Today’s interview is with a man who knows how to bring a brand to life no matter what the market - Chris West, from Verbal Identity.
Chris is a leading tone of voice specialist, and the remarkable brain responsible for fine tuning many of the world's most innovative and loved brands, from Alphabet’s Moonshot Factory to Mulberry. We met with Chris to discuss:
- The importance of brand voice in B2B
- Whether brands should alter their tone from channel to channel
- The degree to which ROI can be attributed to these considerations
Dan: Welcome to today’s Boss to Boss podcast. In our interviews, we feature great business people doing imaginative things in otherwise unimaginative markets, usually from the world of B2B. Today’s interview is with a man who knows how to bring a brand to life no matter what the market – Chris West, from Verbal Identity.
Chris is a leading tone of voice specialist, and the remarkable brain responsible for fine-tuning many of the world’s most innovative and loved brands, from Alphabet’s Moonshot Factory to Mulberry. We’ll be asking Chris about the importance of brand voice in B2B, whether brands should alter their tone from channel to channel, and the degree to which ROI can be attributed to these considerations.
Chris, thanks for joining us.
Chris: My pleasure.
Chris: For sure. So, when people say, “What does verbal identity do?”, I always say we’re a niche within a niche. So, what I mean by that is, certainly, marketing services aren’t a niche; they’re a fundamental part of a big forward-thinking business. Within marketing services, you need to pay a lot of attention to the identity of your brand – and I don’t just mean the physical manifestations, the assets and everything else – I mean, the identity in the sense of behaviours, what you think, how you behave in certain situations, what you look like.
“Businesses can create an identity for themselves through the language they use. In fact, they do create an identity for themselves through the language they use, whether they realise it or not.”
Within that brand identity niche, there is an even smaller niche, which is where we are. As the name verbal identity would suggest brands, businesses can create an identity for themselves through the language they use. In fact, they do create an identity for themselves through the language they use, whether they realise it or not. So, that’s the space we’re in, and most marketing directors, CMOs or business leaders, these days of B2B, B2C professional services firms, most of them, if they want their brand to be differentiated and be more highly valued for what’s special about them, they’ll have somewhere, a slide deck, which is normally 120 slides long. It contains all the nuances of their visual identity; where the logo goes, what the colour palette is and how we change that for this space or that space, where we move the trademark to if we’re in developing markets or developed markets and things like this.
We’re living in a world now where clients, consumers and public stakeholders actually want to be in a conversation, two-way dialogue with the brands and the companies that they like.
This has happened to me twice actually, Dan. Slide 114 says: “Brand tone of voice, to be confirmed, TBC.” And actually, that’s kind of crazy these days, because, what we’ve seen in the last 10 years is there are more and more channels in which brands and businesses can communicate with their stakeholders, and more and more of those channels are dominated by language, but that’s not the key. The other thing to think about is that we’re living in a world now where clients, consumers and public stakeholders actually want to be in a conversation, two-way dialogue with the brands and the companies that they like. We’ve moved from that old broadcast way. I used to be a copywriter on British airways and their central position back in the 90s was: “We fly everywhere, and if you want to fly anywhere, you have to fly with us.” End of it. That was a broadcast approach.
What we see in the 21st century is that consumers, clients and stakeholders want to be in a dialogue, and so those channels become really important, and what’s critical for someone leading the identity or leading the communications for a large professional services firm, B2B firm, whatever it is, they have to know what their brand voice is. They have to know how to use that in different channels.
So that’s the space we’re in.
Chris: I would say that some owners, leaders of those businesses are there already. And they’ll say I am sick of signing off version 12, instead of version 2 of this key piece of communications, and it’s three weeks late. What it means is that we’re slowing down as a business and, actually, we’re missing some opportunities because we just don’t have the heart or the will to go and do them or try them. So, some of them are very aware of that. And someone saying to them, “Wouldn’t it be great to align all of your internal and external writers in one voice and give them the skills and give them the definition so they can write and have the framework so that what you mean by ‘our brand voice’ is what they understand by ‘our brand voice’?”
I would say one in 10, one in 20, are at that advanced stage. I think a lot of the other people are more frustrated and at the ‘what should we do about it?’ stage. So they’ll say, “I seem to be overwhelmed. I’m not even looking at what’s going out in social media because I can’t really control it anymore.” There are some things which the board signs off and that takes a hugely disproportionate amount of their time, hugely expensive on my time, my professional capital is involved in getting that across the line with them, but they don’t necessarily see that there could be any other way. They might see that brand language is something that comes out of one or two people’s heads and it can’t really be shaped or metricised.
Those people, when you start to say, “There is a framework that can be agreed, it can be as rigorous – it should be as rigorous – as your other brand assets; your visual identity, anything else.” And even that you can measure the performance. Then suddenly, I think they’re very keen, I find very little resistance to that point.
Chris: The process to get there, I would say, is well-defined. What you do afterwards with it is well-directed. With verbal identity, we talk about the magic and mechanics of language. There are some things that when you understand how language works, you and me speaking, what are we doing – I was tutored in linguistics before starting this and now contribute to the open university linguistics course – there are some things which are really well-defined and understood in how language works. When we talk about the magic and mechanics of language, there are some things which are definitely mechanical, predictable, and there are some things which are that sparkle of amazing magic.
What we’re trying to do is create a springboard or a set of guidelines or a set of boundaries so people can say, “This is the area in which we speak, and we choose to say certain things in a particular way.
In a way, what we’re trying to do is create a springboard or a set of guidelines or a set of boundaries so people can say, “This is the area in which we speak, and we choose to say certain things in a particular way.” And the rest of it, what we’re trying to do is bring that magic into that space. So, there is definitely a very formalised process to get there; that’s to get a company’s voice defined. And then there is rigour around what we have to define to make sure this is always us speaking, but then that opens up space for writers – and anyone with a keyboard is a writer by the way – to then start talking and bring some magic into it.
Chris: That’s a really good question. The reason I say that is because I don’t exactly know the answer. I can tell you some of the things I think, which is when you hire people into a business, you are looking at certain skill sets and attitudes, and I think you probably could look at how they would communicate in a brand voice on your behalf. That’s a hundred percent something you’d do if they’re specifically in a communications role, but actually, you look at senior partners of say a law firm, really they’re communicating on behalf of the business all the time and they’re going out to see their clients. Your tech engineers at an IT firm, they’re spending huge amounts of time face-to-face with your businesses’ clients.
So I would say in certain roles, definitely, this needs to be part of the hiring process, but once people are hired, I think everyone should be immersed and given the skills and speaking to the brand language.
So, I don’t know that you necessarily have to, for those people kind of put them through a test of ‘can you communicate in our brand voice’, but I would certainly say that in every starters package, in those kinds of businesses, just as you would say, “These are behaviours we’d expect you from you with regards to health and safety, these are behaviours that we’d expect representing us”, I think also you can say, “These are some of the ways that we communicate in language that really magnifies our value to our clients and our stakeholders.” So I would say in certain roles, definitely, this needs to be part of the hiring process, but once people are hired, I think everyone should be immersed and given the skills and speaking to the brand language.
Dan: You touched upon a really interesting point there because I must admit when we first started having this conversation, I was thinking very much in terms of tweets and eshots and Facebook updates, but of course, what you’ve touched on is a really important point. Probably 90% of a brand’s communication happens when nobody’s looking. So, I guess that’s an important consideration; actually, the different channels that actually fall within this framework.
Chris: Oh yeah. There is nothing scarier for someone trying to push a business forward and get it highly valued by its commercial community than hearing the CEO speak with one voice, the managing partner speaking with another voice and people looking after accounts, communicating in an entirely different way about what the business is, what it stands for. So actually, from top to bottom and from left to right, everyone these days is communicating on behalf of the business, and they’re communicating in the ways they behave.
There’s no reason why a professional services firm or a B2B firm shouldn’t look for that consistency.
You know you go into an Apple store, people communicate in a particular way about Appleness and just the way they greet you and how they interact with you. But also in the Apple store, the way they speak, the kind of analogies they use, the kind of brand tone of voice they use is really consistent, and it will be consistent with what you see if you went to headquarters. It’s consistent everywhere across the business. There’s no reason why a professional services firm or a B2B firm shouldn’t look for that consistency.
Dan: I guess you could almost argue that it’s maybe even more important because, for many consumer brands, they have a narrower set of channels through which they are communicating to their end audience, so it’s probably easier to establish some control, whereas, for a B2B organisation, they might have an account manager or salesperson initially, but then as you mentioned, you might have technicians engineers probably handling an awful lot of the day-to-day communications. So, you could argue that actually there’s an even greater importance to establish clarity around that tone of voice.
Chris: Oh yeah, absolutely. One of the former editors of The Guardian lives down the road from me and I was chatting to him about the challenge that he had every day; he had to read every single word that was going to be printed in each newspaper, you know, what a huge challenge that is. He had to guide his team of journalists to communicate in The Guardian’s voice with The Guardian points of view. Then I went back home and I got out an envelope and I started jotting down some numbers on the back of it, and I thought, if you look at the managing partner that’s looking after communications for a professional services firm or an IT firm, or any kind of B2B firm, I wonder how much language they have to control each day.
Sure there are the Tweets, maybe there are the ads that go somewhere or there’s the white paper that goes out once every quarter, once every month, whatever it is. And then what about all the emails that are flying out to their clients? What about all the pitches that are going on? What about all the board papers that are being created internally? What about all the chairman or CEO statements that are being released? What about the investor relations that are being released? What about all the communications that are going out into the recruitment space?
The Managing Partner or the Chief Marketing Officer of even medium-sized professional services or IT business is responsible for producing more words each day than that editor of The Guardian had to put into the newspaper each day.
I started adding all of those up and I realised that the Managing Partner or the Chief Marketing Officer of even medium-sized professional services or IT business is responsible for producing more words each day than that editor of The Guardian had to put into the newspaper each day. Now the ex-editor of The Guardian has been trained all his life on words, and he was immersed in what The Guardian’s point of view was, but the Managing Partner or CMO of this professional services firm, they don’t have that training. It is absolutely critical for them to understand: what is our brand voice? What is us, what is not? And give them the skills and the confidence to get it right, and to define their voice in a way which is absolutely true for their business and adds value to their business like every other part of what they’re trying to do.
Chris: Dan, your question is a really good one. How can you extract what is quite esoteric or theoretical about this is who we are as a business, this is why we’re more highly valued or why we’re differentiated as a business. You know, what would be the brand and how can you turn it into something which some people think is even more abstract, which is: how do you express that in words? So the on-ramp to that could be: “I’m frustrated, we just don’t sound like a business like we’re different.” The on-ramp to that could be: “Why are we slowing down as a business in our communications? And why can’t we get out of the door what we needed?” The on-ramp to that might be signing off version 12, instead of version 2 of a piece of copy, or it might be the dreaded phone call from the Chairman that says, “This isn’t us. What’s going on?”
They’re generally the on-ramps and those on-ramps to thinking about how we create a brand tone of voice which is distinctly us, those on-ramps, if you like, crystallise the role of the brand voice. So, generally at that moment, it becomes not an abstract thing, it becomes a very real thing.
What’s almost worse than TBC (to be confirmed) is just seeing four bald adjectives on that page. Particularly when those adjectives are human, friendly, warm and approachable. Because no writer can write like that.
I don’t mind sharing our view of what you need to do with the brand language, particularly Dan, because it’s going to be coming out in my book later on in this year. But really, if you remember what I said about the slide deck; the 120 slide PowerPoint deck, which claims to define all of the brand’s identity, and slide 114 is the brand tone of voice defined. What’s almost worse than TBC (to be confirmed) is just seeing four bald adjectives on that page. Particularly when those adjectives are human, friendly, warm and approachable. Because no writer can write like that. And of course, those things are nonsense.
Really when you’re defining a brand voice, what we’ve looked at working with Alphabet’s Moonshot Factory, an amazing place called X, which houses, Waymo, driverless cars, it’s brought to life contact lenses which may measure your blood glucose level, balloons high up in the stratosphere which provide internet to isolated communities below them. When defining a voice for any business, which is complex, really the voice needs to be defined on the three levels in which it operates.
That’s how all communications work. They work on these three levels.
An old reference, Dan, but Seinfeld. I could show you five lines of script from Seinfeld, and if you know Seinfeld, you’ll say that’s George speaking, that’s Jerry, that’s whoever, because just in those 30 words, what’s really clear out of what the character is saying is their view on the world, the kind of tone or personality that they have and some very specific language they use. That’s how all communications work. They work on these three levels. What we call the 10,000-metre level is the overarching narrative. This is the world we believe in. This is what we stand for, and this is what we stand against. At a thousand feet, you have the brand personality emerging, the tonal values, what a lot of people say is our brand tone of voice. And then you have the ground-level details, which are the particular words and phrases we use and words and phrases we don’t use, or the grammar we use. You know, my grammar was taught to me 40 years ago. So, is it still applicable in the real world today, or is there a kind of modernisation of grammar? Yeah, absolutely. Sentence length, you know, do you speak like Ferrari in these long technically constructed sentences? Or do you speak like Mini three-word sentences?
So those three levels all need to be defined; up 10,000 feet, who are we? What do we believe in and what do we stand for? What do we stand against? Almost, if you define that for the brand voice, your writers, anyone communicating for your business, isn’t going to go wrong because they’re pointing in the right direction, they’re going to say the right thing.
Imagine the guy back at The Guardian, you know, this is our worldview, this is what we stand for, this is what we stand against. Almost what we choose to write, or the angle we take on any new story is going to be right if I’m very clear about those. Now, to make it even more Guardian, or to make it even more like us as a business: what are the tonal values at a thousand feet? Now, obviously, those tonal values have to be resonant or they have to be reflective of what’s going on at 10,000 meters. So, in that rare situation in which The Sun newspaper in the UK and The Guardian newspaper in the UK took the same angle, the same worldview on the same story, they would still be written quite differently because the tonal of values of The Sun are quite different to the tonal values of The Guardian.
For The Guardian you could define three values and they might be campaigning, intelligent, and comprehensive, and the tonal values for The Sun might be intuitive, pushy, matey; something like that. They can take the same story, have the same worldview on it, but even the way they write it because of their different tonal values would make it a very different experience to read. Even down on the ground level, the words and phrases they use and don’t use would be quite different and the sentence length would be quite different and the grammar choices would be quite different. The Sun seems to like 17-word sentences, which are also single paragraphs, The Guardian longer sentences, often many sentences in a paragraph, more technical jargon.
Think about a law firm down on that ground level, do we describe ourselves as ‘us? ‘We’? Or do we do a second person plural or a second person singular: ‘The firm’? Do we always talk about ‘The firm’, “This business believes”, or do we say “We believe?”
So, think about a law firm down on that ground level, do we describe ourselves as ‘us? ‘We’? Or do we do a second person plural or a second person singular: ‘The firm’? Do we always talk about ‘The firm’, “This business believes”, or do we say “We believe?” Those choices are actually choices down at ground level in that situation, but they reflect what’s going up in tonal values, you know, are we embracing, open, familiar, or are we quite severe, strict? Even going up to back up to 10,000 meters, you know, our worldview is people need to respect law firms for our superior knowledge and insight and trust us through that, or is our worldview for too long clients have been in awe of their legal firms and subject to their legal firms’ whims, and actually, we see our clients as being on a peer level with us and together we resolve things much more quickly. Long answer, Dan, sorry, but there you go.
Dan: No, I didn’t want to interrupt because it was so good. For 10 years I’ve been talking to people about these things and I’ve never heard such a comprehensive, but clear explanation of the brand tone of voice. Even as someone who is fully brought into the concept, I’ve still always had a slight suspicion towards the brand tone of voice, that is just something kind of vague and abstract.
You need to get all three levels right. You need to get all three levels resonant and reflective of each other, and then you’ve got a brand tone of voice.
Chris: Well, it is. Even the expression ‘brand tone of voice’, I’m trying to break the world from using, because the brand tone of voice is one level. We’ve worked with B2B and B2C businesses, and I remember when we worked with Fred Perry, the CEO of Fred Perry had a real bee in his bonnet. He said: “Do not call them stores, because stores is an Americanism. We are a really thoroughly British brand. So our shops are shops.” Ground level. I’m sure that B2B businesses, all businesses, have these words and phrases that they like, and don’t like, that we use and we don’t use, they have a way of communicating which is really clear, and getting all of those three levels – more than just the brand tonal values that are a thousand feet, but getting the overarching narrative, the worldview at 10,000 feet and getting the ground level details – you need to get all three levels right. You need to get all three levels resonant and reflective of each other, and then you’ve got a brand tone of voice.
Suddenly you can sign off version 2 instead of version 12. Suddenly you have what is in the mind of the Chairman or Chairwoman being expressed and you can very quickly turn that into a piece of communication. You know, your tweets suddenly reflect who you are much better rather than reflect the social media dominant ways of talking.
Dan: I think people probably have a stronger opinion on this than they realise. I think most people instinctively have those words and phrases that they go to and certain words and phrases that they dislike or find slightly irritating, but because I think generally we talk about tone of voice and such in such unhelpfully vague terms, I think people fail to realise the pertinence of it to them. But as I say, I think most of us have, I mean even in my house we have something called the ‘smug mug’, and in that, we put in words that we find irritating, there are certain words and expressions, things like ‘spag bol’ is a particular phrase I have difficulty with. But yeah, I think most people probably do have stronger relationships with words than they perhaps appreciate.
Chris: Yeah. And that’s why we call the business Verbal Identity because whether you realise it or not, you are creating an identity for yourself, for your company, for your position in the company, through the language you choose to use.
Chris: If you’ve defined your company or your brand’s voice on three levels, then you’re in a really good position to adapt your voice to different channels. You’ll keep your brand voice consistent, but you’ll flex it to suit the different environments. Imagine if you had someone who was always cracking a joke, you know, just like anything you say they were witty, fast comeback, kind of silly, what a great guy. And then you had the misfortune to go to a really sombre, serious occasion, and you wanted to take a great friend. Are you going to take that person? The wisecrack who doesn’t know when to stop? No, you’re not, because they’ve only got one way of speaking. What you want that person to do is to be able to turn up or turn down certain values in their personality to suit the occasion. And similarly, in businesses, the way that you might communicate on LinkedIn, a mix of professional and personal space, versus how you might communicate on TikTok, purely personal, versus how you might communicate in investor relations, you still have to have, “This is our business, and this is our differentiating, authentic voice.”
If you’ve defined the voice on those three levels, what your writers can do is make sure that they’re choosing the right thing to joke and laugh about on TikTok, they’re choosing their worldview in the right way on TikTok, but also they’re turning up and turning down those three or perhaps four tonal values that you’ve defined at a thousand feet so that they suit the environment where the brand is communicating.
You would think it crazy if a brand’s visual identity, different colour, different logo, different photography style, turned up in TikTok compared to turned up in a company brochure.
You would think it crazy if a brand’s visual identity, different colour, different logo, different photography style, turned up in TikTok compared to turned up in a company brochure. You would say “This company doesn’t know who they are.” Similarly, you want your brand voice to be consistent, whether it’s in a customer service letter, chairperson’s report, investor relations, brochure, pitch document, you want the tone of voice to be consistent in all those spaces, but you do need it to flex. So defining the brand voice on three levels allows you, in that middle level, to turn up or turn down certain values. So you are more professional, more considered in your customer service letter and perhaps in a note about a social event or something, you can turn down the absolute serious professionalism and turn up the dynamic or the warmth or another particular tonal value you’ve defined at a thousand feet.
So that’s why we find that this way of defining the brand voice on three levels works really well because you’re never going to change your view on the world, you’re never going to change the particular things you stand for – that will be consistent in all of your language communications, that’s what keeps your brand voice consistent – but you do want to be able to turn up and turn down certain values according to the environment.
Dan: I love that. I think already it’s so much clearer in my mind about how you can flex in accordance with the context while still staying true to the bigger questions of who you are.
Chris: I’d like to zoom out from that question a little bit before we zoom back into it. I think a really good place to start is to say, “How does our brand voice stack up against the best in our industry sector? And then how does it stack up against the best in the world in any other sector?
When we worked with X, the Alphabet’s Moonshot Factory in California, we were really clear on what might be described as a competitive set. Even though there isn’t really a competitive set, essentially what they were using their brand voice to do was to attract literally the best minds in the world. They were competing against NASA, MIT and cash-rich venture capital funds who were looking to sponsor startups. They had to say, “We have to be so precise in our voice that people can really understand why they should come and join us rather than go to NASA or stay in the lab at MIT or be seduced by the money into this VC backed startup.” When you’re looking at that level, what you’re trying to do is not say, “First of all, what’s the ROI?”, but say, “Do we have a voice that differentiates and stacks up against best in category?” And actually, let’s be smart about this, people don’t just hear one category, if you are the best in the world, then you get the best in the world minds coming towards you. So, that’s zooming out.
You can kind of zoom back in a little bit and say, “Before we look at the financial ROI, let’s look at the human ROI.” Are your people working weekends writing and rewriting or creating written communications? If they are, that has a human cost, they won’t do that forever. Let’s kind of zoom back into your question, Dan, if I can. I have something stuck up on the wall in my office, and it’s a quote which reads: “About halfway through the campaign, we figured out that of all variables that affect user behaviour, design, usability, imagery, etc, copy has the highest ROI.” Great quote, it happens to be from Dan Siroker, the Director of Analytics for the Obama Presidential Campaign.
That’s what good language does; it allows you to move faster, be more agile, and it improves the performance of the whole machine.
People often say, do you need great language for business to go better? And I say, no, it’s really like the oil in your car. If you’re quite happy, moving along, going as you are, you can have bog-standard oil in your car, but when you get to wanting to get the car to go faster and to do more and to be more responsive, you start looking at, can we get incremental advantage from the fuel we put in the car and the oil we put in the car? And that’s what good language does; it allows you to move faster, be more agile, and it improves the performance of the whole machine.
Dan: I think, particularly within the digital space, we like to make things so much about the medium through which we communicate, we lose sight of the fact that everything is ultimately about the words that we are communicating, whether that’s words within a video script or a tweet or an email or whatever it might be.
Chris: I’d like to answer that question slightly differently. The thought that only people with ‘writer’ in their title are writing for the business is crazy. Everyone is writing for business. We worked with a large IT firm in Italy, and they were growing so fast – I can’t remember what their rate of employee add on was – it was crazy. I mean, they were big already, but they were adding 20% every three months or something. People weren’t going to see clients together and they’d never met each other before, and they said, “Well, how would we use our brand voice, Chris? Where do we use it?” And I would say, “Well, who’s building the business?” So you’d say, well, the account guys going off and selling. Okay, but who’s adding repeat business? Well, that’s our field technicians. And I would say, “Well, how do they talk about the business?” And they kind of put their head in their hands. So, I’d say, “What if we gave them some skills about how they can speak on behalf of the business? How about if we give them some skills on using narrative, rolling our language, rolling the brand voice into narrative?” And they said, “Let’s do it.” And they saw greater conversion rates. They saw greater repeat business attributed directly to their field engineers.
Everyone is communicating on behalf of a business, and they can be doing it speaking, they can be doing it in written language.
So I completely agree. This era of only the writer’s writing was never valid, anyway. But today, the walls of a business are permeable. So everyone is communicating on behalf of a business, and they can be doing it speaking, they can be doing it in written language. Helping those people understand this is who we are, this is what we stand for, these are our tonal values, these are the words and phrases we use and we don’t use. They don’t turn them into robots. They enable them and allow them to be much more who they are and humans, and even better ambassadors of the business.
Dan: That’s awesome. I feel like I’ve had lots of conversations like this over the years, but nothing quite as clear, quite as structured, and I think in a subject area that is on the surface, so abstract, so vague, so ambiguous, I think by being able to bring that more structured approach, I can see how that adds so much value.
Thank you so much for your time.
Chris: I’m always happy to talk about this. Thank you.
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