If you were to open up a brand and look inside, beneath the logo and colors and typefaces, the images and illustrations, the interactions and experiences, you’d find language. It’s because the basic building blocks of brands—the ideas, emotions, aspirations, values, and promises that create value and differentiation—emerge from the words we use to express them. And for a brand to truly resonate, it needs to embody a coherent set of language (verbal branding) designed to create meaning.
So, what is verbal branding exactly?
Verbal Branding is the practice of using language to focus and amplify how brands create connections. You might think of naming and nomenclature as the tip of the Verbal Branding spear, with messaging, copywriting, and your outward-facing communications following along (here’s more on what goes into a Verbal Identity). These are all part of the practice, but the roots of Verbal Branding reach far deeper. In the same way that the brands are inside-out representations of an organization, Verbal Branding considers the language an organization uses to either fortify a position or drive change. (A wonderful distillation of this idea resides in Paul Pangaro’s classic piece on language and organizations).
For example, when a company undertakes the work of articulating its Purpose, it’s engaged in a verbal exercise where mood, tone, associations, nuance, culture, and historical context all inform language choices. Some words can ignite change, while others maintain the status quo. Some words can make people angry. Or apathetic. Or inspired. It’s not the actual word they’re responding to, but the meaning they bring to it. The same thinking goes for articulating the Vision and Mission of a company or codifying its Values. These discussions about language establish the source code for how a brand should show up externally.
Verbal Branding can make an impact on even more mundane parts of your brand. Employees at a healthcare company might be confused when attending a meeting in a conference room named “Mike Tyson.” Organizations that prioritize lasting customer relationships might think twice about branding their SKO “Piranha Week,” as it’s only a matter of time before the metaphor of being skeletonized in a murky river makes its way to prospects.
Why it Matters
What makes Verbal Branding so critical to brands, and also challenging, is that language embodies both literal and emotional meanings. “Sunlight” and “Sunshine” both refer to rays of light, but we tend to measure sunlight and feel sunshine. Writing code gives a set of instructions for what action you want a CPU to perform while writing narratives gives people instructions on how to embrace the feeling, beliefs, and possibilities underpinning your brand. Maybe most importantly, Verbal branding creates the linguistic framework for the stories your brand gets to tell—the metaphors and allusions, the voice and imagination. And stories, more than messages, are what people remember and repeat. Code gets executed. Stories live on.
Verbal Branding can be a secret weapon for a brand because, when done well, it connects everything you say internally with how you show up externally. It builds internal alignment around language, which reinforces your external positioning. It helps everyone tell the same story about what you do, how you do it, and why it matters—which, when you’re trying to reinvent a category, offer up a compelling vision, or break through to a new set of customers, is essential to creating clarity, focus, and trust.
Jim–this is insightful and fabulous. As always–you capture the logic and emotion in one butterfly net. Thank you!
It’s paul Pangaro not pagano.
It is Paul Pangaro, not Pagano.