Chris West is a verbal identity specialist and bestselling author of a book called strong language, the fastest, smartest, and cheapest marketing tool you are not using.
Now verbal identity is a topic that’s grossly overlooked and it’s an area of branding and brand strategy that really gets me going as a tool of brand influence.
In our chat, Chris shares his wisdom about
What verbal identity is
Why it’s importance and influence is growing and
How to develop an effective verbal identity for your brand or your client’s brand
So if you wanna learn how to enhance the brands that you build to better serve and influence your target audience from a professional, verbal identity specialist, then don’t miss this article
The Rise Of Verbal Identity In Branding & Marketing (w/ Chris West)
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What Is Verbal Identity
Look verbal identity is relatively new.
When we talk about household words that we all know and recognize in branding and marketing.
So tell us how you got into verbal identity and really exactly what it is from your perspective?
Well, I sometimes think the whole of my career has been a few inadvertent decisions that have taken me off in the right direction.
So 10 or 12 years ago, I was running an advertising business and we had clients as diverse as sky and Christie’s and that was all wonderful.
But each time I left a meeting and my background is a copywriter in ad agencies, but each time I left a meeting in that previous business client about 10 or 12 years ago, client would grab me by the sleeve and say, Hey Chris, you are a writer.
Can you help us write 2000 words before breakfast tomorrow morning? and I was like, yeah. Okay, I know what you’re asking.
What you really need though, is a way of controlling and conjuring your verbal brand, just as much as you control and conjure your visual brand or your experience brand or anything.
So really 10, 12 years ago, that was it, I could see that I loved brand, I loved brand strategy and I loved brand language as well. And if I could wind those two together, I thought, well, that would be amazing.
And so I thought, Okay, the name is probably for, this is probably verbal identity and I was like, okay, that’s great. That’s it?
And then someone said, well, that term verbal identity was invented 10 years ago and I said, well, no, I didn’t know that. OK. But I think, you know, it, it recognizes that there’s been a resurgence in interest in the identity, in the verbal identity of a brand
How Verbal Identity Is Becoming More Prominent Today
Beautiful, so you actually thought that you were coining a term and somebody had blazed the trail 10 years before you.
So why do you think now verbal identity is becoming more prominent today and we’re starting to talk about it a bit more.
Why do you think that is?
I think it’s moving from being interesting to being useful and from moving from being important to being critical.
And by that, I mean I suppose you and I, and everyone else would agree that it’s obvious really that there are more channels today that a brand needs to be in than there’s ever been before.
And a lot of those channels are heavy or dominated by language.
So sure you want to turn up in those different channels, with an identity and language, it’s as strong as your visual identity. I think we would all agree that,
But I think there are a couple of other things going on as the first is when you think about it,
we know that customers, consumers, clients, they want to be in a dialogue with brands they love.
We’re in this kind of crazy world where if you like this brand of milk, then you kind of wanna be talking to them because they’re moving away.
They’ve managed to move away from this big corporate entity conceptualization of themselves to people like you, people like us.
And they’re offering a conversation, they’re offering an opening for us as a consumer to get into a conversation and that’s wonderful if you’re a brand owner, you know, people wanna be in a conversation with you.
So I think that’s the other thing.
I think more channels never before, but more consumers that wanna be in a conversation with brands they love, but there’s probably something else going on.
And I think that’s society has changed so much in the last three years, or there have been so many societal shocks in the last three years that consumers now are saying to brands.
What’s your view on this matter?
What’s your view on black lives matter?
What’s your view on this climate crisis?
What’s your view on this?
And I think suddenly if a brand can’t answer, if it doesn’t have a voice it’s being called out for it.
So I think there’s always been a need for it, but I think they need to give a brand an
Are now critical rather than kind of useful.
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Verbal Identity As A Guidepost for Brands
I definitely hear what you’re saying about the environment today that brands live in, we’re finding that consumers, and this really happened with the digital transformation with social media
All of a sudden you had these groups of people getting together online, where they couldn’t have done that before.
Social media allowed them to do that and that gave them the collective voice and that gave them the power over brands and yes that was the para shift.
Then brands, all of a sudden found themselves having to respond to this collective voice where they didn’t really have that challenge before and a lot of them were caught unaware.
There were a lot of examples back in, I would say 2004 where you had the Palm oil incident.
There were a few brands back then who really dropped the ball, they fumbled in their response aand now we’re seeing brands a lot more seasoned in their response today.
Whether it’s Pepsi, responding to the Kendall Jenner ad that kind of leaned on the black lives matter.
So do you see verbal identity as being the guidepost for where the brand stands on these matters? Or is it more of a language and a tone or does it encompass both?
Well, I think it encompasses both. I wouldn’t believe that the voice of the brand alone should be the direction, in which the whole Brandes goes around.
I mean, it can be right and we’ve seen a couple of examples where it is, but I think it’s understanding of a brand, just as you said, that a brand has to work in society has to work with consumers here.
And if you are like that, then you have to have a voice that works in society and echoing what you just said.
One of the first brands I worked on back in. Back in the 90s when I was a copywriter in an ad agency and it was wonderful it was British Airways.
At that time, really, if you were based in the UK and you wanted to fly anywhere, almost the only choice you had, if you wanted to fly somewhere for the UK was to fly British Airways.
So to a certain extent, not completely, but to a certain extent, British Airways conceptualization of itself or it even, and that emerged out of its brand voice was
“We are British airways, we are great. If you wanna fly somewhere, you’ve gotta fly with us.”
Exactly, and so I moved agencies and having got people to switch from whatever airline BA and now I was now working on the Virgin Atlantic account.
I had to get people to switch from flying on BA flying on Virgin Atlantic, cuz you know, as the nineties have progressed and what was great about Virgin Atlantic was this real sense of,
instead of we are up here, we are the brand you’ve just gotta kind of suck it up.
Was this idea that,
Hey, you are cool. We are cool. Let’s be called together.
It was really much like a peer-to-peer relationship and that as a brand voice, as a brand conceptualization emerged stronger in the 2000s.
But I think the other thing that happened very interestingly the early 2000s was some brands realize a brand isn’t that interesting to a lot of people, you know, it’s not the kind of Godhead thing that it used to be.
So what we saw was a lot of brands in their conceptualization themselves and in their voice and a lot of their other activities were almost taking a step back. It’s like,
You wanna do this on? You wanna do that? You two people just get together and we’ll just help it. We’ll just help it out. We’ll take, you know, it won’t be like, we are great. Look at us. We’re wonderful. You have to do something with us. It was much more about you got stuff to do. You wanna do it with those people? We’ll just help you connect.
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Language Sets Boundary & Rules
Yeah, and I think what you mentioned there about Virgin and BA, we could go back to Avis and Hertz back in the late 60s where Avis took the position of the number two and kind of align themselves with the everyday person.
Whereas Hertz were doing the whole BA thing were sitting up here and you’ve gotta come and, and impress us.
With the verbal identity components within your process, can you break down what components you believe sit under the umbrella of verbal identity?
I definitely can but before I do that, can I rewind you 30 seconds?
You touched on something which is really brilliant which is I think the other reason why brands are having to pay much more attention to language these days is that there are more challenges around whatever sector you are in.
Whether you are 150 years old or five years old,
I guarantee you are being challenged by some cheeky upstart coming into your sector and the thing about the cheeky upstart is they don’t have a lot of.
So they can’t outspend you, so they gotta outthink you and if they’ve gotta outthink you, then a way that they’re gonna do this is they’re gonna show off their outthinking is with language.
So a reason why a lot of the big banks and even a lot of the FinTech challenges are all thinking about language these days is they know they’re all susceptible.
So the challenger brands moving in and those challenger brands will try and outwit them and outpace them and take them disproportionately, the share of mind using language and that’s exactly the Avis/Hertz situation.
I’m a big admirer of Adam Morgan’s book and Adam Morgan’s thinking. He literally wrote the book on challenging brands.
His book is called Eat Big Fish and it has that when you’re in number two, you try harder. He has that or he used to have that on his cover or certainly prominent in the book and I think it’s a key piece of thinking.
Look, you are we are all susceptible now to being challenged by these brands and if we’re not careful, they’re gonna outsmart us with language.
That’s exactly what happened with Dollar Shave Club and Gillette as well and there’s so many examples of it where the challenger brand uses verbals on a level that the bigger brands can’t compete with because they’ve built their equity in a certain way.
And you know, they’re kind of tied to the way that they deliver that. Old spice is another example of where they built the equity in a certain way, but then they shifted, they shifted their verbal identity.
They shifted their personality and they try to connect with people through humor, as opposed to the the old man’s brand, the way it used to be.
There are two critical things going on there.
So the second one using humor, it kind of broke the rules of the category. It broke the rules of how you operate in the category.
The rules were, you have to be quite self-serious. You have to be quite masculine, quite Butch, almost a toxic masculinity and it used humor to debase that. Fantastic! and that is one of the best uses of language.
In the first example, you mentioned got Dollar Shave Cub and Gillette, I think there was something else going on there with language and this
Language, without us realizing it, language kind of sets a boundary and rules for a category.
It says, look, if you step outside of this boundary, you’re not really in this sector and the center of gravity, therefore is there, It’s just here and language continually reinforces that.
Actually what Dollar Shave Club did was they broke the rules. They broke the framework, the whole conceptualization of what it was to buy and use a razor.
And the whole framework was razors are really expensive. Razors are carefully crafted and you could cut down a tree with a razor if you need, you know, all this.
So therefore it’s really expensive and therefore you can only buy it in these places, therefore, that was all constructed with language and visual identity
The language was really working hard to set the boundaries, to set the rules in place in our mind and what Dollar Shave Club did it with humor like old spice, but really what they were doing was they were breaking some of the rules in place.
And that’s what a lot of politicians over the last 10 years have managed to do. They’ll talk in politics and that world of the Overton window.
What is the acceptable thing we can talk about and then when you use language to shift the Overton window, you shift the Overton window into an area in which you can talk about best and that’s what language is so brilliant.
Components Of Verbal Identity
Actually, within politics, that’s what George Bush did the relief “Don’t think of an effort.”
It was a job reliever of some kind of relief. I can’t remember what it was, but that is the idea of the power of language by anchoring to something positive and then shaping that into your own identity.
Aligning with that and Trump did it again whether you love him or you hate him, you had to have an opinion about him and he had shifted the window again.
So let’s go back to, to those elements, those components of verbal identity, what are the components of verbal identity to you?
Over the 10 years we’ve been running this business. I think that what I know that what we’ve seen is it’s a radical reimagining of what the components of a brand voice are.
So when I started out, I keep on feeling like I’m so old when I say this, but when I started out in the 90s, you never saw or that nailed or even described the brand tone of voice.
And you kind of didn’t need to, because if you were the marketing director, back in those days, you would have a good writer over at your ad agency or you’d have a good writer at your direct below-the-line agency whichever one was good.
You would just tell the other agency look, write more like them. They’ve got it. They understand it. Write more like them. That was the early 90s, late 90s, as more channels, more media channels developed.
You might get the tone of voice defined and in that case, the tone of voice was defined usually as four adjectives.
Those adjectives, in early 2000 were almost always human, friendly, warm and approachable.
Can you write our copy?
So we are really differentiated from every other one of the 115 million companies on this earth. It’s like brand values that talk about integrity and honesty and respect.
If you take the antonym or if you take the opposite of that and it’s clearly nonsense.
Then the value in the value in the first place must be self. It must be apple-pie mum. Right?
I would think so and it was Paul Arden who is creative director back at Sarche in my early days, who also mentioned it.
So it’s a great idea and it probably its has,
I’ve got a friend who’s a professor of philosophy and I keep on meaning to ask him isn’t there a kind of philosophical model or philosophical rationale for taking the opposite to prove.
But anyway, I mean, you know, who would want to write for a brand in a way that creates an identity so that people think the brand is inhuman, cold, hostile, and distant, right?
So human-friendly woman approachable worked in the sense that some people were just writing corporate distant and quite formal but actually with more channels than ever before with that produces one big challenge.
And I think the big challenge these days is how can you be consistent across all of your channels.
But how can you flex the voice for different channels in different moments?
So you and I are, and everyone here with us on the show, we will probably speak differently on Twitter, If we’re on Twitter, to how we might speak to the in-laws or how we might speak to a lawyer if there’s something going on.
So we know instinctively that we are still the same person but we are flexing our voice in our daily lives.
Actually, that’s what a brand needs to do when it’s got so many, it doesn’t wanna turn up on social media, using the same kind of feeling, creating the same kind of thing they might do in a customer service complaint letter.
Do you want them to be coming from the same place?
So we looked early on in the days of verbal identity in my business, we looked at how language worked and what we saw was that kind of almost whether the brand owners and the brand designers and the brand strategists, whether they realized it or not all brand voice is working on three levels.
It’s not that kind of tone of voice generality.
What we found was behind every great differentiated brand voice, there’s a very strong sense of a worldview, a world that they’re trying to create.
It’s almost like they never say it explicitly.
Sometimes they do or but they usually don’t need to everything they say comes from this place of, we are trying to create a world where this is happening better and therefore we stand for this and therefore we’re gonna call out and stand against that.
So we realized that was going on and we imagine that as almost a 10,000-foot overarching level gives you a sense of the territory and what is going on in the territory.
Even though that’s never explicitly or rarely is that explicitly mentioned, you come down to a 1000 feet, imagine zooming down from 10,000 feet to a 1000 feet over an air.
Now you’re getting a strong sense of the personality. I’m talking to you as from Oxford, right? So medieval city, which is struggling with the demands of 21st-century life.
So you can see that narrative playing out 10,000 feet, you know, 200 yards. That way there’s a medieval building, a hundred yards.
That way there’s a shopping car. That’s a narrative. If you come down to a thousand feet where I am now, you can see exactly that playing out in the total values.
You know, these kind of buildings, there’s no Manhattan, 180-story skyscrapers, right? Of course, around, you know, it just doesn’t fit into the narrative.
So for every brand differentiated, clear brand voice, there’s this thousand-foot level where the personality is coming out.
Those strong tonal values and then if you come down to the ground level, every great brand voice is very conscious of those things, which you can actually put your finger on, on the page.
Things like grammar choices, things like the words and phrases we use. Don’t use things like how much jargon we use.
So one of our earliest clients was Fred Perry and wonderful CEO there. He said, Chris, we’ve gotta stop calling them stores because stores is an Americanism and we’re a British brand.
And so we sell in shops, you know, so resolving those ground level details, the words and phrases we use and don’t use, whether we’re gonna be really modern in our grammar, very street in our grammar, or very formal in our grammar.
How much jargon we use deciding all of that stuff is really important because it reinforces the tonal values of the thousand foot, which reinforces, or is informed by the overarching narrative at 10,000 feet.
So I think that most brands and most brand owners and most kind of designers and strategists, when they’re working with language that often or a lot of them they’ll often have a really strong sense of, no, this is right for us and the client will look at them and go wait. Right. No, it’s just not right.
The truth is they’re both. Right. But they’re only both partially. Right?
So the client might be seeing that this is our 10,000 foot worldview. This is what our brand is put on earth to do.
This is the world we’re trying to create and so this needs to inform. With the choices of everything we write about and the angle on the things we write about now, the designer might be sitting there.
Design is brilliant, right? Hugely empathetic, very nuanced in their feelings, very precise in what is, what isn’t.
Now they could be focused on the tonal values and something they’ve said has thrown the client because the client’s heard that that’s a different 10,000 foot level, but actually, the design’s got it right at this 1000 foot level.
This personality, and tone, what we need to do in this discussions is recognize these three levels, recognize which level we’re talking about, and then make sure that these three levels all reinforce each other because once you get it right at a 10,000 foot level, it’s suddenly a lot.
To know what you should write about and the angle you should take on it when you get it right at the thousand foot level.
And that thousand foot level that total personality is a good realization of that 10,000 foot overarching narrative when you get it right at the thousand foot level, there’s the copy.
The language is just lovely. I mean, it’s so true to you as a business. It’s so personality driven, it’s really differentiated and when you get it right at the ground, when you’ve had an agreement in advance on this is the start of grammar we use, these are the words and phrases we don’t use.
Then you avoid getting that 7:00 PM on a Friday night call from a client or from a design team saying, Hey, why have I just seen this on social media?
We don’t talk about that. Well, we’ve had the discussion, right? You know, we flex our grammar like this in these places and we use jargon here, but not there.
So the three key components are really.
Identifying this 10,000 foot level,
The overarching narrative thousand foot level tonal values personality, and
Ground level details of jargon, grammar, couple of other things,
and then making sure that they’re all reinforcing each other.
Verbal Identity Tactical Approach
I really like that because I visualize everything and that’s how I operate that. I create visual frameworks for everything. So the way I see it is.
The higher up the levels you go, the more strategic they are, the lower down we go, the more tactical they’re.
So at the top level, we’re talking about what we’re for and what we’re against at the middle level.
We’re talking about personality and attributes and the way we want to talk and on the ground level, then we’re talking about the tactical approach to the language, the words we use, and the environments or the platforms within which we use them. Is that right?
Yeah, absolutely and I think when you said they’re more strategic, higher up and lower down, I thought we were gonna say more mechanical to a certain extent, tactical and mechanical.
I’ve been in meetings in New York of a global firm that started in Britain and they had a long, expensive meeting about whether they should use I E or ISE, uh, ISE, or I E at the end of those kind of words in America, in their communications, cuz they’re a British brand.
And should they nationalized, nationalized, what is it? Wow.
What an expensive conversation to have right? but fix it because it’s mechanical and I think the outcome was that you stayed with the British dictionary because the rest of the brand had leveraged a sense of Britishness.
You get this kind of service and that had echoes of what people in Britain will think is great, British service and you’ll be treated will do the things in this particular way.
So there was Britishness throughout. So it kind of made sense that the was their 10,000 foot worldview, It was just there aand their personality.
Well, we’re not gonna turn up and be brash. No, we’re gonna turn up in real life and in language with this kind of whatever, their tonal values were a thousand feet.
So therefore the ground-level details, would’ve been wrong if they’d Americanized and by exactly how you’ve laid that out.
If you have your top level clear, then a simple question at the top level can fix any confusion at the bottom level really, really quickly and here’s the interesting thing.
Some people naturally intuitively I think have a focus on one of those levels.
If I’m in a conversation with people, who’ve come through, come through journalism or PR their tendency is to think that they’re gonna define the voice from ground-level details.
Because if you sit in the guardian newspaper, if you sit in New York times, yeah. One of the things you’re given is the style guide.
The style guide is really those mechanical ground-level details. We treat abbreviations this way. We spell out numbers up to the number. We write out the numbers up to number 12.
Whatever it is, you know, if you are a wonderful, intuitive designer coming from the graphic design visual design world.
You’ve played so much with nuances of personality. You almost locate almost inevitably located around a thousand-foot personality level.
If as a business owner, you’ve had to grow as a designer, you’ve grown your own business.
You’re now leading a business and the conversations you’re having with clients much more around business and strategy, then you are thinking has gone up to that 10,000 foot level but you can never throw away any of the other levels.
Do You Recommend Copywriters As Strategist?
Do You Recommend Copywriters As Strategist?
I absolutely love that.
I believe systems and frameworks are the cornerstone of any business.
And I certainly believe that within branding to because brands are so can be so creative and expressive.
If you’re given a sandbox to play in it and it allows you to go wherever you want to go.
If you understand the rules of the game now, do you recommend, because obviously you are a, a copywriter by trade.
So verbal identity is something that you’ve brought a gun to a knife fight.
If you’re going toe to toe with somebody who is not from a copywriting background, do you recommend working with copywriters as a strategist?
If you do not have that copywriting background?
I would like to think if I twist your analogy, I think I’ve brought a buffet to a knife fight.
It’s not zero-sum game, particularly with designers. I mean, I remember talking to the creative director of a brand over in Ireland and he said but the thing is Chris, I get all that about the language, but it’s visuals. I said, that’s it. Exactly!
Visuals attract, verbals engage.
You can see it. If you go to a gallery, like the claw gallery in London, and there’s Turner shipwreck, this huge paint, beautiful dramatic people step into the gallery in their moment over stunned.
You can see them, they walk over, they walk right up to it and what do they do?
They bend to the right away from the frame of the picture because they wanna read that little plaque on the side, the curator’s written.
The visuals attract the verbals engaged.
So with copywriters, with designers, with strategists, with business owners, I don’t wanna think that I’ve brought the heavy armor. I think what I’ve brought is the buffet, right?
It’s to say, look, you’ve got this. We’ve got this. Let’s pick what we want. That’s gonna make this work together.
And so I would say to a business owner or to a designer, if you found a copywriter that intuitively gets what this brand is about, throw your arms around them and hold onto them.
Correlation Between Personality & Verbal Identity
I love what you said before about visuals attracts and verbals engages.
One of my rules within branding, if there’s any doubt, bring it back to the human situation and the whole idea about visuals attract verbals engage.
We can all relate to the attraction of another person, no matter who you are and how many times have you met somebody where you look at them.
You could look at them all day and then you talk to them and they just bore the life out of you.
There’s a misalignment there because the visuals attracted, but the verbals failed to engage.
I think we can, all kind of relate to that in some kind of way.
Because from my perspective, I believe that personality is something that is the main course in and of itself.
From your perspective, do you see a correlation between personality being created as its own part of the, the puzzle?
Or do you see that as part of the verbal identity?
It’s a smart question because it makes me think personality is a thing that when defined properly has its own value is valuable in itself.
It’s a valuable asset entity that you’ve created for the business.
However, the value can’t be realized until the personality causes something to happen in a particularly personality driven way.
You could be very pure and say personality is distinct from verbal identity, just as distinct from visual identity and largely you’re true or your right.
Think that the point of the personality is to drive how you turn.
In the visual it’s how you turn up in the customer experience.
It’s how you turn up in the brand language and I think probably what we’ve had working with businesses, has varied as Alphabet’s moonshot factory in Silicon valley to a kind of billionaire jeweler in India, to a kind of two-person startup in skincare business in London.
What we’ve often seen is that when we develop the verbal identity.
There’s this wonderful moment in the middle of a project when the client team or the agency team, or will say to us, that’s helped us understand something that we hadn’t quite got focused properly in the brand personality.
It helped us understand a bit more about who we are.
And I’m sure that whether you’re a visual designer or customer experience designer, You’ve had that same wonderful moment in a project where as far as what you hired for is let’s create this visual identity.
But actually, through that’s kind of wonderful, but boring ultimately, but through that, you’re helping the brand team understand more about the personality of their own brand and I think that’s a wonderful moment.
So I think going back to your question, they are distinct but they inform each other in a really interesting way.
So again, maybe fear is what makes me invest so much time to make sure it’s a good fit.
But then on top of that, it makes the process better because we’ve already established a lot of trust and credibility through, through the pre-sales process.
And then imagine this, now you spend a week, two weeks, four weeks, six weeks, whatever it takes, you spend a good amount of time establishing a relationship with the client.
You then spend eight weeks or 12 weeks leading them through a branding process that excites them. But it’s also intimate.
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