There’s a lot of talk in our region about brands: brand promise, brand essence, brand identity, brand positioning, brand building, brand equity and on and on.
In the old days companies were companies and products were their brands. Today just about everything is a brand; products are still brands, but so are companies and public figures, and now whole business sectors and even countries have joined the branding bandwagon. This is partially because everything under the sun is now being monetised.
In the process branding has evolved into a sophisticated art form that is considered an essential feature of corporate communications in an intensely competitive commercial landscape. Organizations engage branding agencies to come up with logos and livery that pop, and many of these agencies do a fantastic job of creating a visual look and feel for a “brand”.
These exercises are incredibly useful (and often incredibly expensive) but they’re inherently reductive. They boil down what might be a fairly complex and multi-layered company (or business sector, or utility, or government department) into an easily digestible shape or colour, captioned with minimalist descriptives that give a look and feel of being, well, a brand.
To invent a brand identity from within, corporations create mission, vision and value statements, as well as straplines and other aspirational declarations as a way of defining who they are and what they do (or what they want to be and what they plan to do). The irony is that the end result of many of these efforts are platitudes resembling just about every other corporate expression around.
What tends to happen is that once a company has the “look” it wants – the cool logo and colour palette, the right fonts and a catchy strapline – management forgets about what is possibly the most important communications asset of all: its voice.
An organization’s voice is how it is communicated in language. Image-making is mystifying to most business people but language is treacherously undervalued, particularly in our region.
Talk is cheap. Everybody knows the alphabet, right? But without words we won’t even have images. Just work with one of the global branding agencies and have a look at how many words go into developing those cool logos they come up with.
Across the marketing eco-scape we constantly hear the term, “Share of Voice”. Fair enough for the purposes of measurement, but this way of looking at things places all the emphasis on quantity and none on quality.
Ernest Hemingway said that “good writing is a reflection of good thinking”. Unfortunately, there’s not enough good writing in our market, which also means, by Hemingway’s logic, that there’s not enough good thinking and this is especially true when it comes to helping an organization find its voice.
All one has to do is look at your standard, run-of-the-mill press release making a big corporate announcement to realize this. With numbing regularity we see a quotation from an almost certainly highly intelligent and well-educated CEO saying something inane like, “We are very pleased that…”, or “We are thrilled…” and then going on to use up a valuable editorial opportunity letting us all know that this development has put them in a good mood.
This is instead of providing readers with key insights that reveal the depth and scope of the organization and the implications their work or product or service has for their customers, their industry or the society as a whole. Did the CEO really say this?
Of course not. CEOs are too busy running things to draft a press release so they rely on their corporate communications teams and agencies to do it. And this is the best they could come up with? Really?
In terms of broadcast media, so much is dependent on a spokesperson’s innate communications skills. If the spokesperson already has a “voice”, then that becomes the organization’s voice, whether or not it’s the right one. Without a concerted effort to identify the way a company or institution wants to communicate, it can be a precariously hit-or-miss proposition.
Business communicators need to take language far more seriously and be rigorous in building a distinctive and compelling narrative for their clients. Whether it’s a consumer goods company, an industrial enterprise, a utility or a government institution, each organization has a responsibility to its stakeholders to tell its story in a way that is clear, engaging, consistent, striking, memorable, relevant and, yes, thoughtful.
Words are our medium of exchange. They are the coin of our realm. They can provide insights and depth no image will ever give an audience.
They can build brand and sustain brand awareness with great power. Without a command of language pressed into the service of brilliant - but often inarticulate - enterprises, there is little value in the work we do.
To capture “Share of Voice” an organization has to find a voice, build it and sustain it through the richness of language.
— The writer is vice-president – network affairs and UAE managing director at Traacs Public Relations.