Verbal identity is one of the three core pillars of your brand. Without it, your brand is like a wordless website—it might look pretty, but it says nothing. One of the best ways to grow your business is by clearly communicating with your audience—and you can do this by creating a strong verbal identity for your business. Your verbal identity establishes guidelines for how your brand talks across all touch points and situations, so you and your people can consistently communicate in a way that builds trust in your audience.
Your verbal identity is an internal-facing document (though many brands do share it externally) that fits into your brand guide, which also includes your visual identity and brand equity. Because your verbal identity and visual identity are both created in tandem and work together to represent your brand, it’s important to keep them both in the same final document. This way, everyone can see your brand identity as a holistic whole.
But what do these terms even mean? Verbal identity is a vague word. And while you might hear the phrase “voice and tone,” that can be equally vague and unhelpful. How can we turn these terms from dictionary definitions into an actionable brand? And what even needs to be included in verbal identity?
Here are five things you need to do for a successful verbal identity.
1. Nail down vague definitions in the introduction
If you take a look around, you’ll notice that many companies break down their brand’s verbal identity differently. So it’s important to include your definitions at the start of your verbal identity document. Try to keep these definitions concise and easy to remember. The point is to get everyone aligned and make for better understanding and usage across all touch points.
Since everyone has a different opinion, find the definition that best fits you and your business. For example, here at Maestro, we use the terms brand personality and tone. These two terms are clear and easy for non-writers to quickly understand at a glance.
Helpful tip! Learn from the companies and brands around you. Take a look at how they define and break down their verbal identities. Check out a few of the the brands that inspired how we view brand personality and tone:
2. List the core traits of your brand personality
Brand personality (also called brand voice) is who you are 100 percent of the time. No matter what happens, what context, or who you’re talking to, your brand sticks to the same personality. This part of your verbal identity digs deeper into how your brand expresses this personality every day.
Summarize this personality into three to four traits (for example: casual, positive, and thoughtful) that form the baseline character of your brand for every audience, medium, and emotional state. List out each trait as a short header, then write a short paragraph about why that trait represents your brand.
3. Set up your standards for tone of voice
Unlike brand voice, your brand tone is constantly changing. It changes depending on who your audience is, what emotions they’re feeling, and the medium through which you’re communicating. Make sure to define the boundaries of tone and challenge yourself to always empathize with your audience.
While you may often have one main audience (say, sports players), you often break that one audience up into primary and secondary audiences (for example, coaches and players). You can vary your tone slightly depending on who you’re talking to, perhaps speaking boldly to players and adding a level of respect and humor when talking to coaches.
Take some time to think about how your audience is feeling when you speak to them. For example, if they’ve arrived at a broken page on your website, you might want to tone down the humor and kindly get them back on the right path so they aren’t frustrated. If they’re excited about a new sale, you can probably get away with a great dad joke (if it’s on brand). If they’re upset about a forgotten password, stay empathetic and concise with directions.
Depending on where you are, your tone changes. If you’re on Twitter, you have to stay brief. If you’re on Instagram, you can be super personal. If you’re writing a white paper on how sports branding affects social environments, you might want to keep your tone more professional.
Helpful tip! If you’re not sure what’s a personality trait and what’s a tone, ask yourself, “Does this apply to our brand all the time?” If so, it’s personality. If it only applies sometimes or changes depending on the audience, emotion, or medium, then it’s tone.
4. Write a checklist for personality and tone of voice
Whether you do all your marketing in-house, send it out to contractors, or have a marketing partner, you need to keep all your peeps on the same page with your brand personality and tone of voice. That’s what your verbal identity is all about.
But saying things doesn’t always make them instantly actionable. To give your copywriters an edge, create a checklist that lets them check their own copy for consistency. For example, if one of your traits is clear & concise, you can write the following checks:
- Is it easily understandable at a glance?
- Are the sentences short and active?
- Is it jargon free?
Creating a short checklist for each core personality trait brushes up any weak spots before the copy is sent in for approval. Talk about shortening the agile cycle.
5. Create your own rules of grammatical style
For most brands, you’re probably following an established style guide, like the Chicago Manual of Style or the Modern Language Association style (MLA). This means you can use the Chicago Manual of Style or the MLA to keep your grammar rules consistent. But occasionally, you might deviate in a few small ways.
For example, does your brand like to keep things moving? Maybe you’ll have no spaces around your em dashes—just to carry that energetic vibe into your copy. Want to lead sentences with strong verbs? Avoid passive tense? Use “they” as a plural singular pronoun? These are also great to drop into your style tips section.
Helpful tip! If this section gets lengthy (longer than 10 or so rules), break it into its own document. Call this new document your manual of style and add in additional components as needed.
Depending on the size and complexity of the brand, you can add in extra components. Before starting your verbal identity, get a group together and brainstorm about what components you should include and whether they should go in your verbal identity or in a separate manual of style. Here are a few ideas:
If you want to give your writers a little extra wiggle room with one of your tones or break one of your style tips in social posts, this is where you put that rebellious little note.
Writing for ESL speakers? Aiming for a certain grade level? Got rules for alt text and screen readers? Put those here.
Writing for translation
If you’re translating your copy into multiple languages, sometimes it’s good to set a few boundaries.
If you have a mobile or web app, write some guidelines on how you guide people through your UI, including buttons and modals. If this is longer than a few bullets, break into its own document.
Have some rules writing for search engine optimization? Put them here.
Writing for bots
AI and chatbots are part of the future, and they don’t write themselves (at least, not yet). List out your brand rules for writing for bots. Sounding human is a good rule to start with.
Is your verbal identity as long as Mailchimp’s content style guide? Write the highlights here for people in a hurry.
You’re building a brand, and that’s a big job. Your brand interacts with people on a daily basis, and it needs to be friendly, personable, and easy to remember. And while your brand’s personality and tone might not be quite as memorable as Morgan Freeman’s voice, get it as close as you can.
The more consistent you are with your brand’s verbal identity, the better your audience can connect.
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