality or air on yourself in the vain hope of covering up the lack of it. Few cars got less applause in the 1990s than the Daihatsu Applause. And if possible, even fewer models proved less charismatic than the Mitsubishi Carisma.

Avoid labels
In any case, avoid meaningless labels like 'premium', 'qualitative', 'dynamic' or 'innovative'. Instead of ascribing such predicates to yourself, explain why you deserve them. Don't say "our service is excellent” but explain exactly what you do to serve your customers in the best possible way. Don't say you are concerned about the environment but explain what you do to reduce your carbon footprint. Also, avoid clichés. The duller an employer, the more often the word 'passion' will appear on the job page.

Unless you really claim them
Sometimes, however, claiming one specific term can pay off for your brand. For instance, Rik Van Stippent of the Dutch car polishing company Stipt Polish Point invariably calls cars that have undergone his intensive polishing treatment 'factory new' (‘fabrieksnieuw’ in Dutch) in his wildly popular YouTube videos. The expression 'factory new' works wonders for his verbal brand identity: he found his own voice and makes it heard frequently. Although it already turned against Van Stippent too. When images surfaced a while back of how he reduced his Lamborghini to scrap on the motorway with a skid, the ironic online comments were quite predictable: "That Lambo looks brand new again, Rik!" Perhaps a big dent in his ego, but not necessarily damaging to his brand.

Jan Schuddinck
About the author
Jan Schuddinck
Senior Creative Copywriter - iO

As an experienced conceptual copywriter, Jan is iO’s jack-of-all-copy-trades. From senior-level snappy taglines to ever-lasting elaborate blogs, Jan’s value comes from what he does best: taking in the complex and putting it in words your audience can really get behind.

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