A designer's insight into brand language
by Neil Tinson
It sounded so refined. So well rehearsed. So strikingly simple. Yet Rob insists it came to him in the moment.
We were on a videocall with a prospective client. I’d brought Rob in early, as I could see from the outset just how important it would be to support this start-up’s visual identity with a verbal identity to match.
Explaining what The Brand Language Studio does, my writing partner broke his pitch down into three brilliantly straightforward (and agreeably alliterative) benefits. If they landed, my client would double the budget and bring Rob’s studio into the project.
Now, I’ve been in the brand world for over 20 years, training and working as a graphic designer, heading up a brand-driven innovation practice as creative director, teaching on various university design courses, and today working in the global brand communications team of an NGO. I know that a smart voice is as crucial to a brand as a smart appearance. Yet hearing the benefits of investing in brand language summarised so neatly felt like a real aha moment.
First, Rob and his team would help bring clarity to both how my client thought about and described their business and the promises it makes to stakeholders. Second, he would use a workshop to bring the brand’s character to life, using creative exercises to tease colour from its founders. And third, he would develop a tone of voice to bring consistency to the brand’s language as the business evolves.
Clarity. Character. Consistency. The client needed no further persuasion—and it was the moment it all clicked for me, too.
You see, throughout my career, I’ve seen countless visual identity presentations that dazzle with witty ideas, striking typography, meticulous detail and visuals that get the heart racing. And then you reach the mandatory slide called something like ‘Our values’. It will likely feature a list of words including at least one of these: friendly, authoritative, personal, innovative, quality, integrity, warm, knowledgeable. Take your pick.
Over time I’ve started to ask myself: how helpful, really, is it to throw those words into the mix? How much difference do they actually make to the way a brand designs products, writes small print, or answers customer calls? Too often, words like these sound good and tick boxes but ultimately have little real impact when they land, and sound too similar to every other brand splashing about in the same waters of competition. In other words, they offer no genuine clarity around what the business does or what the brand stands for.
One of the best definitions of ‘brand’ comes, in my opinion, from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. ‘Your brand,’ he states, ‘is what people say about you when you’re out of the room.’ This brings to light two vitally important considerations.
The first point is pretty obvious: your brand lives in the minds of others. It represents a thought, evokes a feeling, and triggers a response. And in order to successfully occupy a mind, a brand needs a clear meaning.
Dyson. Engineering excellence.
Easyjet. No frills.
NHS. For the people.
The second point raised by Bezos is more discreet, and only something I’ve consciously noticed since our videocall, which made me think about the role of verbal identity in greater depth. Look at the verb he uses: say. It implies words, tone, language.
Mindful that whilst you can’t control what people say about your brand, you can certainly influence it—and what you really want are the words of others to be an echo of your own. See it as a domino effect. Brands who truly understand themselves with clarity of thought, divulge themselves through a clarity of voice, in order to share a clarity of message.
Thus, a brand’s social construction of meaning is built on its ability to articulate its foundations with clarity—as is the same brand’s ability to propagate and establish itself among growing numbers of people.
So what do you do with this clarity of thought and message once you’ve refined it? How do you wield it, animate it, express it?
Like a crystal glass, true clarity lets you better see and appreciate what’s inside. Generously pour in character, and your brand suddenly takes on a rich, three-dimensional quality. It becomes animated with colour and substance and life that trigger the senses and connect on a truly human level.
It’s clarity that reveals BrewDog as a champion of craft beer. But it’s character that gives it permission to plant forests in Scotland, offer its pubs to the NHS for Covid vaccinations, and respond to a discount supermarket’s imitation beer with one of its own—without ever resulting in a curious, muddied concoction.
All of this takes time, consideration and thoroughness. Every decision, every action, every utterance builds on the last and eventually becomes behaviour. True clarity should remain unblemished. Character needs to mature into authenticity. Hence the last piece of our brand language trinity has to be consistency.
The BBC’s Dan Roan described the elite cycling squad Team Sky as ‘arguably the country's most successful’ sports team. And, judging by the amount of replica Team Sky lycra flecking the UK’s roads for the last decade, it had become a highly successful brand, too. So, when British-owned INEOS bought the team in 2019, company press releases urged us to see it as a natural evolution; a new hand to hold en route to the same sunset of ‘greater success on and off the bike’.
The team’s sole purpose was still to win. It remained consummately professional, a bubble of innovation and professionalism in a sea of folklore and whimsy. But there was one major flaw in their claim of consistency. For the previous couple of years, every inch of Team Sky’s kit—the bikes, the clothing, the vehicles—had been emblazoned with Sky’s #PassOnPlastic campaign to ‘stop our oceans drowning in plastic’. INEOS, however, is a global manufacturer of chemicals and oil products. Including plastic.
Actions spoke louder than words and, to quote Greenpeace, this was ‘a harsh change of tone’. Despite the language of its press officers, onlookers couldn’t help but question what the team now stood for. Had clarity become clouded by money? Had this character grown a second face? The thread of consistency had snapped and the whole brand was starting to unravel. Only time can tell us how far.
The beauty of working on a branding project alongside a writing team that takes such a strategic approach to language is that collaboratively, with the client closely involved, we reach the visual identity stage with so many of the ducks already lining up. We’ve grasped clarity around the brand: who it is, what it does and why anyone should care. We’ve nailed the genesis of the brand’s character, how it relates to the outside world and those fundamental ideas—expressed as just one or two deceptively simple words—that underpin its entire ethos. And we’re equipped to share these things with real consistency. Tackling the brand’s visual appearance subsequently becomes a natural progression, an expression of the thinking and writing that’s gone before it.
After our client videocall a few weeks ago—and my subsequent aha moment—I emailed Rob and told him about a pledge I’d made myself. ‘Rob,’ I typed, ‘I’ve vowed not to take on any further brand projects unless I can involve your studio in them, too.’
Turns out Rob had helped me articulate a brand promise of my own.