Words really do build brands

My graphic design counterparts have joked for years that no one actually reads copy, and it's really just another graphic element anyway. Fortunately, this article from the Guardian Unltd. / the Observer backs me up 100% in my view that words, more than ever, matter in the building of brands, loyalty and purchasing behavior.

Read the label, love the product

:: Words brand as strongly as visuals, says John Simmons

Sunday March 13, 2005
The Observer

Read the label, love the product

Words brand as strongly as visuals, says John Simmons

Sunday March 13, 2005
The Observer

It seems obvious that words must be important to brands because words are needed to tell their stories. But it's surprising how they have neglected the power of language, channelling most of their energy and creativity into the logos and visuals that for many people still represent the totality of 'branding'.

Things are changing now, and brands are now paying more attention to their tone of voice. It's fundamental: brands need to differentiate, create engagement, send signals about what they are, just as people do. The words we use and the way we use them are fundamental to our identities as people, our 'brands'.

Newer firms find it easier to embrace this idea. Often, the tone of voice comes from the founders and is simply based on the personalities of the individuals involved. Take Innocent Drinks as an example: a company founded in 1998 by three college friends who decided to create a business out of making pure fruit smoothies. The whole personality of the brand was built on being 'innocent': disarmingly honest, completely natural, no nasty side.

Having no money, they decided to pour their creativity with words into the only media they could afford - the labels stuck on the bottles. They used these labels to tell stories in a distinctive tone of voice, one that reinforced the natural principles behind the product. They played with information that is normally considered either too boring to even attempt to have fun with.

So the ingredients list often contained a surprise. Mixed in with the strawberries and mangoes you sometimes found 'three plump nuns'. You were trusted to take it as a joke, but to take away the message that the ingredients really were fruit and nothing else. The label encouraged you to shake the bottle because 'separation sometimes occurs*'; the asterisk lower down pointed out '*but mummy still loves daddy'.

Of course, the argument went, it's easy for a little company to take a creative approach to words - just wait till they're bigger. Seven years on, Innocent are bigger. Last year they became the UK's fastest growing food and drinks company and the third fastest growing firm overall.

Another company that has built a brand using a distinctive approach to words is Lush, the soap and bath products people. Lush, like Innocent, puts its greatest efforts into making products well. But it also recognises that, if you write well when describing them, consumers love them all the better.

What happens is that customers treat the brand as a friend, because that's the way it talks to them. And people are always much more understanding towards their friends. All manufacturers inevitably make mistakes ('this product stained my bath'), but recovery is easier if they have created a relationship through conversation, a conversation that might have started with a name like God Save the Clean or I Should Cocoa.

Of course, big brands find this more difficult. The weight of history stops them - not to mention convoluted internal structures that prevent con sistency. Perhaps most of all, they tend to lack the necessary sense of playfulness. It can happen: Orange made its breakthrough as a different kind of phone company because it simplified the way it talked about technology. Sticking with brands named after fruits, Apple has been an innovator not just through its products but its product names and its tone of voice; it's part of the way it demonstrates that it can 'think different'.

But it has to start with getting the brand's principles right in the first place - and that means using words that break free from the emptiness of corporatespeak.

The clever brands are recognising this and realising that engaging words are relatively cheap. A little creative effort spent on distinctive language has a big impact on internal and external commitment.

* John Simmons is author of 'Dark Angels: How Writing Releases Creativity At Work' (Cyan Books, 9.99). Observer readers can buy 'Dark Angels' direct at the discounted price of 8.49 (with free p&p). Call 01202 665432 and quote CYN8.