The Brand Language Pyramid: What is it and why do you need to pay attention to it?
Language and writing is stepping up to the center of the user experience. Great brands pay attention not only to visual design and interface, but to the voice they use when they communicate across touchpoints. The Brand Language Pyramid is our model for designing brand language that delivers the desired effects.
When potential clients first contact us, they usually have some kind of challenge concerning how they use language. They think their writing is muddy or inconsequent. Sometimes they say it’s not reflective of the brand or the position they want to have in the marketplace. Other times the problem may be more tangible: “the users don’t understand our interface and we think the words may have something to do with it”.
Whatever the challenge, we find that in order for us to deliver brand language and writing that works for each brand, we build it according to the the four levels of our pyramid:
We’ll go through the four parts of the pyramid here, but first let’s talk about “design”. We always say that we “design” brand language. Why use that verb? Why not just create or simply write?
Why do we “design” brand language?
The short answer to the question posed above is that we use many of the same models and processes that service designers and other design thinkers do. They focus on finding the right problem to solve. Then they analyze, ideate, prototype, user-test, iterate — and so do we.
That problem solving is crucial. Brand language is not about flashy copywriting and goofy labels on food packaging — it’s about problem solving. And great designers like to talk about themselves as problem solvers, so we’re inspired by them. Our clients need to get something across about their brand — facts, value proposition, emotions — and they want to build a relationship to their audience, but they have a hard time for some reason. Somewhere within that “for some reason”, the communicative problem lies. We look for it and try to solve it by changing the way the brand communicates.
That’s where the levels of the pyramid come into play.
The 4 levels of well-designed brand language
Over the years we have worked with improving the language of many brands, and when we sit down to listen to the brief, discussions are always all over the place initially. The CMO has a couple of phrases and words she likes, the CFO a couple of others. A board member re-iterates “we need to differentiate ourselves” but doesn’t elaborate. The guys actually doing all the writing for the brand simply complain that they have no guidelines to go by and thus simply improvise.
To sort all of these different problems, we have developed a pyramid-style model for working with brand language design. We believe it to be relevant for most writing that comes from a brand and all levels together add up to create the voice of the brand. Let’s look into what needs the different levels serve.
Brand language needs to get the intended message across.
The most fundamental purpose of language is to get something across. You want to be understood or make someone feel something. I’ll go out on a limb and say you even want it to be easy to understand or feel; the reader shouldn’t have to look hard for the purpose. You want to instruct, inform, make people do something.
Identifying the purpose of your writing and designing the language around it is of utmost importance.
Being understood may seem easy, but you probably know it’s not. If you sell furniture then maybe the product is not that hard to explain, but even then you might end up being unclear when you start talking about the different production methods or materials and what value they create for the user. And when we’re talking about brands with products or services far more complex and novel than furniture, sometimes the “make sure your audience understands”-part becomes the toughest challenge of designing the language.
Our usual weapon when working on this level is simplification. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Remove what isn’t truly needed. Question the use of every word. Does it need to be here? Can we substitute it for an easier one? It’s often painful, but always effective.
Brand language needs to be consistent.
As soon as more than one person writes for a brand, consistency becomes a problem. One of your employees will explain something in their way, another employee will explain it in another. If that is the case, it is hard to truly use language to strengthen the brand.
This level of brand language covers not only which words are used and how different terms are defined. It’s also about finding a basic structure for how your brand should communicate. How do you write your emails? Your Facebook posts? Your sales material? Will the text I get from Anna look wildly different from the one Steven has written? Customer journeys today consists of many touchpoints — is your brand consistent across those touchpoints?
Sometimes this is about creating an internal dictionary and choosing which words suit your brand. Sometimes it’s about identifying some core guiding principles for how your brand writes in different channels and touchpoints. Workshopping with and educating employees usually does the trick.
Brand language needs to be strategic.
When the language of your brand is functional and consistent, isn’t it complete by then? On the contrary — this is where it gets interesting. The strategic level is where we truly start taking the world surrounding the brand into account.
Strategy by definition is about applying strength to a promising opportunity. Where are the opportunities for you? How can the language of the brand differentiate it from other similar brands? You don’t want to use the same argumentation as everyone else (unless you are like everyone else, and then you have a fundamental business problem).
We help our clients dig down to what values they want to communicate from a strategic point. Then we design the brand language to deliver on those strategic values. That often comes down to explaining things in different ways or using arguments that no one else is using. Deciding what not to emphasize is important as well.
However, sometimes the final level in the pyramid is what truly differentiates your brand language.
Brand language needs to be able to be emotional.
This final layer is where we decide what feelings we want the language of the brand to instill in its audience. This is the toughest part, the most subtle part — but also the one with the most potential power, we believe. (And it’s becoming more important by the hour, with language moving to the forefront of the user experience again through the rise of conversational interfaces.)
Why is it the most powerful? Well, deep down, we all know it — it’s emotion that truly gets to us. Sure, your writing can deliver on all the three aspects of brand language that we’ve highlighted here, but if you can’t make the audience feel something … you’ve failed. Feelings help us remember. You can feed your audience with factual arguments about why your service is better than your competitors — and you may be right — but those loosely defined “feelings” will play a huge part in the customer making his or her decision, whether you like it or not.
It’s really simple when it comes down to it. You want to build an audience of customers and partners that have a relationship, a strong relationship, with your brand. And without feelings, that relationship will never be strong. By daring to be a bit personal and different, by showing a human side and a soul through their use of language, brands can truly differentiate themselves.
So how do we do it? Well, this is the most organic part. The brand needs to be crystal clear on why it exists, what the mission is, what values it want’s to deliver on, and so on. Then we write, experiment, user test and try to find the style of writing that will make the audience feel all the right feelings.
All levels come together into a voice
It’s popular to talk about brands “needing to have a voice”. We’ve heard this repeated in several talks online and offline, by marketers and brand strategists. They don’t often elaborate on what they mean — the Brand Language Pyramid is our take. All these levels combined create the voice of a brand, we believe. It’s not just about adding that emotional part at the top and think that solves it, or about using the right words. The voice is a complete package.
And the voice will never sound exactly the same. What you’re talking about and to whom you’re talking will always affect the tone of it. But if it’s smartly designed, all the people who need to write and speak for the brand will know how to use it and be able to pull it off. If the brand language can’t be practised, and instead just sits in the desk drawer as yet another strategic document, it’s useless.
There is so much to talk about regarding brand language. Send us an email if you wanna know more!