Why brand owners need to engage with the Engagement Economy

Chris West, CEO of Verbal Identity on the importance of taking a real look at your brand language to develop a full verbal identity.

Chris West

CEO Verbal Identity


Marketers have been talking about the attention economy for some time now, but what do you do once you have the attention of a consumer? After investing so much money into the fight for consumers’ attention, what I keep seeing is a failure to create engagement once their attention has been won, squandering that initial investment. To make the attention budget pay off, marketers must turn to the one thing that’s designed to deepen relationships: language. It’s time to enter the Engagement Economy.

At Verbal Identity, we have a saying: ‘Visuals attract, verbals engage.’ You can see it in every supermarket aisle. Someone’s hand reaches out, almost involuntarily, to pull a fancy new pack off the shelf. What do they do then? Turn it around to read more about it. Humans are a language animal and we created language to share ideas, to build relationships, in short, to create engagement.

Yet in a world with an ever-increasing number of channels and an ever-increasing number of consumers who want to be in a dialogue with brands they like, brand language today is the number one most underused marketing tool. Verbal identity guidelines are far underdeveloped compared to visual identity guidelines. Writers struggle to develop a consistent brand tone of voice which can flex to suit those different channels or different moments. Luckily language, as well as being malleable, is quick to develop and immediate in its effect.

There’s no doubt that 2020 has intensified the expectations of consumers to be in dialogue with brands.

Chris West

Define your full verbal identity

You can see an instant uplift in your engagement by taking a small spoonful of your performance marketing budget, I suggest five to 10%, and using it to create modern brand tone of voice guidelines and writing training (more on that later). Make sure you’re defining the full verbal identity; that includes looking at the overarching ‘world view’ and what you stand for, the personality and tone of voice, which shows how you articulate your world view, followed by the ground level detail of do’s and don’ts and ‘house style’ choices. Use a proper tone of voice framework and you’ll get proper results. We’ve seen this over the last ten years by working with brands of all varieties, from luxury leaders like Mulberry, to big B2B organisations like X (Alphabet’s Moonshot Factory) as well as start-ups.

There’s no doubt that 2020 has intensified the expectations of consumers to be in dialogue with brands. Where brands have failed to have an engaging language, they’ve seen the biggest unsubscribes of their history. As well as the COVID-19 pandemic, we all saw which brands had a transactional voice, but not a real voice, when it came to the Black Lives Matter movement. When brands don’t have the language to signal true empathy, they fail us.

But looking back on 2020 also shows us the power of getting your brand tone of voice right. Joe Wicks MBE did more than raise money for the NHS; he made doing a workout popular. How much harder than selling a product is that? He did it of course with his charm and enthusiasm. But those values are expressed in his tone of voice, always speaking one to one, even when speaking to one to millions. That’s what a brand’s language should aim for.

2021 won’t be a reset back to the old ways. Consumers will question established organisations more than ever and demand that ‘their’ brands speak to them on a level, rewarding trust in them by being ‘consistently consistent’ in what they say and how they say it.

There may also be cuts to wider marketing budgets, but language will become the secret weapon of many cost-conscious CMOs and Customer Experience leaders. It is one of the fastest marketing tools available. With a little preparation, a modern brand tone of voice can give teams the ability to create a new meaning for their product in days and weeks rather than months and quarters. Language can build short term relationships, just as well as long -term engagement.

So, what are the main things that CMOs should be thinking about when updating their brand’s verbal identity?

Marketers need to recognise that, like any relationship, one between brand and consumer changes.

Chris West

1) Where on the spectrum is your brand voice pitching itself?

Some brands talk in a distinctly ‘abusive’ way; think about how banks used to talk to you. Most brands have a tone of voice which is pitched in the broad middle of ‘submissive’ styling, often including a free gift or a discount to win over the consumer. At the better end of the spectrum are  the collaborative brands, talking confidently and building loyalty. Energy provider Octopus has done this brilliantly in its tone; only the other day I got a text describing a new deal as ‘Squid pro quo’.

2) Is the ‘one global brand voice’ finished?

In 2021, we’ll see different countries emerging from the current crisis at different rates, and with different lasting effects on society and culture. Will a monolithic brand voice now seem deaf to real life? Uncaring? Disengaged? A brand voice is the most flexible of a brand’s assets, and ideally suited to being adapted by different regions. A good example of this is a recent project we worked on for Twinings. Huge credit to the leadership team here, who recognised that the difference in markets across the world demanded a framework to allow their local experts to develop their own brand verbal style, whilst staying true to the wider brand. We developed a specific piece of IP, to give regional marketing leads a brand language framework they could use and adapt. This is something I definitely expect to see more of as we head into next year.

3) Keep it simple.

Simple language is more effective. Netflix has won 200 million consumers from a landing page with just 26 words. What would you lose if you shortened your copy by 50%? Not much, but you’d gain clarity and engagement.

4) Use language to deepen your consumer’s relationship with your brand over time.

Marketers need to recognise that, like any relationship, one between brand and consumer changes. Over time, adapt your tone to suggest a closeness, or at least a familiarity. My bank still writes to me like I’ve just signed up. Gradually developing a more engaging tone will help you lock in a long-term dialogue and help you be forgiven when you hit bumps in the road.   

5) Today, everyone in your company is writing for your brand.

Once you have your fully developed verbal guidelines, you need to ensure that everyone writing is trained in how to use them correctly. That could be, or perhaps even be should be anyone from legal to commercial to marketing. Vauxhall understood this when they asked us to train staff from across the business: the focus wasn’t just external comms, but customer experience and internal comms as well.

So, now is the time to take a real look at your brand’s language. Is it really engaging your consumers? Will it keep your brand performing in the context of the current challenges? Be honest, have you ever read any of your brand copy and felt a tingle of excitement, or even thought about it three minutes later? If your brand language isn’t engaging you, it isn’t engaging your customers, and it’s time to update it.

Chris West is CEO of Verbal Identity


Chris West is CEO of Verbal Identity, the leading strategic brand language consultancy. They believe in the ‘magic and mechanics’ of brand language, helping their clients create brand language guidelines, brand narratives and writer training.