Chris West Steve Martin
Aug 8, 2016

Brands must not underestimate the importance of voice

By burying their heads in the sand when it comes to developing their tone of voice, brands are missing opportunities to connect with people on a deeper level.

WIth 2020 fast approaching, communications around the Tokyo Olympics have yet to gain momentum (photo: Flickr user t-mizo)
WIth 2020 fast approaching, communications around the Tokyo Olympics have yet to gain momentum (photo: Flickr user t-mizo)

1978. Punk rockers roamed the King’s Road. The Gay Pride flag flew over the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. And another legend, Wally Olins, published a book, The Corporate Personality. The world was changing and for the first time, someone had explained to top management the basic human need to project an identity. At the time Wally said, “The visual projection of a culture not only helps internal cohesion, but it plays a large part in showing the outside world what the company is like and how it can be expected to behave.”

20 years later, punk had become fashion, the Gay Pride flag ubiquitous, and corporate identity projects evolved into weighty brand books covering every visual manifestation of the brand—but it was very much one-way communication, with little space given to a brand’s verbal identity.

Then web 1.0 became web 2.0 (remember that?) and suddenly brands needed to engage with the outside world and have conversations. Getting the logo and colour palette right was now the easy bit—the bit you could still control. Communicating with real people, often in real time, was another matter. So corporations did what they normally do in these situations: ignored the problem.

The last 10 years has seen a transformation in the marketing landscape with a plethora of communication channels springing up and an exponential rise in the amount of content required to feed them. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests a manager for a mid-sized brand has to oversee the production of more words today than the editor of a newspaper.

Some brands have embraced this and stand fully aware and engaged, with a tone of voice that is as powerful and consistent as their visual identity. For others, it’s still 1978.

Not surprisingly it’s the technology brands and startups that lead. Staffed by ‘digital natives’, sharing is a default state. One-to-many. No hierarchy.

However, when brands move abroad, things get more complicated. It’s not just tone of voice, but cultural context. Many brands just translate directly—a benign arrogance and/or penny-pinching that results in products and services falling flat in different markets. Others manage to strip away any emotional engagement in the localisation process. And the guilty come from all languages and cultures.

Case in point: the Tokyo Olympics 2020. Say what you will about the logo saga, but the true lost opportunity is the lack of any real personality or verbal identity though any of its communication channels. When you consider the amount energy, expense and political will involved in a winning bid, one would expect the winning city to unleash its creative prowess on the world. So why did this fail to happen? Most likely it’s a combination of a risk averse environment, an overly bureaucratic decision making process and ultimately a lack brand confidence to empower a digitally savvy team to engage. Let’s hope things pick up as 2020 approaches.

Some brands do, however, get it right and manage to export both their product and their sensibility and adapt them for a different markets. A notable example: Nissan, where an international team manages the Japanese brand. Recently, in Campaign, Roel de Vries, Nissan global head of marketing and brand strategy, said:

You need to find the language of your company. Then you need to put marketing and branding on the agenda using that language. I know in this company, any presentation that uses words like ‘positioning’—marketing jargon—is seen as soft. But if I talk about things like pricing power, purchase funnel, profit opportunity if we fix the brand, there’s full support for marketing and branding.”
“Don’t send a hipster creative into our executive committee—he’ll get killed. Have him work with you and translate that into the language of the company. That’s the job of someone in my position.

Chris West is founder and head of voices at Steve Martin is founder and director of Eat Creative, a branding and communication agency based in Tokyo.

West will be the first ever president of the ‘Verbal Identity’ jury at the London International Awards 2016. The jury consists of brand strategists, writers and namers drawn from clients and agencies in the UK, US, China and Japan, including Martin and Wall Street Journal writer Ben Zimmer, whose column looks at the language of business.

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