Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou said: ‘They may forget what you said, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.’  Which is why it’s never ‘just semantics’.

Semantics (the meaning of words) matters – particularly in branding and especially when determining your brand’s tone of voice. Every word, question, response and statement should be considered and interrogated for its meaning and its distinctiveness in context – that is pragmatics. These should be the building blocks when defining a brand’s character, tone and language.

The big take-out: Creating a distinctive brand voice allows consumers to identify with the brand.

Language is the extension of your brand’s character or persona, and the only tangible cue for your audience to know that your brand is a  ‘hero’, a ‘sage’ or a ‘nurturer’. Character turns a good product into a brand, and language can turn your brand into a favourite.

Linguistics and brand tone of voice

What makes a distinctive brand voice so important? Isn’t it more important to work hard to make your brand sound more human? A brand voice isn’t so much about the creation of a non-human voice, but rather about being consistent with the voice you are creating – positioning yourself as unique in your category, and creating a voice that builds identification and resonance with consumers.

Similarly, a consistent brand voice (tone, language, vocabulary and intent) is essential to creating and delivering localised content strategies effectively. Every person who interacts with your brand should know the language. This should start with internal communications where brand language should be evident across e-mail communications, from the way colleagues interact among themselves, to brochures, to social media, to radio ads and billboards alike.                                                                                                                                    
Though South Africans have been dabbling in brand persona and tone, brand language or linguistics has not really been explored. There are hints of considered language when looking at Nando’s, NetFlorist and FNB, where you’ll find a distinct personality, character or level of spice in their communication. Nando’s has its humour, NetFlorist has Harold’s tongue-in-cheek persona and FNB’s Beep Bank had a servant-leader in Steve.

In considering the value of brand linguistics in today’s world, we need to ask the following: beyond the few local brands that have truly grown through the power of a strong brand voice, what can we learn from global players that are leading the way in this space?

Global leaders

O2, the commercial brand of Telefónica UK Limited, is a leading digital communications company with the highest customer satisfaction level for any mobile provider. What could this be attributed to? According to Kat Ward-Smith, head of campaigns and brand experience, language is one of its biggest brand-building weapons.

Globally, brands are experimenting with language to ensure differentiation and improve customer experience – both in their broadcast communication, as well as in their one-on-one consumer engagement. And it’s working. London’s Linguabrand and True & Good specialise in building brands through language. Linguabrand uses social listening tools to gather insights that inform the brand voices of clients like adidas, Samsung and Eurostar. True & Good helps clients worldwide with verbal identity, brand story, naming, writing and training for brands like BMW, De Beers, The London Olympics and Orange.

Loads of local opportunities

In developing brands for the world we live in today, one could argue that language, as a less obvious manifestation of a brand’s identity, is still the road less travelled. We need to keep finding new ways and new routes – routes that have the potential to grow brands and businesses. With SA’s unique linguistic landscape, we have the opportunity to truly transform our brands’ personalities and stories – starting with defining the way our brands use language. How is your brand expressing its personality through vocabulary?

* Van der Merwe is a copywriter at Shift Joe Public.

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