Leading brands wield words to thrive

For centuries words have been used to disseminate ideas, sway minds, woo lovers, even win wars and political campaigns. But a new study shows that corporate America somehow missed the memo on the power of simply making smart use of words.

By neglecting their language, corporations across the US are failing to utilize a major asset for the successful execution of their business strategies, and losing customers to their craftier competitors. Except, that is, for companies like Apple, Google, and Coca-Cola, who are leading the way with their words.

For the leaders, cool ideas, beautiful design, and elegant collections of words seem to flow naturally, falling effortlessly onto screens, pages, and billboards everywhere. Simplicity is a theme, clarity too—and a sense of self that never fails or disappears. The world’s leading brands make communicating look easy—but don’t be fooled. Brands don’t reach the top of the heap by accident. They execute carefully-considered strategies through the deft use of visuals and words to deliver experiences that feel like they “just woke up like this”. The effortlessness distracts us from the strategy, persuading us to believe the truth in their claims and respond to these brands in the ways they have designed. The words they choose are the linchpin of their brand identity systems, providing the meaning their businesses are built on, the fabric that holds all the pieces together, and the emotional connections that see customers welcoming their products and services into their lives.

“Language is how customers get to know you. If what you’re saying as a brand strikes the wrong tone, is inconsistent or difficult to understand, it’s going to affect how they feel about you. Worst case scenario, they might just give up and go elsewhere,” says Anelia Varella, Director at the New York office of The Writer, the world’s largest brand language consultancy.

Despite this, a recent study conducted by her company through Illuma Research found that 80% of Fortune 1000 companies surveyed in the US had no formal tone of voice or verbal identity (a term used to describe the creative strategy behind the words corporations and businesses use to connect with their customers and achieve their goals) and 94% of those had no plans to create one. But, of those who did have a tone of voice, 70% of them claimed it was just as or more important than their visual identity, and 84% said that senior management recognized its value and business benefit.

“Language is everywhere and too critical to leave it to your old style guide,” said Michael Lenz, Cisco’s Global Director of Brand Experience. “Intentionally governing your brand’s voice pays dividends across your customer’s entire journey. The emotional feedback and data have proven it repeatedly. It’s the real foundation of your brand experience.”

Clued in marketers know that their word choices have a massive impact on their brand’s success. But, in my work as a peddler of words, it is alarming how often I meet clients who regard the language elements of their brand as peripheral. In these organizations, visual elements like the logo, colors, layouts, and photography, are given essential importance, while humble words are left to languish in corners where poets and other such airy non-essentials go to die. But brands that treat their words this way are seldom operating at their best. For instance, it is not often that you encounter companies at the top of the Best Global Brands list neglecting to utilize such potent weapons.

Brands at the top of their game know intimately what they can achieve when they thoughtfully use voice and strategic messaging to reach customers, strengthen experiences and relationships, guide and galvanize employees, and embed the value they offer deep in the minds, hearts, and lives of everyone they touch. Apple, Google, and Coca-Cola, who currently sit in the top three spots of the Best Global Brands list, are three companies using their words to the exhilarating and impressive effect.

Leaders make it look simple.

A quick scan of various communications from the top three brands yields an instant commonality: they make communication look effortless. This does not mean, however, little or no effort has gone into achieving the result. Their simplicity, effortlessness, and natural grace come instead from a deep commitment to and investment in quality communication, carefully considered strategy, sophisticated operationalization, and exacting standards and governance. They are tightly orchestrated, highly strategic, and beautifully executed operations. They are deliberate. They are hard work. And when it comes to business value, they are worth it. But, as sophisticated as the brands that lead the world may secretly be, there are some basics they stick to:

  • They have a clear and meaningful vision and they communicate it and reinforce it in multiple ways.
  • They know their customers and communicate in a way that will appeal to them.
  • They execute consistently, no matter where they show up.

These are the table-stakes, the must-haves for a believable and basically operational brand. Without all of these things, your brand will present holes; holes that will translate into a disconnect with your customers, less loyalty, patchy service experiences, and ultimately a less valuable brand. But the leaders don’t stop at the basics. Let’s now examine their individual strategies, and how words play their part.

Coca-Cola: A simple strategy with an emotional benefit.

Coca-Cola started out in simpler marketing times. In those days, there was still such a thing as a Unique Selling Proposition, and the heady creativity of 60s advertising and beyond was still to come. But, from the word go, Coke used messaging and voice to bring meaning to an otherwise meaningless product. Starting out as a “nerve-tonic”, and admittedly also containing some zingier ingredients than the delicious sugar water it later came to be, Coke used their words to associate their product with good feelings and enjoyable occasions. “Tired? Then drink Coca-Cola. It relieves exhaustion” promises a very early ad.

This functional benefit soon became an emotional one too, with ads promising “refreshment” and introducing images of smiles, relief for thirsty travelers, and shared moments of enjoyment—“Let’s get a Coke”. And while the executions have changed plenty over the years through myriad taglines and campaigns, the themes have endured: happiness, enjoyment, and refreshment.

Tonally, their copy is full of pep, energy, and snappy rhythm, to match the message of fun, good times. Plucking lines from across the ages, “Coke is it!”, “Play refreshed”, “Things go better with Coke”, “Have a Coke”, “Share a Coke”, “Open happiness” and the supremely sunny and simple “Yes” headline, all convey confidence, energy, and positivity.

To further reinforce emotional ties with their product, they create links with fun events, special occasions, and happy times of year—Coke at the beach, Coke at a barbecue, Coke for the holidays. These associations embed the beverage in an emotional part of our brains, triggering pleasure, nostalgia, comfort, and other good feelings every time we reach for a bottle or crack open a can.

Recently, the can itself has been used as a carrier for their message. Their “Share a Coke” campaign, where people’s names or other complimentary terms for people appear on the packaging, encourages sharing love and friendship by purchasing a Coke for someone you care about. And they have pushed the idea even further, creating vending machines that encourage understanding and friendly interaction even between traditionally rival nations, like India and Pakistan. Since their very early days, Coke has consistently used their message and voice to associate the brand with an emotionally positive experience, while using varied phrases, language, and media to keep their expression fresh across the years and around the globe, and it’s a strategy that helped them take out the top spot on the Best Global Brands Top 100 list for 12 years in a row. They currently sit at number three.

Google: A tale of deceptive honesty and simplicity.

Sitting at number two is the Gmailers’ and moon-shot dreamers’ darling, Google. Words-wise, they employ a voice that is disarmingly simple and candid, combined with messages ranging from the beneficial functionality of the products and services they offer (Gmail, AdWords, etc.), to the openness of their platforms (Android), to the expansive and world-improving potential of their wilder investments (driverless cars, Wi-Fi balloons).

While it may not appear to be anything special, this approach is highly strategic. Click on Google’s “About” link and you are immediately presented with their mission, clearly and simply put:

“Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Their purpose is clear and their expression plays it out. If their goal is to make information accessible, then their writing and speaking style should be too. So they keep their language and sentence structure simple, and clearly state what they mean. Click further, and you will find “Ten things we know to be true”—ah, the simple truth! How wonderfully refreshing and reassuring. They start with:

“1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

“Since the beginning, we’ve focused on providing the best user experience possible. Whether we’re designing a new Internet browser or a new tweak to the look of the homepage, we take great care to ensure that they will ultimately serve you, rather than our own internal goal or bottom line. Our homepage interface is clear and simple, and pages load instantly. Placement in search results is never sold to anyone, and advertising is… clearly marked as such”

As their first point of business, they are openly discussing their methods and motivations in a simple style we can all understand. And this is an approach that is consistently repeated, from the straightforward benefits they suggest for AdWords to the videos that demonstrate the functionality of Chrome (with real, emotional, human pay-offs). The takeaway? This is a company that is honest, upfront, open, and innocently focused on the task at hand. Nothing to see here, except what’s in front of you. Right?

Kind of, but not really. Google’s extremely unadorned linguistic style, in combination with messages of openness, unsuspecting everyday product functionality, and brave explorations for the greater good, conjure a sense of transparency and goodness on the side of the business and trust on the side of the customer. The effect is a customer disarmed; customers on mass, at ease, and willing to allow Google to trawl their personal data, and to trade privacy for products and services.

Even Alphabet, the name they chose for the parent company that now houses all of Google’s manifestations, suggests the elementary simplicity of the ABCs when the reality is an outstandingly sophisticated organization. Not that Google is evil (their “Don’t be evil” value statement reminds them not to be, remember). But the way they use their words isn’t just the happy accident of a bunch of genuinely motivated people talking about their work. It is Verbal Identity magic—strategic, masterful, and verging on genius. Google talks as though they are your average, Joe-simple, nothing-going-on-here-that’s-not-right-in-front-of-your-face kind of giant global company. And based on the way they talk, it’s easy to believe them. Google talks that way by design.

Apple: Irresistible, revolutionary, exclusivity.

Speaking of design: Apple. With beautiful design at the center of their everything, do you think the company formerly ruled by Steve Jobs would have neglected the detail of how they present and express themselves through words? Like Google, they don’t overdress their prose, opting for a sleek simplicity and usability akin to the design of their products. But, also in keeping with their design aesthetic, they do leave room for creativity and boldness. Apple is playful with its language and turn of phrase, often clever, sometimes funny, sometimes cheeky, and, in high-profile moments, almost always coolly delivering an understated yet bold irreverence.

Lines like, “Macbook. Light. Years ahead.” and “iPhone SE. A big step for small.” play with language and syntax, demonstrating expert yet effortless skill and bold creative confidence. Declarative statements like, “The future of television is here” and “It’s all about apps” further reinforce the brand’s confidence, while lines like “iTunes. The heart of Apple Music and home to a universe of entertainment”, offer emotional links and suggest spine-tingling expansiveness. In short, Apple uses their voice to make sure we know they are the cool, confident, creative kid in the room.

But that’s not all that’s going on here. Of particular interest is the evolution of their messages. While the revolutionary nature of their products and the brilliance of the company designing them has been a fairly consistent theme, in recent times we have seen a messaging shift. The Apple of five to ten years ago placed a heavy emphasis on the user-centricity of their products and design—the “i” at the center, the intuitive, easy-to-use, and comfortable product features, personal expression through a choice of color or choice of music.

The Apple of recent years has stepped away from messaging about the idiosyncratic humans that dutifully line up outside their stores with every new product release. Their shift in naming convention further reinforced this change, moving from iPods, iPhones, and iPads, to the Watch and Pay. Apple, the brand and company, takes center stage.

The most recent theme to emerge is where Apple’s strategy starts to get fascinating. Often on the lips of Tim Cook, is the subject of privacy. In contrast to the open platforms of Google and Android, a signature feature of Apple products and design has been the “closed system” or the unopenable box. Indeed, privacy and encryption have been high priorities for Apple for quite some time, but recently, Tim Cook has been getting increasingly vocal on the subject. In recent months, Apple was released from a very public court battle with the FBI over whether they should be required to hack into one of their phones as part of a criminal investigation—and Apple stuck to their privacy guns right to the end.

From the start, spokespeople for the FBI accused Apple of using this case to pull a marketing stunt. Yup, and quite a brilliant one. As the giant platform brands of the world (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and more) make the not-so-secret play to be the “one place” their customers plug into for all aspects of their connected lives, it seems the promise of audacious, air-tight privacy may be the carrot that Apple will use to attract their future customers. Obviously, when you’re dealing with payments, messages around security and privacy are a basic requirement to gain the trust of customers opening their wallets. But for Apple, not only is this new message nicely in keeping with their historical design bent, it could also be a breathtakingly brilliant future differentiator from the show-me-your-data approach of companies like Google.

Does the FBI successfully hacking into the aforesaid phone bring this promise into question? Well yes, a little, for now. But the strategy is still a good one, with this early chapter of the privacy story delivered convincingly through the actions and words of the CEO. In any case, exclusivity has always been a feature of the cool crowd. Sitting in the sweet spot at number one on the Best Global Brands list, Apple’s voice and messaging combination of cool-kid playful irreverence, and brilliant, revolutionary bastion of private exclusivity, should see them continue to woo the masses who don’t want to feel like the masses.

Leaders, use your words

It is, I am told, both glorious and tough at the top. True or not, people and brands do not get there and stay there by being complacent with the opportunities and tools they have available to them. For brands (and people too), words are an opportunity. They are the requisite for all thought and the keepers of meaning. Leaders, brands like Coca-Cola, Google, Apple, and others, see the opportunity that words afford and use it beautifully and, for their competitors, devastatingly. But, the tools they use are not the exclusive domain of the outrageously successful, moneyed, and famous; words are available to us all.

If we learn from the leaders’ example and apply the lessons cleverly in our own contexts, we can all see the satisfaction of successfully helping our companies (and ourselves) vault up the ranks. Word.

Director of Verbal Identity