A great brand voice grabs attention, persuades your audience, and builds loyalty. But as the number of brand channels explodes, organizations are finding it harder than ever to create a consistent brand voice that expresses exactly what they stand for. In Strong Language, international tone of voice expert Chris West walks you through the process of creating a compelling brand voice and getting everyone to use it from day one.
Discover the three levels that every brand voice operates on and learn step by step, how to create a practical tone of voice guidelines, flex your brand voice for different situations, and get organizational support to create the change you want.
Welcome to the Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host, Benji Block, and today, I’m honored to be joined by Chris West. He’s just authored a brand-new book titled, Strong Language: The Fastest, Smartest, Cheapest Marketing Tool You’re Not Using. Chris, glad to have you joining us here today.
Chris West: Thank you for having me, Benji.
Benji Block: Absolutely. Christopher, for listeners who may be brand new to your work, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
Chris West: Yeah, for sure. I run a business called Verbal Identity and it started 10 years ago. People say, “What is it you do, Chris?” The easiest way I can think of describing it is to say that most people in marketing— most people who own a business— will have sweated the details on their visual identity, will be carefully controlling the look of their business. What fonts do they use? What’s our logo? What’s our color pallet? Even, what style of photography do we use? That’s really important because you want to build consistency, you want to differentiate your brand or business from another brand or business, and carefully controlling your visual identity is a way of building value and doing that.
When you speak to those people or say “Hey, do you do the same with your verbal identity?” They might stumble a little bit, they might not be sure, they might whip out a piece of paper with four adjectives on it. The thing is today, there are more brand channels than we’ve ever had before and we need to communicate, as businesses, faster than we ever have before. Most of those channels are dominated by language. Suddenly, business owners and brand owners are in this position where they need to be able to communicate in language about their brand much more than they ever have done before with much less, say, oversight, when you look at speed, velocity, in which you need to communicate in social media.
I think all businesses today need a verbal identity which is as differentiated, valuable and is controllable as the business’s visual identity.
The Magic and Mechanics of Language
Benji Block: I think it’s extremely important and I’m excited to jump into some more on this book. Specifically, why was right now the right time for you to write this book and take on this project, Chris?
Chris West: I think there’s been a growing need over the last 10 years. My previous business was running a boutique advertising agency and what I found that 10 years ago was each time I left a meeting, one of our clients would kind of grab me by the sleeve and say, “Hey Chris, just before you go, you’re a good writer. We need to write 10,000 words before breakfast tomorrow, can you help us?” I realized the job wasn’t to write the words for them but to help them communicate who they were in language.
Over the last 10 years, I think there’s been this growing understanding that language is critical. Over the last, say, two years, we’ve noticed a lot of brands being in a spending war, really. The inadvertent commerce performance marketing way of trying to give more money to Google or give more money to Facebook just in order to win people’s attention. We’re seeing a lot more of that and it’s becoming a lot more expensive for businesses. Once you’ve got their attention, what are you going to do to engage them? If you could somehow spend less to get their attention in the first place and once you’ve got their attention, engage them more, then I think as a business unit, right position. We’ve seen that over the last – say, last three or four years.
What we’ve seen of course in the last 18 months is the pandemic has really shifted society and society’s expectations wi
th governments, with brands, with other people. When you have these big shifts in a society or in a culture, then, typically what happens is that language changes because you’re expressing who you are in a different way. What we’re seeing a lot is, brand owners and business owners coming to us and saying, “Look, we need to restate who we are as a business, we need to make sure our language conveys that correctly, we need to engage with potential customers and stakeholders in a different way. How can language help us do that?”
Benji Block: That’s so important. Let me ask you this because you are at the forefront, you saw this before the pandemic. You’ve had this company for 10 years and been engaging in this way knowing the power of language, so let me just prompt you with that question, when did you first realized the power of language? Was there a situation or a moment where you started to really find yourself going, “Wow, words and how a brand communicates with languages is vital.”
Chris West: In about 1970. Seriously, when I used to sit at the breakfast table with my family and I would turn the packet of cornflakes or whatever it was, I’d turn it around and read it. I just was, “What is cornflakes? Who are these people called Kellogg? What are they about?” Really from an early age, you can see people engaging with language.
You can see it now if you spend the moment pausing. The next time you go to a supermarket, pause in one of the isles and when there’s a great new product on the shelf beautifully designed— maybe the packaging is amazing, maybe the bottle is amazing, whatever it is— you’ll see people do something, their eyes will stop and they’ll be walking along and their eyes would just catch on this brand-new product. They’ll look at it and what do they do then? They reach their arm out, pick it up and turn it around to read more about it.
For years, I’ve seen it and I think I see it more and more as people launch new products, as people reposition products, as people want to deposition rivals in their category that they’re using language a lot. I don’t know if that answers your question?
Benji Block: No, I think that’s a great answer and it shows too, the curiosity that started at a young age. Wondering [about] that and then watching that evolve over time, obviously, that’s set you apart because you’ve been looking for it. And when you’re curious and you’re looking for it and you’re asking questions, then you end up in a position like this where you can help others do the same.
Chris West: A good question, Benji, might be, “So what on earth happened between 1970?”
Benji Block: You knew exactly where I was going. Yeah, take us on that evolution. How did you go from there to here?
Chris West: Well, let’s work backward in time. I’ve been running a strategic brand consultancy, focused on language for 10 years— how on earth did I get into that? Well, because clients were catching me by the sleeve and saying, “We need more help because we got to write more.” I ran a boutique ad agency before that for 10 years and was lucky enough to have the opportunity to walk away to do this. And the 10 years before that, I had the most exciting, thrilling,
wild, depressing, scary, wonderful career in ad agencies in London. It wasn’t quite like Mad Men but there was certainly moments which could have turned up in a Mad Men episode. I mean, that was really wonderful.
I sort of had two or three great editors in my life. Probably the first one I remember was my creative director, Simon Dickits at the agency Saatchi & Saatchi who used to show me the power of being economical with words. I would show him a headline— we were working on British Airways at the time— I show him a headline for an ad to appear in the newspaper and he would look at it, twiddle all the color of his shirt, look at it again and he would just reach out a thumb and put it across a word in the headline I’d written. He said, “Do we need that word? Do we, Chris? Do we? No, I don’t think.” And so just being with someone who had that attention and care for language, really opened my eyes to understand how much you can shape language and how when you shape language, it shapes thinking.
I was very lucky to have someone like that spot me and say, “Chris, you’re a writer.” I had 10 great years in advertising. I dabbled on the side, writing in the UK the Sunday Times, writing articles on cycling, which I love. I had another great editor there who is the section editor who would, red pen out, slash through copy, tell me I needed to be more upfront. All good advice.
Then probably, the third great editor I had was Twitter because you’ve got to know what your thought is if you want to do it in 140 characters. You can’t be spending time clearing your throat, you can’t be off the subject. 140 characters, you got to know exactly what you want to say. Those are three great editors I’ve had in my life.
And before advertising, I had what I think is an odd route, which is I was very science-y at school. In the UK, you’re put into a science or arts strain very early on in life and I was in a science strain. I went to university, studied human physiology as an undergraduate. Loved it, loved how the body works, the amazing system. I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Then did a post-graduate course at Cambridge University on computer science, still really had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Spent two years with a computer company, computer manufacturer, saw suddenly what I wanted to do and changed direction.
But the early parts of my life, I don’t think were wasted because what I think is missing in a lot of language creation for business and brands is engineering thinking. It’s not just this burst of unconstrained creativity that gets the job done, it’s about understanding what is the need? What are the variables? What can we change? What can we have as inoperable over time? How can then we apply creativity into that framework?
I often talk about both the magic and mechanics of language. There’s always going to be a bit of magic but there’s also understanding some of the mechanics, understanding how language works can really make you a better writer, can make your departments much clearer in communicating about your brand can make you much more persuasive, can make you as a business work a lot faster, a lot better.
What Does It Mean to Develop Your Brand Voice?
Benji Block: Chris, when it comes to brand voice, it sounds like it’s more than just a tone of voice— that there are certain things we should be thinking about. Why would someone even need to develop a brand voice? What are we talking about? What are you talking about when you bring that up?
Chris West: Well, if you think about that situation in the supermarket again and sometimes, when we’re working with art directors or visually minded directors of a business, they’ll say, “Hey Chris, why do we even need words?” That was literally what one of our luxury sector clients asked us. They said, “We have a beautiful product. That’s enough.” I said, “It is almost enough but it’s not enough.” We have an expression which is visuals attract, verbals engage.
Going back to that example of the supermarket, that person has stopped. Their eyes are stopped. Their body has stopped. Their mind is suddenly stilled by seeing this beautiful piece of design and they reach out their hand. It’s not enough just to look beautiful anymore. Actually, you need to have a message. You need to engage your customer with who you are, what you stand for. That idea that visuals attract, verbals engage, I think is very important.
Benji Block: You bring up three levels in the book. You talk about addressing this brand voice by taking this approach of looking at a 10,000-foot view, a thousand-foot view, and moving into the nuts and bolts at that ground level. It is beyond just tone. Talk to us about that 10,000-foot view, what’s involved in thinking through the vision, and the type of world we want to create with our words.
Chris West: Our very first client was the wonderful CEO of a clothing brand in the UK— actually, it’s a global clothing brand called Fred Perry. He said to us, “Our challenge is to make our voice consistent but flexible in different channels. How on earth can we do that?” I think that’s at the heart of what many brands are struggling with or want to achieve in their brand voice. They need to be consistent on who they are but adapt to different channels or different moments or even different purposes of what they’re communicating about.
That’s kind of obvious, really, when you think about it. If you’re doing something interesting, light, topical in social media, that’s an entirely different setup than if you’re sending out a letter about an outage or if you’re writing a radio commercial or if you’re advising your investor relation team what to say at the next quarterly report.
Just having a tone of voice, just this simple idea of a tone of voice isn’t enough. Actually, when we looked at language, and how language works, we identify three levels. There’s a 10,000-foot level, a thousand-foot level, and a ground-level if you like.
At 10,000 feet— if you think about it in this way with this metaphor— really, what’s happening is, every piece of language is quietly conveying the worldview of the company that’s written it. “This is our worldview. This is therefore what we stand for and this is what we stand against.” If you define that world view for your team and for yourself, then actually, anything you’re choosing to write will be the right kind of choice and if you’re writing about the same thing as your competitors, it’s giving you the angle that you can take on that subject matter.
At 10,000 feet, if you define your voice at 10,000 feet, a thousand feet, and ground level. At 10,000 feet, what you’re really expressing and what you’re being clear about is the worldview of the brand, the overarching narrative, “We stand for this, we stand against that.” Then once that’s clear, as I say, that helps the writers choose what to talk about. Then they need to know kind of how to talk about it. What personality do they bring? Because a lot of businesses are doing pretty much the same as someone else. The personality you bring to it can be significantly different.
Defining, what we say is, define three tonal values of that level and in the book, there is a guide to how you choose those tonal values, how to avoid being the same as everyone else, how to be differentiated, how to make yourself interesting in that personality.
Benji Block: I think it’s really important, you bring up this idea— and it made me chuckle as well— that there’s this idea that we don’t serve up apple pie in mom values. Could you explain that a bit?
Chris West: Yeah, I mean everyone loves apple pie mom, right? Let me explain it this way if I may. Is that okay? Often, if you talk to businesses and say “What are the tonal values for your brand voice?” They’ll say, “Oh yeah, we got that! Human, friendly, warm, and approachable.” and they’re kind of apple pie mom values. Who doesn’t want to be human, friendly— or to put it in another way, no one in the world, no brand or business in the world is going to say that we’re inhuman, unfriendly, cold, and hostile. Being clear on what your internal values are is really important. Making sure that they’re different and not obvious is absolutely critical. And it’s through that that you create a unique personality for your brand and your brand voice.
Benji Block: Now, another thing that you bring up is this idea of the three adjectives— and you do discuss in further detail how to pick those— but why is the magic number three? What do you see as the value in picking those three?
Chris West: I would love to say it is hardcoded into our brain or that it is something that’s been around for 2,000 years. I can’t really claim this either of those, although I think it was Aristotle who did talk about in rhetoric those three particular strands of being able to communicate who you are convincingly. But I think it’s actually a much more practical thing. If you have two values, people tend to make them slightly deliberately awkward with each other. We are daringly conservative— they would be two values that would come up because people see two values and their natural inclination is just to make them up offers of each other and somehow put them together. Well, what is daringly conservative mean? And no one knows what that means, it’s just kind of a bit of fun on paper.
If you get into four or five values, you’re diluting your personality. If you think about not anyone knows Seinfeld, the US sitcom but in its time one of the most successful sitcoms. George Costanza is a particular kind of character. He’s well-rounded but you could define him in three adjectives. If you start using five or six, then what you’ll find is the personality becomes more blurred.
Benji Block: There’s a clarity to the three.
Chris West: Yeah. So, perhaps the shortest way I can answer that, Benji, is to say three is not so much a magic number but it’s a good constraint to put on yourself because it really tests your thinking and it avoids giving you get out clauses later on down the line when you’re writing and then you end up showing off, sounding like everyone else because you’ve got the same kind of values as everyone else one way or another.
Building Your Business’s Voice From the Ground Level
Benji Block: That’s great. You say creating the verbal guidelines is only 49 percent of the task, the bigger part is encouraging everyone to use the new language. Now, we can’t give everything away in this interview. We obviously want people to go pick up the book and the nuts and bolts is so practical and there’s so much good content there, but what are we talking about when we get to that ground level, Chris?
Chris West: Yeah, absolutely. The key thing about the three levels of the brand voice— or any voice for business— is that the three levels reinforce each other. When you know what your world view is, what you stand for, you stand against, that’s really helping you define and develop the personality of your brand voice. Similarly, when you come down to the ground-level details there are some things that you can see that you can literally put your finger on when you’re looking at a piece of copy or say a CEO speech or something else.
Those ground-level details include things like the lexicon to use, the linguist’s term. What are the words and phrases we use and what are the words and phrases we don’t use. For example, one of our UK retailer clients said, “We never use the word ‘store’ because ‘store’ is an Americanism. We always use the word ‘shop’.” And he had said it a hundred times until he was sick of saying it. Being very clear in your guidelines, so these are the words and phrases we use, we don’t use, actually saves you a lot of time.
Another thing in the ground-level details is grammar. I was taught my grammar a few years ago at school by someone who learned their grammar many years before that. Should a brand still be using grammar that is maybe 60 years old? I don’t think so. But should a brand or business be using the kind of grammar that is found in street talk? Probably not. Or maybe it should. It depends on who you are, the personality you’re trying to create, what your worldview is. Understanding that grammar isn’t a fixed set of rules forever, but there are different grammars and those different grammars signal different kinds of relationships between the writer and the reader is really important.
Then there are other things as well. Sentence length. If you look at a piece of copy by the car brand Mini, you’ll find sentences that are just three words long. If you look at a piece of copy by Ferrari, their sentences are often as finely engineered as the car. Theirs would be 40, 50 words long. You wouldn’t find a 40 to 50-word sentence in Mini’s copy because Mini is not that kind of brand.
Paying attention to all of those things helps create a differentiated and valuable voice but at the ground level, boy, it saves you so much time when you’re working with your teams, when you’re briefing your teams, your external agencies because it stops you going back over the same things again and again.
Benji Block: Clearly creating the verbal guidelines is important. In fact, you say creating the verbal guidelines is 49 percent of the task, so we’re a chunk of the way there but the bigger part is encouraging everyone to use the new language. Once this is developed, how do we champion this narrative and this brand voice?
Chris West: I think there is a couple of things, which are really important and the first is to go into this knowing what you are trying to achieve and knowing where it will add value. It is kind of nice to have kind of better language but I don’t think that puts it on the to-do list.
I think if you can understand where language is impacting your business, how is an undifferentiated voice causing us to spend more money on advertising than we would necessarily need to. Or how poorly constructed customer service scripts or customer service letters are causing people to come back to our contact center more often. When you understand how language is either helping or impeding what you’re trying to do as a business, then you can attach value to it and I think that’s really critical. Because this isn’t a one-week fix or a four-week fix. It can take three months, six months, a year and you’ll need your professional capital, if you like, to be sustained over that time. There needs to be a clear goal that we know what we are going to get, we know what the ROI is on this.
I think the other thing that’s going to make it a success, in the end, is involving people as early as possible. Very rarely is anyone going to respond well to something that’s just being dropped on their desk and saying, “Here it is, you got to do it this way.” But if you’ve asked them— either in a workshop session, either getting them to understand through a few workshop exercises or just a simple email questionnaire around the brand voice and there’s a guide to that in the book— if you’ve asked them then they started thinking about it, they started remembering why it’s important. But most importantly of all, they understand that they are valued and that they have a role in creating the new brand voice, of adopting the new brand voice. I think they are probably the two most important things.
Benji Block: Chris, for someone who is saying they love this idea but they don’t know how to win CEO support, what would you say to someone in that situation?
Chris West: Well, the cheeky and short answer is to buy the book because I cover that exactly in the book. But I think you’re right. People will know there is a problem with their brand voice, they need to win CEO support. There is a good little trick in the book, which is about identifying the quick wins because if you are engaged in the brand voice, you can’t expect everyone else to be so engaged. But most people will respond very well if you point out there are these quick wins. In the book, there’s a really good method for identifying the quick wins and bringing them to the seniors’ and the CEO’s attention.
Benji Block: Great. What about the ROI on brand voice for someone going, “What’s my return on investment if I try to up the level of our brand voice?”
Chris West: Yeah, this was one of the biggest challenges in growing my business because we live in an ROI world and no one wants to do anything unless there’s a clear ROI promise. And actually, again, if you look in the book there’s a couple of chapters, which is specifically on this. But to give you a couple of headlines about it, I think it is reasonable to separate the cost of an underperforming brand voice into two areas.
One is, what’s the impact internally? Is it taking us longer to write than we should? Is it making us as a business slower? Is it costing us more because we’re having to hire more writers and get them to rewrite something again and again? I spoke to someone from a UK bank recently. He’s a writer there and his job is to rewrite what someone has just spent three months writing. That’s a huge waste of money, a huge waste of time, and actually a waste of life I think.
There’s an ROI because you can look at how many times are we rewriting something, what’s that costing us? Then there’s an external way of looking at that, which is, look, if we’re doing the same as this company and they’re somehow getting more retention, they are somehow creating more sales, what role does language playing in that? I know that’s harder to define but in the book, there is a couple of really good exercises where you can draft an ROI. I wouldn’t claim, and I wouldn’t ask anyone else to claim, that it’s bulletproof but certainly it gives you some indicators.
Benji Block: Chris, could you give us a quick example of a company that’s using language to create value?
Chris West: Sure, there is a really great example at the moment. Benji, I don’t know if you take milk in your coffee or milk in your tea or whether, like me, you’re a dairy dodger. Do you use milk or do you use a milk alternative?
Benji Block: I am a dairy dodger.
Chris West: You’re a dairy dodger. So, us dairy dodgers will know perhaps a brand of oat milk, which is called Oatly. You may also know a brand of oat milk called Rude Health. Now, Rude Health and Oatly, they’re both oat milk, which is basically oats in water. That’s it, really. You can’t taste the difference. I don’t believe in taste the difference, I never met anyone that can. They’re sold in this literally the same packets, they’re tetra packs. They’re sold in one liter, or whatever size it is locally. They’re sold in the same stores. They’re sold in the same chiller cabinets.
Rude Health was valued recently at $70 million. Yet Oatly— which has the most outstanding language, using its language to create a social movement, using its language to convey its worldview, is using its language to create a personality, is doing it consistently through all of its channels, and the only difference is really its language— was just valued not at $70 million but what it IPO’d recently was valued at $13 billion, and the difference really is language.
Benji Block: That’s great. As we kind of start to wrap this conversation up, for those that pick up the book, what do you believe they’re going to feel if they implement the ideas expressed here? How do you see this being a game-changer for readers?
Chris West: I think what they feel is a huge sense of relief, kind of professional pride as well. Let me talk about those two things because they are kind of different but they come from the same thing. I think relief because if you’re a department leader, an agency leader, or a CEO or a founder, you’re pretty smart. You’re generally in that position because you are pretty smart and it can be so frustrating when you want to communicate who you are as a business and you just can’t explain it properly.
There is nothing worse for a writer or an agency team or an investor to hear this thing of, “Well, that’s not us. I just go and write it again or go and create something. I can’t tell you what’s wrong with it, just have another go.” That doesn’t work. But to have the control over your brand voice, to have the control of your written communications to the same extent that you have the control over your visual identity, any other part of your business is this huge relief, particularly as you need to be operating in more channels than ever before.
There’s the relief thing but I think this is a pride thing as well. The book is called Strong Language, sure, but it’s called Strong Language: The Fastest, Smartest, Cheapest Marketing Tool You’re Not Using because so many businesses forget what language can do for them. They forget that it can win customers. They forget that it can deepen loyalty with their customers. They forget that in an instant you can deposition rivals in your sector, and doing that fast, smart, cheap and really effectively is a wonderful thing.
I think someone that’s got ambition to change their business, to change the performance of their marketing department, or change the performance of their company as a whole— if they pick up this book if they spend some time working through some of the exercises, having a look at the framework, I think they have the opportunity to really quickly outperform their competitors.
Benji Block: Fantastic. Besides checking out this book, where can people find you online, Chris?
Chris West: The business is called Verbal Identity, so no surprise really that you can find us at verbalidentity.com. I have probably one of the most common names around, Chris West, so follow Chris West on LinkedIn. If he is not talking about brand language, you might have found one of the other 10,000 Chris Wests. If you want to get straight to me, I guess you go on to LinkedIn and you search Chris West Verbal Identity and there’s a lot of thoughts, there’s a lot of what other people are doing with their brand language there, share more exercises, share a few bits from the book in there. I am always open to questions and I love helping people. If anyone poses me a question on LinkedIn about their brand language, what it can do, how they can construct it, how they can train their writers— because that is the other 51 percent of the whole job— I’d be so happy to see them there.
Benji Block: Awesome. Well, it has been an honor to discuss the book with you. Great work. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us on Author Hour and I know Strong Language is going to be a great resource for so many.
Chris West: Thank you, Benji.