How to start your brand language project
by Rob Self-Pierson
Words, like humans, have histories. They've been places, seen things. As Virginia Woolf puts it, 'Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations. They have been out and about, on people's lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries.'
And that is part of their joy. Words come to us with pasts to explore, and with their own stories to tell—over time they become live with meanings. For this reason, we must also be careful with words. Careful to question them before inviting them into our sentences. Careful to know them before endorsing them. And careful to see them from different perspectives, as both writer and reader.
In a typical week at our studio, as we help to position brands and develop their language, we ask questions of hundreds of words. Part of this will be exploring a word’s etymology, its journey from birth to modern day. Moving beyond the obvious can reveal a rich but forgotten vocabulary. Getting to know this extended family of language will often guide us as we develop a brand’s strategy, define its tone of voice and write key messages.
We’re currently working on three projects. We’ve arrived at a ‘keystone’ word for each: a word on which we feel the brand’s language could reliably depend, now and as the business grows. We’d like to share these words to demonstrate the above. And to remind us that language, in its wonder and beauty, deserves plenty of awe and all our respect.
We’re helping to reposition a magical brand. A phrase struck us in an early conversation: ‘People are fascinated by who we are and what we do…’
Today, of course, to fascinate somebody is to attract their attention, their curiosity, to charm them. It’s a positive trait. Who wouldn’t want to be thought of as fascinating? But if you’d told somebody you were fascinated in the 1500s, you’d have got a very different reaction. You see ‘to fascinate’ started life as the Latin fascinare, meaning ‘to bewitch, enchant’, from fascinus, ‘a charm, enchantment, spell, witchcraft’.
By the end of the 16th century, however, fascinare had evolved into the French fasciner, ‘to hold spellbound’—and a second, softer, more figurative meaning had joined this younger Romance language. But it wasn’t until the early 19th century that the semantic shift was complete and the original meaning had become obsolete.
Today, now that ‘fascinate’ has cast off its darker associations, but while it still retains its sense of mysticism, it feels the perfect word to guide us, as we develop a verbal identity to hold people spellbound.
(While we’re here, ‘to charm’ was once to recite a magic spell that would fill somebody with desire. It is from the Latin carmen, a song.)
Another client speaks about courage: that of their members to challenge thinking, and of their own to have overcome many personal and professional obstacles in their business journey.
There’s a clear connection with ‘encourage’, the act of giving support, confidence or hope to somebody. A fine trait for a coaching brand like theirs. But curiosity led us to research the roots of the words. What we found has become the lifeblood of the brand’s language.
‘Courage’ again dates back to the Latin language, which emerged outside Rome during the time of the Roman Empire, in an area called Latium. Imagine the scene: the morning of the venatio, the animal hunt, where men will demonstrate their heroism by fighting boars, bears, tigers, lions and other beasts. They stretch and flex in preparation, pumping the blood around their bodies. They build cour-age: strength from their hearts.
The Latin cor, ‘heart’, appears in many English words today, from ‘record’ to ‘cordial’ to ‘concord’ (literally ‘hearts together’). The Earth’s ‘core’ is the heart of the planet. But it is in courage we are guided by our heart. And through encouragement we are given heart or heartened by another.
Whether they are demonstrating courage or encouraging others, our client is delighted to speak from the heart.
(If you lack courage, you might be called a coward, from cauda ‘tail’ and the suffix -ard, denoting a negative quality. Linguistically, you are no more than an animal with its tail between its legs.)
And then there’s ‘companion’, a deliciously satiating word.
One of our clients wants to be seen as a companion brand. They promise to be there night and day, alongside the customer. This is ‘companion’ as we know the word: one who spends a lot of time with another. And by the 13th century, the Old French compagnon contained much of this meaning. Though we need to step back several hundred years further, to a dinner table in Latium, to understand where the word originated.
The word ‘companion’ splits into three parts: com—pan—ion. Com- is a prefix meaning ‘with, together’. -ion a Latinate suffix denoting a noun. But it’s pan that reveals the roots of this word. It is from the Latin for ‘bread’. A companion is literally one with whom you enjoy bread, the person you eat with, the person close enough to share the stuff that keeps you alive.
Now there’s a valuable association for a brand. Always there with you, by your side, so close and so trusted you might even share your most important meal with it.
(Cross to the Germanic languages and you find the equivalent word is mate—again, somebody who eats with you at the same table.)
And there you have it, three words who have been out and about for so many centuries. If words are full of echoes, we should listen to what they tell us and learn from what we hear. They might just help you to build a brand.