Verbal identity and how NOT to do it

October 2016

Let me start with a brief explanation of what verbal identity is. We often think of brand identity as being a visual thing – so a logo, a certain colour palette, specific typefaces etc. – but actually there are at least two other elements for our senses to latch on to: sonic identity and verbal identity. Sonic identity tends to be some sort of short jingle used in advertising – think Intel Processors and Danone (as in yogurts) – and verbal identity is all about a brand’s distinct use of words and tone of voice. Verbal identity has increased in importance for brands in our digital age, because consumers are now exposed to so many more messages in their daily lives across a raft of different media on different devices.

There’s also, for certain brands, smell (some up-market car brands create a distinct smell in their vehicles), and even tactility – think about the old and distinct Coca Cola bottle, or the simple smoothness of any Apple product.

One of the tasks I often carry out for clients is setting some guidelines on their verbal identity. I always start this process by considering two fundamental things:

The market they operate in – regardless of brand positioning, the market or markets any brand operates in should have a major bearing on their verbal identity. For example, a coffin manufacturer selling B2B to undertakers should, in my books, be speaking in a fairly serious manner which is very light on humour (to the point there is no humour). Whereas, a B2C ecommerce business selling party balloons and fancy dress costumes should be free to make their language as jolly as they like.

Market positioning – perhaps the best examples to use here are car brands. Looking at the Jaguar website, I note a fairly distinct language of confidence, seriousness, exclusivity and brevity, being aimed at a mature and relatively wealthy buyer. Whereas, on the Citroen website it’s more fun, cheeky and accessible, and of course aimed at a younger and less affluent buyer than Jaguar is targeting.

Now to a horror story of a brand that’s got its verbal identity completely wrong: Virgin Trains.

Due to where I live in the north of Scotland, I often use Virgin Trains East Coast services from Inverness to get me south. I book my tickets online, and here’s what the confirmation email states from them . . .

Hi Roger ,

We just wanted to let you know that your booking has been taken care of. All the details are listed below, so please just take a moment to check that everything is tickety-boo, just in case.

This is just your confirmation email, mind. Don’t mistake it for a ticket. You need to bring a valid ticket with you on the day, or you won’t be going anywhere.

What sort of bullshit is that! ‘tickety-boo’? I’ve just spent £377 on a return ticket to York for a business meeting, so please don’t talk to me like I’m a child which is excited about a trip to Butlins. And ‘You need to bring a valid ticket with you on the day, or you won’t be going anywhere.’ Really? How about a polite reminder to bring my ticket, rather than putting me back at school and hearing the words of an officious teacher ringing in my ears.

And it doesn’t get any better with their follow-up email . . .

It’s nearly York time, so we just wanted to make sure you had everything you need for a dream journey down there. Have a scroll and you’ll be ready to roll.

‘Dream journey’? I’m getting on a 40 year old train (they really are that old) for a 6 hour journey to get me from A to B. And even if the train was modern and the journey time less, it’s still just a journey, with the word ‘dream’ in this context being about as appropriate as the word ‘salad’. And what’s ‘York time’? Is this corner of north east England in a different time zone to where I live in Scotland then? And no doubt the use of ‘scroll’ and ‘roll’ in the final line is purely because they rime – bet the copywriter was smug having come up with that one.

This sort of nonsense runs through all Virgin Trains East Coast’s communication (website, social media, promotional email) and, for example, a recent promotional email to me had the subject line of ‘We’ve got your back’ – which apparently means (I had to Google it) that Virgin is looking out for me so I don’t come to any harm etc. No: Virgin is providing me with a very expensive train service which may or may not be on time.

You’d think that a brand as big as Virgin would know better, so it does somewhat astonish me that they’re getting their verbal identity so utterly wrong. I can only imagine that their verbal identity guidelines have been created by a ‘fresh out of uni’ graduate working for an agency where everything is ‘fab and awesome’, then sold to a brand manager at Virgin whose knowledge of brand strategy can be recorded on the smaller of the two sizes of standard post-it notes.

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