Beyond logos: firms in their own write
Commercial radio stations such as Classic FM are branded by tone of voice
Forward-thinking companies are now looking beyond design to the way they could use words to express corporate identity in ways that stretch beyond the parroting of a single slogan.
These leaders have everything to gain while the bulk of companies' awareness of the power of language is at a low level. Even the slogan is often misunderstood. A few companies, such as John Lewis ("Never knowingly undersold"), build customer recognition and respect with long-lived slogans. Most regard them as dispensable optional extras acquired with each advertising campaign.
Few corporations give the same consideration to a consistent style of written language as they do to their visual presentation. Those that do often have special reasons and strong individual leadership.
The Body Shop's "verbal corporate identity" is a by-product of Anita Roddick's enthusiasm for environmental campaigning. The BBC once exhibited a unified voice, not so much thanks to meticulous implementation of a corporate policy but because of the sense that Lord Reith was breathing down the neck of every broadcaster. Today commercial radio stations such as Classic FM are strongly branded by tone of voice.
The telephone bank, First Direct, has taken steps to ensure that its telephone voice, experienced by customers performing transactions, is similar to its printed "voice", the language used in its advertising and other literature. This style is given visual emphasis by a distinctive typographic treatment.
It is harder to find examples where the use of words is written rather than spoken. One might be Waterstone's. Its use of apposite quotations from well-known writers in its advertising and in-store displays has established a powerful verbal identity that is witty and literate, something that both its parent group, WH Smith, and its rival, Dillon's, singularly lack.
But any company that has regular direct contact with its customers stands to gain from extending the idea of the slogan into its handling of written communication in general. "There is great potential for the first companies who take advantage of this," says John Simmons, the wordsmith at Newell & Sorrell, Waterstone's design consultant. Retailers and financial services companies are obvious candidates. "The principles of managing an identity programme apply to this. We are talking about another aspect of identity."
But if the principles are the same, the practice probably is not. It is simple enough to specify particular typefaces and colours within a visual corporate identity. The equivalent in written language - a permitted vocabulary and syntax - is not a realistic proposition. What is more, while only a small proportion of people in a company are involved with the production of artwork, almost everyone is involved in producing written material. The problems of policing such a verbal style are potentially horrendous.
Royal Mail has ambitions to implement a consistent verbal tone of voice. "Properly used, verbal tone of voice becomes an intangible aspect of identity that can avoid ramming a logo down people's throats," says David Griffiths, its identity manager. "But this is not a quick win. It's perhaps an order of magnitude more difficult than visual identity." One possibility might be to dispense with the style manual and trust to people's intuition. Mr Simmons believes staff and suppliers responsible for producing a corporation's literature would begin to conform to a house style if led by example. People would not require the feel for language of an English professor. Their identification with the company would do the job automatically: People "in corporate mode" would absorb the appropriate writing style relatively easily if they saw that style as "corporate" rather than as a particular style of English without context. This is what seems to have happened at First Direct. The bank's insistence on a high degree of in- house training and its mission to provide customers with easy banking generate a company ethos that naturally finds expression in the way its staff address customers on the phone and in the written language of its advertising.
Keeping in style should be down to key personnel rather than style manuals, says Mr Simmons. "Companies already have the equivalent of that in product managers and teams of people checking on the use of language for what you are legally allowed to say," he explains. "It's just a matter of raising the standards through this process. A slogan should just be the tip of the iceberg; underneath should be a whole approach to language which runs throughout the company." This thoroughgoing approach is rare. But then so too, a decade or two ago, was the idea of a co-ordinated visual language rather than a logo.
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