Let’s Talk Verbal Identities

Photo by Giedrius.

Photo by Giedrius.

So verbal identities are a thing. . . . When did verbal identities become a thing?

I recently met Scott Christie, the creative director at Interbrand in Toronto. Scott mentioned in passing that the practice of creating ‘verbal identities’ was a big thing, with a lot of writers devoted to it, at the New York Interbrand office. And now they were trying to introduce the discipline to Canada.

I nodded sagely then rushed home and googled ‘verbal identity interbrand’ and got this  explanation:

Without language, it’s impossible to create strong brands.

We believe that language is central to creating, interpreting, organizing, and communicating brands. Verbal Identity embraces every use of language, from establishing and bringing a brand’s personality to life, to creating and maintaining an identifiable tone of voice, and ensuring clear and consistent messaging.

OK, I get it. Naming, tone of voice, even specific words and phrases to use and not use have long been part of large branding and design assignments. But now Interbrand and a some other major branding firms have broken this out as a separate (and separately billed) discipline. Makes sense.

And good if  you’re a copywriter. Well, perhaps not a copywriter. Landor Associates, under Capabilities, stresses that when it comes to verbal branding, “we call ourselves ‘writers,’ not ‘copywriters,’ for a reason.” That’s because “the writing skills required to build enduring customer relationships are different from those needed to drive short-term sales.”

A brand needs to be heard as well as seen, Landor explains. Ad copywriters are used to creating catchy copy that’s designed “to last 30 seconds.” ‘Brand writers,’ on the other hand, must craft copy that will “last for years while hitting a strategic bull’s eye. . . . At its core, branding is storytelling. We craft the compelling, engaging brand stories necessary to build that most elusive of brand assets – customer loyalty.”

While the emphasis on verbal branding is new, the concept isn’t.  In a 2004 issue of  Marketing Magazine, Dennis Bruce, of Mindset in Toronto, wrote an article, “The Verbal Identity of a Brand.” 

“In marketing, we give a lot of thought to visual identity – logos, symbols, typefaces, colours, design, and so on,” says Bruce. “Visual identity is critically important to the life of a brand.  Many companies have paid millions for a new visual identity. But what about verbal identity?  How many give it the same thought and effort?”

Few, it appears. Bruce recounts asking a number of corporate executives what their brand stood for and, after a moment of awkward silence, got the same jargon and clichés, such as “proactive customer service.”

While companies are most comfortable with the images of visual identity, consumers apparently want more words. “Could it be that your cherished brand, despite an impressive visual identity, lacks the words, the voice, in which to clothe a persuasive message?” Bruce asks.

Good question. Perhaps I should catch the wave and start marketing myself as a verbal identity expert. Time to get the word out.

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