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Five tips for brands looking to harness the power of language

Credit: Pixabay

Move over visual identity. By 2017, 89% of marketers expect customer experience to be their primary differentiator. But most companies are only taking that experience halfway – by investing in technology and design, but forgetting the language that goes with it.

From what I’ve seen at the various customer experience conferences I’ve been to recently, as long as you’ve got a flashy app, a revamped website, and maybe a virtual assistant thrown into the mix, you’re on the road to customer experience success.

But what happens when everyone has an app and a virtual assistant? How do you stand out then?

Standing out in a sea of sameness

Savvy brands are recognizing the power of language to differentiate them from the rest. Google is one of them, making headlines recently for hiring writers from Pixar and The Onion to make its virtual assistant sound less like a robot. Meanwhile, over at Amazon, developers are working to make their virtual assistant not just sound like a human, but, effectively, to listen like a human too by identifying emotions.

The irony is that, as robots become more and more human, most brands still sound like robots.

Real personality goes more than skin deep

You only need to flick through the apps on your phone to see that most of their language is still stiff and robotic.

Sometimes there’s an obvious, copywritten attempt to create a veneer of personality. Take my Capital One banking app. When I log in, it says ‘Nice to see you.’ When I haven’t been active for a while, it says ‘Still there?’ So far, so friendly. But when I try to ‘request a credit line increase’, I’m told that ‘Alimony, child support or separate maintenance income need not be revealed if you do not choose to have it considered as a basis for repayment’. It’s formal, it’s passive, it’s corporate, and it’s a far cry from the warm greeting at the start.

The same thing happens on websites. Often when brands give their sites a makeover, they’ll jazz up the first few pages with warm, friendly language to match the new, ‘customer-centric’ design. But, beyond that virtual storefront, it’s the same old same old corporate-speak.

Some brands are getting it right

One of my personal favorites is Warby Parker with its easy-going charm that extends to every nook and cranny of its site – including its terms of service. But then, relatively young start-ups like Warby Parker have the advantage of not having the linguistic baggage or regulatory constraints that come with being, say, a 150-year-old life insurance company.

Those established insurance companies (and tech giants, and investment banks) that want to be more customer-centric need to take their language seriously and build it into their apps, sites and widgets. But when you’ve got a website that’s 3,000 pages and a library of legacy content, it can seem a daunting task.

Here are five tips to help you get it right.

1. Know who you are

Or even better, who you want to be. And make it as single-minded as possible. Like Coca-Cola, who’ve been reinforcing the promise that Coke is for everyone by bringing together all their sub-brands under one brand umbrella.

2. Put a voice to it

Once you’ve got your brand promise and values figured out, you need to translate them into a voice. Like Ben & Jerry’s, whose founding principle ‘If it isn’t fun, why do it?’ rings true in everything they write – right down to job titles like Grand Poobah of PR.

3. Make that voice practical

Adding five new adjectives to your brand guidelines isn’t going to help your people communicate in your new voice. After all, one person’s ‘passionate’ is another person’s EXCITED!!!! So make it practical and unambiguous, with plenty of real-life examples to show what passion (or clarity, or confidence, or whatever) means for your writing.

4. Build it into your tech from the start

There’s a great quote by web designer Jeffrey Zeldman: ‘Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration.’ So, don’t retro-fit your personality into your app or website. Think about how the content and tone can add to the experience from the start.

5. And don’t forget the details

Don’t stop at the landing pages or the home screens. When you get into the real nooks and crannies, that’s when you show people your voice isn’t just lip service.

Recently when I went to update the apps on my phone, I spotted two very different interpretations of exactly the same message. The first, from Yelp, simply says ‘Bug fixes and various improvements’. Sure, whatever, we’ve all seen it a hundred times before. But the second one, from Car2Go, said this: ‘Improvements to back-end stuff that you’d find very boring but make our developers very happy’.

Which one stands out to you?

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