How to write like the best brands
A great brand sounds like an orchestra. The different voices complement each other to create an emotional whole. I spend quite a bit of time thinking about language, about how writers can interact in a way that is transcendant. Over the last few years I have wondered what is different about the best teams? What sets them apart and how can we all get there?
This is the first goal. If your coworkers are playing out of tune or reading from different music, you have some work to do. Consistency signals professionalism. But, remember, consistency is like singing with the melody. It is an important step, but it isn’t the goal. Over time, it can get a little boring. It lacks depth. It might even sound mechanistic. But, it is a needed starting point.
From consistency to coherence
Historically it has been hard for brands to be consistent. Laying out graphic design by hand was a time-consuming task fraught with minutiae. Now computers make that work faster and more precise. Designers are differentiated by the ability to move beyond consistency. It is the same for messaging. In an era of marketing monologue or broadcast, consistency sells. We now find brands in constant dialogue. In this context, consistency becomes wooden. The evolution is towards coherence: creating a unified whole with different but interrelated pieces. The evolution is towards harmony towards everyone in your organization reading their pieces from the same sheet music, towards something that sounds more human.
Let’s get practical
Admittedly, that is a little abstract. Here is a real-world scenario. Over the last six months, we worked with a K–12 school to reimagine its name and brand identity. On their first day of school, at least five things happened at nearly the same time. Multiple billboards went up announcing the new name and identity. A sponsorship message aired on the local public radio station. The head of school addressed the students to welcome them and talk about their exciting trajectory. The development director mentioned the momentum created by the new brand when talking with a local company about sponsoring an event. And the marketing director published multiple variations of a back-to-school post on different social channels created by different marketing team members.
How do we do it?
The messages were each different, adjusted for context and the speaker’s personality. The billboard and social posts came from the organization. But, they weren’t the same. The LinkedIn post was different than the Instagram post and the billboard. The sponsorship message told the story while adhering to the specific requirements of a non-commercial station.
Additionally, each of the speakers told the story differently. But, and this is an important but. They all pointed to the same sheet music (back to the music analogy). The sheet music is the language guidelines. This is an essential part of the brand. It allows multiple speakers or writers to communicate the core of a culture in their own way. It is human, and it is compelling.
Having language guidelines doesn’t necessarily mean an organization is moving towards coherence. If the guidelines are overly complicated, they restrict the user to a single point of view, unison. If they are overly vague or generic, users likely disregard them. The guidelines should do three things:
- Distill the culture as clearly as possible
- Set the constraints that limit expression from that culture
- Free the user to be themselves within the constraints
The guidelines also assume these three things:
- The user is a cultural fit
- They understand the role and need for the guidelines
- They are empowered to be themselves
Is your organization struggling with consistency, or are you ready to move beyond? Do you have faith that the people and systems can work together to present a unified, coherent, and human picture? Download this brand language checklist to see where you stand.