Imagine if we didn’t have words. We’re the only species on earth to have developed lexical communication. Each word itself is a metaphor, standing in for an image of something physical or an imaginary concept that we’ve managed to internalise.
Terracotta. A concrete word, one that should give us all the same image, but it isn’t an object. Yet, we’ve seen objects wearing this shade, so we can visualise a sample of it in our minds.
Each letter is an invented symbol that someone drew in the sand and agreed that when partnered with some of its neighbours, it would design to build one of these images, metaphors, words. So language is inherently human.
Ironically, that’s a word that’s become an over-used vernacular in the brand practice of developing a ‘tone of voice’. Agencies emphasise that companies should sound more human. But, without wanting to state the obvious, we are human. All of us.
So that’s a difficult command. It’ll be like telling a blonde to be more blonde. The only way to do that would be with hair-dye. Making it inauthentic. Fake news. We run into the same problem here. People are anxiously flexing their verbs and nouns in the hope that they’ll embody this one great human, when really it sounds like an algorithm programmed to whisper pleasantries and rhetoric through the letterbox. Anonymous and creepy.
We’re scared. Of something! That’s why we’re clamming up, reverting to corporate speak and doing the robot. But what’s freaking us out? Certainly a few things: the office, Microsoft office, the blank page it simulates, the sheer size and versatility of language. But there are two things we’re the most afraid of when trying to personify the voice of a company and establish its accent. 1. The customer. 2. Ourselves.
Our concern with what we think the customer wants to see is handicapping us. Kneecapping us almost. Here’s the secret: they don’t generally know what they want. They want you to tell them, clearly, in a compelling way, whilst demonstrating your real purpose and brand values.
We don’t believe our natural voices are the ones to do that. But they are. That’s why we’re here. Have some confidence. Just have a chat. Speak how you speak, not like how an institution is expected to speak. Because we make the institutions; we make the language; we make the decisions. Make it your own. And that will make it theirs as well.
Maybe now it’s time for some juice. Let’s see the swag, the loot – the spoils of a good campaign. I’m not going to use Innocent. Sorry, Dan. Although, here’s a nod, because you are past masters of the game. Rather, let’s shed some exposure on a relatively new seat at the table: Farmdrop. Here’s their spread in the tube:
Now, it’s a bit long, craftily cut up by colour, but it’s on the inside of the tube, so they know they’ve got a captive market while people search for something to do between Holborn and Leicester Square, rather than making a concerted effort to avoid eye contact with everyone else in the sardine tin.
The black bit is what we’re interested in. That tone. Feel it? So easy it’s almost hard to explain. Firstly, this is a deliberately verbal campaign. The visual is simple, unaffected and therefore let’s the words take the spotlight. Step two, you’ll probably (you do) find a similarly laissez-faire, jovial use of language on their website. That’s what tone of voice needs to do – it needs to integrate all platforms and canvases that a brand will appear on. Consistency makes personality. The repeated use of the informal word ‘thing’ shows their subtle desire to undermine their competitors, without being explicitly offensive. And they’re not afraid to face controversy, ‘horse meat,’ but then again, that’s because it’s not their controversy. By telling us what they’re not, they’ve already told us what they are, establishing their brand values, whilst entertaining us.
Bring in the antithesis, the brevity afforded by the established integration of a goliath brand. Think of Nike. Their logo has almost become a letter in its own right. But it’s better than a simple letter. It manages to summon all the ideas they’ve chosen to stitch to it through language. Just Do it. Run. An instruction. An action. A subtitle. A word they’ve almost managed to reclaim entirely as their own.
In an interview with Adweek, global executive creative director of McCann, John Mescall, shared his favourite Nike print ad.
Wieden + Kennedy, 1993
Elaborating on his choice, Mescall explains “there were no words. There was just a little swoosh. But it said everything I wanted to hear from that brand, without saying a single word.”
Now, you might wonder, ‘why finish a piece on language and tone of voice with an ad bereft of almost all words?’ Well, hold your breath, here comes another…
The power of the swoosh and the family of iconography strategically invested into it is again exemplified. Nike’s message of ambition, no breaks, and personal bravery is saturated into their logo, telling of language’s infinite capacity for association and symbolism. The two halves of the bench are like two lines, and by removing the second one cleverly communicates an implicit line that’s predicated by the single use of the word “RUN… don’t sit.” Their message of courage is matched by their decision to withhold all but one word, which is already one subsumed into their identity. They’ve won. No doubt.
That’s the message, then: be brave. Show how easy it is to talk, even if that means prompting your audience to finish the sentence.
‘Words’ by Jamie Delves