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Designers must be more aware of the power of language when creating a brand

The way you talk says a lot about you. Your accent. The pitch of your voice. Your turn of phrase. The rhythm of your speech. The volume at which you speak.

These are component parts of your character. They hint at your attitudes and aspirations, your education, the part of the world you come from, your personality type. Of course, you can modify your delivery at will. You can make yourself sound posher or more streetwise, you can convey a whole gamut of emotions from anger to joy, flirtatiousness to ambivalence. And that’s just in the way you converse. Once you add substance, logic and argument, you’re dealing with a very powerful mode of communication indeed.

As for people, so for companies and brands. Increasingly, it’s not just what you say, it’s the way that you say it. The manner in which you choose to express yourself, in print and on-line, can be used to reinforce brand values, to complement and counterpoint the various other elements that combine to make up your identity.

There are signs that verbal tone of voice is finally being recognised as an important component in corporate communications. The style in which words are delivered has proved to be one of the last pieces in the jigsaw of achieving total branding. But it has been a long time coming and there’s a long way to go yet.

While the understanding and handling of imagery has become ultra-sophisticated, the appreciation and application of writing has lagged far behind. Designers have become arch-manipulators of visual language. They are capable of using their preferred tools of photography, illustration, typography and graphic composition to create the most subtle nuance. They know just how to bring a rigour and consistency to every aspect of a company’s visual persona. And yet, in verbal tone of voice, they have neglected one of the most potent weapons at their disposal. Why? ‘Because it’s relatively new and a bit of a mystery to people,’ says Interbrand director of verbal communication John Simmons. ‘A lot of writers don’t understand it either. It’s much more than copywriting.’

‘The climate is now more receptive to the idea of language being an important element of a brand,’ agrees Simmons. ‘We have moved towards the idea that brands have to be built on big ideas, rather than be just about maintaining consistent visual standards. That’s a big shift, but it has happened over ten years or more. A lot of designers are dyslexic or at least terrible spellers, so they lack confidence with words. But in my experience the best designers are also the most creative with words and the most receptive to working in creative partnership with writers.’

Ultimately, however, there is still a fundamental lack of respect for and understanding of writing within the design industry, where that tired old cliché, ‘a picture paints a thousand words’, still holds sway. In some ways, you can see why – writing, like design, is variable and doesn’t always come up to scratch. ‘The majority of corporate literature is so poor and uninviting you might as well substitute Latin text,’ says Rich, who has provided tone of voice consultancy to a number of companies, including Ericsson, Bass and BT. ‘There’s an unconscious conspiracy which holds that people are too busy to read. But if you look around you on the Tube or in the street or the airport, you can see that people are actually reading all the time. If you gave them corporate literature that was worth reading, they’d read it. Too many writers are complacent. We need to get over the real value of writing.’

Rich is spot on, but getting the message through is quite another matter. As Addison creative director Peter Chodel says, ‘There’s a certain nervousness about using writers. It’s a bit like commissioning an illustration, you don’t know quite what you’re going to get until you get it. It requires a leap of faith.’ And it’s a leap of faith many are too frightened, or unwilling, to take. Bringing a new writer in to meet a client for the first time is always a tricky proposition. A project may well have been hard won, and introducing an unknown, untried element into the mix can exacerbate an already tense situation. What if they don’t gel with the team? Is it really worth the risk? Are they really adding that much to the equation?

But these are self-justifying excuses rather than genuine qualms. The truth of the matter is that many companies don’t think they need someone to create and develop a tone of voice for them – they are under the illusion that they already have one. ‘It’s taken for granted,’ says Orange’s Oscar. ‘People assume a tonality of language because they can hear it in their heads. But actually, when you put words on paper, a lot of the original emphasis disappears. Often, you need to insert additional words to create a tone. But unless you spend a lot of time working with words, this isn’t so obvious.’

Unfortunately, tone of voice isn’t something that just sprouts naturally from the corporate top-soil. It needs to be conceived, defined, nurtured and developed. There are times it should be reassessed or refined to reflect a changing marketplace or corporate culture. And ideally, it should be evident in every verbal manifestation of the company, from the modest e-mail to the grand annual report, from printed material to the way people answer their phones. It should be embroidered into the very fabric of the company or brand. Yes, that takes patience and money, but in the end, the rewards are palpable. Everyone I spoke to for this article cited Orange as an exemplar, and with good reason.

So how do we get there? First and foremost there needs to be more trust. How many times have I been greeted with the words ‘We tried using a writer once before, but it didn’t work out’? It’s the kind of backhanded welcome that immediately puts you on your guard. And, speaking from personal experience, I can quite imagine why it didn’t work out. Because the writer was brought in at the last minute after the design had been completed to fill in some blank spaces. They were no doubt given a couple of press releases, a two-year-old brochure and asked to look on the website for source material. They were told, ‘We don’t know exactly what we want, but we’ll know when we see it’. Then, like some mutant circus performer – half mind-reader and half magician – they’d have been expected to go off and produce something exceptional.

‘If you want a good piece of work, everyone needs to be there right from the beginning on an equal footing,’ says Marita Lashko, who runs the design group Lash & Ko, and has recently been working on a rebranding project for organisational development consultant Sheppard Moscow with copywriter Mike Reed of Other. ‘If a client isn’t used to dealing with words, they may have to be eased in gently. They may need convincing that writing is really going to make a difference – because they think that anyone can write. But turning copy into something creative is a real feat.’

In this particular case, Sheppard Moscow put the first critical building blocks in place before the whole process started. It conducted thorough research and prepared a detailed brief. It amassed as much background material as possible and, recognising that it was embarking on a copy-led initiative, even spoke to the writer first. In other words, it did the groundwork that is so often neglected before a tone-of-voice programme is instituted.

For Lashko and other designers, finding writers with whom they can build a rapport is problematic. Good, strategic-thinking writers are few and far between, and generally discovered through recommendation or word-of-mouth. Some sort of collective representation may be appropriate, whereby designers and clients could not only be educated as to the potential of tone of voice, but also source valuable, like-minded collaborators.

‘Writers have to get active and passionate,’ says Rich. ‘Good writing should be seen as a requirement, not just an opportunity.’ And you designers need to become more receptive too. Otherwise, you’re just baking a beautiful pie crust without any filling.

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