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The language guidelines that brands use

We noted above that a corporate language style is often captured in guidelines that

will be used in the production of its communications, and also for audit and review.

In practice, and in the typical case, these descriptions of language are not sufficiently rigorous to define what linguistics might recognise as a “style” or “variety”.

The following are some verbatim examples taken from actual guidelines. It is

unfortunately impossible to attribute these examples for reasons of confidentiality:

  • - Words should obviously express the personality of the brand: passionate, pioneering, inspiring, and warm.
  • - Use personal language: we, us and you.
  • - Use simple straightforward words that “come from the heart”.
  • - Use conversational language and write like you speak.
  • - Write and speak in a natural and unforced way.
  • - Always talk about the key things our products and services do - their features - in ways that communicate meaningful and relevant benefits to your audience.
  • - Use imperative verbs. This adds energy to your writing by cutting the cumbersome language normally used to set up a point.
  • - Use active sentences. These sound more confident because it’s clear who’s doing what.

Directives like these are typical. They range from quite vague admonitions, through guidance on selecting content, to recommendations on specific linguistic usages. In addition to guidance like this, individual companies often have certain house style rules, such as rules for formatting dates, capitalisation and spacing of product names, preferred spellings, how to address people, etc.

In addition to language rules or principles, language guidelines for brand-image formation typically also contain examples of the kinds of language being aimed at (texts such as letters, posters or brochures given as “before” and “after” versions). The following example, with the “before” version on the left and the “after” version on the right, is from an oil exploration company’s language guidelines.

Before

After

The Group’s geotechnical and related services help provide information on soil properties at the seabed as the basis for design and operational considerations. Geophysical and related services provide information on the seabed profile and contours to facilitate construction work. These services are executed though 4 specially designed geotechnical and geophysical vessels.

In our business, everything we do is based on a detailed understanding of the seabed. Advanced information on soil properties provides a safe basis for our design and operations. Using our four state-of-the-art geotechnical and geophysical vessels, we map the seabed’s profile and contours in detail.

In this example, the original is heavy on inanimate clause subjects: “the Group’s geotechnical and related services”, the repetitive “geophysical and related services” and “these services”. The result is that the company seems to have no personal agency in these operations. Changes that have been made to achieve the “after” version include creating clauses with subjects that include possessive pronouns to give the company agency, and removing abstract and technical language in favour of “humanised” nominalisations. For example, “seabed profile” becomes “understanding of the sea-bed”, which humanises by including a mental process, and “facilitate construction work” becomes “our design and operations” which does so with a possessive.

The following “before” and “after” versions are taken from a rewrite undertaken by a British High Street bank to bring communications into line with its brand guidelines. The communication concerned is a letter explaining a price change to business customers. Pricing was moving to a different basis, so some customers would be better off and some worse off. There were variants of the letters for each customer outcome, but the introduction and justification included in each letter was the same.

Before

After

At Anybank, we strongly believe that Business Banking should be straightforward, clear and easy to manage. With this view, we constantly strive to deliver a better offering to our Business Banking customers which includes re-evaluating the pricing of our products and services from time to time. In our endeavour to deliver on the above, we are making a few changes to the pricing of our International Payments and Transfers that our Business Banking customers are making with us.

We’ve recently carried out a review of our Foreign Exchange Pricing, with a view to making our pricing clearer and fairer for all our customers. We also think it’s important to recognise in our pricing the length of time customers have been doing business with us, and the volume of transactions they put through Any- bank Business. From 00 Month 2015, we’ll be changing our pricing as a result.

Unlike the previous example, the company (“we”) has a good deal of agency in the clauses in the “before” version. The rewrite has moved the focus of the argument away from the bank’s activities, explaining the changes rather in terms of how they affect customers. The language of the “before” version includes the emphatically- modified “strongly believe” and “constantly strive” which seemed over-dramatic for this context and over-effusive about the bank’s role. Reference to the credo behind the bank’s actions has therefore been softened to an uncontroversial justification of “making our pricing clearer and fairer for customers”. In addition, the “before” version shows evidence of business register in “re-evaluating the pricing of our products and services”, “a better offering” and “endeavour to deliver on the above”.

In the change to the “after” version, the aim was to make the language more like the register of everyday conversation, and again to humanise the speaker. So changes included contractions (“we’ve”, “it’s”), and the mental process verb (“we also think”).

However, some vestiges of the business register survive: “a review of”; “the volume of transactions they put through Anybank Business” were the subject of discussion with the client, who preferred this formulation to our suggested “a look at” and “the way you bank with us” or “the number of transactions you put through your account”. In studying this and perhaps any genre of discourse, it is important to remember that the final result is not usually what any party thinks of as perfection - it is just the best that could be done at the time, given the need to satisfy the needs and preferences of different parties within available timescales.

Finally, my third example is from the guidelines of a Government Department, another project of which I have personal knowledge. The aim here was to achieve a kinder, more human tone, as well as to improve clarity. The first change is therefore to move from the more complex logical relationship (“x if not y”) to the simpler and positively-framed “if x, y”. The language moves from an imperative “You must...” to a request (“Please...”) with positive encouragement rather than a negative sanction to motivate compliance. As in the previous examples, there is personification of the organisation with “we”, rather than the passive “your claim will end” with no explicit human agent.

Before

After

What you must do now

Tell us by 27 March 2015 if your details:

  • have changed (and what the changes are)
  • haven't changed

Your claim will end, and you won't get any more benefit payments, if you don't do this.

? My details have changed

Call us now on 0800 000 0000 to tell us what has changed. This is easy to do and should only take a couple of minutes.

Please update us by 27 March

Please get in touch with us by calling 0800 000 0000 by 5pm on 27 March to confirm your details, even if they haven't changed.

We need you to do this so that we can keep your daim open and carry on paying your benefit.

This is easy to do and should only take a couple of minutes.

Although the original is very clear, we felt it was pedantic to use a bulleted display for “have changed” and “haven’t changed”. To be more helpful, the number to call and the deadline have been placed in the initial request, so that the letter is more direct. This content has also been included in the letter title, rather than the more generic “what you must do now”. This not only makes the letter clearer, it breaks down the unequal power relationship between writer and reader. In practice, this power relationship (between a government department and benefit claimants) is controversial and always in the news, but our guidelines focused on introducing more of the ordinary rules of polite discourse into the Tone of Voice - hence “please” and “we need you to do this so that” - giving reasons for requests.

Do language guidelines work? Certainly, the examples contained in language guidelines are often reported to be valuable to corporate writers. Yet there is no formal research on how effective they are, on whether what the guidelines contain is optimal, or on whether explicit language knowledge (as opposed to the examples provided, or a “feel” for the brand) is instrumental in bringing a writer’s style closer to the recommended brand language. One informal study, undertaken by one of our clients, did show that written communications were becoming closer to the recommended style two years after training on Tone of Voice. However, this training and general awareness raising also encompassed visual design, brand awareness and much more, and the assessment was far from scientific.

Also relevant for this chapter is the need to understand customers’ affective responses to communications, and to establish whether the kind of values or “personality” these evoke among readers are really those intended by brand strategists. I do not know of any research that focuses effectively on this question. We will look into some research approaches that might give some insight in Section 4.

 
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