Verbal identity: It’s not all about looks

Jan 18, 2017 · 5 min read

You have spent tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, on your brand’s visual identity. You’re looking good. Real good. But what is good looks worth if there’s nothing under the surface?

First impressions. The handshake, the eye contact or the clothes you wear. Or, if you’re a brand, the logo, the font and the images. No one will deny that these are important things. We all know it, either in our gut or through things we’ve read. That’s why we are so anxious to look right. To have the right haircut and the right shoes, or the right font in our headings and the right colour scheme in our apps. It’s no wonder that brands spend so much on their visual identity. But if you ask us, it’s foolish to stop there.

Get past the first date with your customers

Again, first impressions are important. We all know this. But we also know that looks isn’t everything. All kinds of nastiness can hide behind a nice façade. When we go on a first date, we know that we need to make a good impression not only with our handshake and our haircut, but with our character as well. At least if we’re looking for more than just some Netflix and chill.

Same goes for brands. We can make a good impression with our looks, but if we want a long-term, faithful relationship with our customer, we need to show more than a pretty face. Otherwise, the customer will Netflix and chill us and move on to another brand.

This is where the verbal identity enters the stage. A brand’s verbal identity is two-pronged: it consists of what your brand says (message), and how you say it (tone of voice). This is what gives your brand it’s own personality. It is what turns your brand into a human being, into someone a customer can understand, empathize with and have a relationship with. It’s not rocket science: relationships requires persons, so your brand needs to be a person.

Schizofrenia: A wide-spread brand illness

“Anyone can write.” Yep, sure — pretty much anyone has the motor skills required to write. Doesn’t mean they should, though. At least not in the way they do it today.

Let’s say you have only good writers at your company, each of whom can produce a coherent and engaging text. Let’s say you have decided that your company identity is “friendly, modern and trustworthy”. Good conditions for good writing, right?


Your writers really don’t have much to go by. Each of them will have a slightly different take on what the brand should convey, on what “friendly, modern and trustworthy” means for a text. Each of them will produce good texts, but the texts will not be consistently written. It doesn’t matter that the writers are talented. (And let’s be honest, you probably have both talented and so-so writers at you company.)

This is when schizofrenia happens.

Few brands have trained the staff in writing, even fewer have a verbal strategy that pins down exactly what and how the staff should be trained to write. The result is a jumble of voices. The customer meets one personality in ads, another when e-mailing customer services, and yet another when e-mailing customer services again a week later.

Consistency matters in a relationship. If you’re having a hard time making sense of a date’s personality, it’s less likely that you will go beyond Netflix and chill. If a customer is having a hard time making sense of your brand, it’s less likely that they will stay faithful.

The brand ghost walks among us

In our work at Uppfatta, we often wonder why so many brands are still stuck on the Netflix and chill level. Their visual identity is in place, but they lack the right words to back it up. Why do so many companies then lack a verbal identity?

Perhaps the ghost of the past is still skulking around. A “brand” was originally the mark you burned into the skin of your livestock, to show who the animals belonged to. We haven’t come too far from that in the centuries that have passed since the first farmer branded his cow. Many of us still think of brands as something that shows who has created a certain product or service. “Brand” has now expanded from being purely a symbol to also being other visual things, but it is not until very recently that “brand” has expanded to include the verbal aspect.

We think the reason for that might be that we all use words, constantly. Most of us have been able to speak, write and read for the best part of our lives — hence, we don’t really see a need to ask a professional how we should be communicating. And that’s when schizofrenia happens.

Finding your honest Tinder bio

If you’d ask us, we’d say that finding the brand’s core identity should preceed finding both the verbal and the visual identities. Unfortunately, the most common route today is coming up with a logo and design that is “friendly, modern and trustworthy”, and then adding some words to it as an afterthought.

There are a number of problems with that, but the one that we’re going to address here is the lack of a firm foundation. Anything that you’re going to show your customer — visual or verbal — needs to be anchored in your brand’s core. Before you do anything else, you need to find that core.

What is it that makes your brand what it is? If your brand were a person, what qualities would that person have? That person is your starting point moving forward. If your verbal and visual identities don’t match your core, the customer will feel it. In dating terms, your date will soon sense that your Tinder bio doesn’t match the real you. If you’re looking for a serious relationship, you’d do best to be honest. Good looks are one thing, but personality and honesty is what takes you past Netflix and chill.

Talk to us! And do it here.


Writing about language, brands and design.

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