Language barrier

Words are just as important as images when you want to get through to your target market, but very few companies put them to good use, says Simon Jones

Love them or hate them, over the past decade brands have fuelled the growth of a whole new creative industry and spawned their own evolving vocabulary. The world’s larger companies are quick to buy into branding, and invest heavily to make sure their visual identities send the right messages. But in the flurry of excitement to develop brands, many of them forget one of the most fundamental elements of any communication: words.

In 1994, Orange made a huge impact on consumers with its clever use of language. We can all remember the big ‘Hello’ as the network launched into the market. Words weren’t treated as an add-on to the creative process, they were a core part of the strategy. Margaret Oscar, former head of verbal identity at Orange and founder member of writers’ group 26, says, ‘When a company establishes its language early in the strategic process, it can be used to build its identity in the long term.’ The hugely successful launch of Orange paved the way for companies to take stock of their brands and reach for Roget’s Thesaurus. But few did. Ten years on, has anything changed?

For some brands, words and tone of voice are integral to their success. Take Innocent. With a no nonsense product (smoothies) and charming tone of voice, it struck a chord with cynical consumers. Dan Germain, head of creative at Innocent Drinks, explains: ‘The drinks market is really crowded, and because we had little money for advertising in the early days, we wanted to do something that would really talk to people. The copy reflects who we are – a group of friends doing something we enjoy. If people trust your tone of voice they trust the product as well – as long as it’s good, of course.’ For a young brand like Innocent, it’s easy for visuals and copy to be coherent. But it’s much harder for a company to do this if they are larger, use a number of different agencies or have a long history.

Katy Sewell, former head of language at Boots the Chemists, has now set up copywriting consultancy Write Personality. At Boots, she helped change the way language was being used both internally and externally. ‘It’s not enough to simply create “brand guidelines”, employees need to understand and engage with the brand,’ she says. ‘If the values of an organisation are not expressed clearly the resulting gap in understanding can lead to disengagement with the brand. There is a real need to get language experts involved at the earliest possible stage of a branding exercise.’

In Sewell’s experience, writers approach a puzzle in different ways to designers and can bring structure and objectivity to the creative process. ‘Clients often don’t understand the value that a copywriter can bring if they are involved early on. Without a writer you simply won’t get the richness of ideas necessary to build a brand,’ she says. Using both designers and copywriters in the early stages of the branding process helps build foundations for maintaining consistency in the creative work that follows – a major challenge for any brand.

This view is shared by Richard Gillingwater, brand consultant at Marketplace. He believes designers and copywriters need to work together to define clear brand stories for their clients. ‘Words and images can be used to interpret and enhance each other. One is far less powerful without the other, but when they work together, we get to the real meaning of a brand,’ he says. A good copywriter, he adds, recognises the ‘hidden meaning of language’ rather than simply expressing the features and benefits of a product. Their words add real value to the brand in what they don’t say and can work on the subconscious level, where a person truly connects with a brand.

Perhaps consultancies are afraid of bringing in copywriters because they don’t feel qualified to judge the writer’s strategic work. When building a writing team at Boots, Sewell was careful to hand-pick the people involved. ‘Copywriters come in two forms,’ she says, ‘those who show their portfolio and say ‘this is my style’, and those who try to get under the skin of your brand personality by asking questions. It’s the second that can really add value.’ Gillingwater looks for copywriters with role-playing skills. He says, ‘If a writer projects themselves into a character, they no longer express themselves but the values of a brand, which is vital for successful communication.’

So where is copywriting heading today? A decade after the ground-breaking launch of Orange, it is increasingly becoming a part of the strategic process. Of course, there’s still room for writers who can fill in space in design, who can express features and benefits and use language clearly and elegantly. But in a brand-oriented market they can do much more than that, evoking the personality of a company in their communications and creating that all-important emotional attachment. It’s here that copywriters can really add value – at the start of a strategy. Not at the end.

Simon Jones is marketing director at Stratton Craig Copywriters

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