If I’m doing my job right, this first sentence should jump right out and ring the little bell in your heart. Margaret Atwood once said, “A word after a word after a word is power,” and how brands utilize that power is often the difference between cutting through the clutter or simply adding to it. So, how can you wield communication tools to supercharge your business, crystallize your strategy, and foster conversations that create deeper, more meaningful connections? The answer lies in your verbal identity.
Words in a Sea of Pictures
Here’s something people love to say: show don’t tell. We’re visual creatures. We crave stimulation. I’m bored already, aren’t you? Verbal identity has traditionally taken a backseat to visual identity due to the mono-directional nature of conventional advertising. That is: brands talk to people, mainly through pictures. But with the rise of social media, smart speakers, chatbots, and other environments where there are no images whatsoever, that visual-led monolog has shifted entirely. People talk to brands — and they expect brands to talk back in impactful, human ways. As copywriter Kady Potter says, “This ability to engage in an ongoing dialogue with customers provides an opportunity for companies to more firmly cement their products and services into the consumer consciousness, but doing so successfully requires a consistent, well-defined approach to the use of language.”
What Is a Verbal Identity?
As simply as possible: it’s thinking about what you say, how you say it, and where you’re saying it as a unified system. Or another way: the articulation of your brand through the use of distinct, intentional language. At first blush, this sounds pretty obvious. A brand should speak with “one voice.” But when you start to think about the number of use cases (web copy, ad copy, whitepapers, social posts, even internal communication tools like Slack or Zoom), and how context shifts the tone and reception of each touchpoint, things get messy real fast. Just like humans, that “one voice” must adjust with modulations and variances to read the room while still being authentically ourselves. As with visual systems, verbal identities are pre-structured through phrases, ideas, and tones.
Why Do You Need a Verbal Identity?
This is sort of like asking, “Why shouldn’t you change your company logo every single day?” Through all the static of our modern era, brands need consistency, clarity, and strength of message to separate the signal from the noise. As our pals over at Siegel + Gale say, a strong verbal identity “cuts down on confusion, increases familiarity, drives loyalty and preference among consumers, shareholders, among people who might work for that company, across a whole host of audiences.” Moreover, as Branding For The People say, it:
- Infuses your brand’s personality in messaging, including voice, attitude, sense of humor, and more into your actual content and copy.
- Aims to distinguish your brand from competitors.
- Creates a consistent personality and voice of the brand across all communication channels.
What Are the Components of a Verbal Identity?
Okay, so how do we begin to up-level “copy” into a system of language that drives unmistakable value for your business and brand? Let’s dive into the component parts.
Naming: A brand name is the shortest unit of storytelling you have. A brilliant name provides a glimpse into what a brand stands for and gives audiences a preview of the experience to come. It must be original, memorable, relevant — and here’s the real kicker — available. As our partner and naming expert, Anthony Shore says, “That’s what words do. They create a frame of reference, setting the stage for how your company is differentiated and how it should be perceived.”
Tagline: While not as fashionable as they once were, taglines are still an extremely economical use of language. As the good people at Prophet say, taglines can be deftly utilized to “showcase your reason for being, reposition your company, create a whole new category, or stand out and inspire loyalty.”
Architecture & Nomenclature: Thankfully, not everyone is naming or re-naming their company every day. But almost all organizations, especially those in growth mode, run into the Sisyphean challenge of managing product, service, or feature naming. This is only exacerbated by today’s climate of mergers, acquisitions, and rapid innovation, where portfolios across categories have become complex and inconsistent, ultimately creating a confusing customer experience. Architecture & nomenclature creates order and hierarchy around offerings so people know what they’re getting and how it works together as a whole.
Brand Voice: This is your brand’s personality, come to life. How would you describe the way your brand communicates directly in its content, copy, and overall language? Are you genuinely off-kilter and irreverent, like Skittles? Are you vaguely visionary but also heavily workshopped to the point of never being able to offend anybody, like every tech company ever? Think about the unique turn of phrases and attitudes you showcase when communicating.
Brand Tone: Not to be confused with voice, your brand tone is constantly changing. Just look at Starbucks’ creative theory: you can see on a nifty slider how their copywriting shifts. Adjust your tone based on the audience you’re targeting (devs are different than sales), the emotion you’re hoping to evoke (pain points are different than moments of delight), and the medium you’re delivering the message through (whitepapers are different than TikTok).
Brand Narrative: This is the story of who you are, what you do, who you do it for, what you stand for, and why it matters. It showcases not only the philosophy of your business but also the voice and personality of your brand. It should read like a manifesto and hit like a gut punch.
Brand Grammar: There’s a reason some companies call their workers partners instead of employees. There’s a reason some companies call it emotional well-being instead of an employee assistance program. The words we choose, and why we choose them, are charged with meaning. Especially in sensitive political climates, revisiting your language is crucial. As Focus Labs reminds us, “Your customers are in a new story. If you want them to also be a part of yours, you have to tell a new one.” This cascades from vital topics like gender-neutral language all the way down to your nitty-gritty philosophy on acronyms, capitalizations, and emojis.
Content Strategy: Here’s your plan of attack. Where are we going to be speaking, who are we speaking to, and how often are we going to be bothering them? (Pro tip: less is more.)
Messaging Matrix: Remember, messaging themes aren’t copy — they guide copy. As a high-level communication tool, it’s a way of ensuring flexible, cohesive expressions rather than static, repetitive ones. Delivered as a table, this matrix spans the context/challenge, idea/claim, value/benefit, and proof points for each message — all of which can be adapted for different internal and external audiences. If you hand this to a copywriter on their first day, they should be able to start producing smart stuff for you. You know, after a coffee, at least.
Copywriting & Campaign Development: And finally, mercifully, copywriting. This is where most people’s minds jump straight to: big sexy words on a homepage, baby. But if your language isn’t distilled by the strategic framework of your verbal identity, the words will be hollow. Please, as someone who has written 10,000 puns on data, I’m begging you: never, ever confuse surface-level wit for bone-deep value. Real copy solves problems, makes connections, and is derived from a system that means it’s much more than right — it’s right for you and you alone.
Anything But Ordinary
What happens when this all comes together? You have a name, a descriptor, a structure, a voice and how to use it, a story and what it stands for, a language and where to employ it, and modular, easy-to-understand guides for generating copy that is specific, accurate, trenchant, delightful, hard to ignore and impossible to mistake for anyone else.
When David Walsh, professional gambler and owner of the Museum of Old and New Art, finally hired a Director of Communications, he said, “This is probably the start of our drift to the middle. Make mistakes if you have to, fail if you can, but just stop us becoming ordinary.”
I’ve always loved that. And that’s basically the assignment here, folks. Words are the most powerful currency we have. Use them with conviction, with purpose, and with intention to create a verbal identity that is anything but ordinary.
Emotive Brand is a brand strategy and creative agency based in Oakland, California.