Creating a Powerful Verbal Identity – Event Summary

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Corporate Communications,

Jasmine Butler Burnham

Marketing Manager

The Financial Services Forum


Quirky brands with a distinctly playful tone of voice – examples such as innocent drinks, Apple and Virgin are often cited – seem to be regularly held up as the ‘holy grail’ of verbal identity.

But as marketers of pensions, current accounts and investment funds, those working in the financial services industry are tasked with personifying a somewhat different beast.

Not only do the nature of our communications have a tendency to be a tad more sincere than the marketing of fruit juice and fashionable tech solutions, but we also find ourselves tied to stringent regulatory obligations.

Furthermore, do our customers want to catch their bank or pension provider ‘dad-dancing’ – using trendy expressions and modish tones – in their marketing literature and on social media? At best it could be perceived as embarrassing, and at worst, somewhat patronising.

It’s a fine line, and getting it wrong can have significant consequences.

Differentiation is crucial in an increasingly populated market, as Forum Members were reminded at our ‘How to Develop a Powerful Verbal Identity’ event on Tuesday 28 February. The written ‘verbal’ communication of brand values and message can be as important – if not more important – than the visual identity of the brand in building a relationship with consumers.

As our discussion concluded, creating a strong and identifiable tone of voice means finding a happy medium between language that does not patronise or baffle the receiver, whilst considering the purpose of the communication and the context in which the message will be received.

Members were joined by Simon Glover, Senior Writer at Quietroom, Monica Woodley, Global Head of Content & International Head of PR at Legg Mason Global Asset Management and Sue Simpson, Brand & Retail Communications Consultant at NS&I, to pick up some top tips on how to develop and maintain a tone of voice that both characterises the brand and provides customers with some (often much-needed) clarity.

‘I’, ‘You’ and ‘Me’. Don’t forget to put the customer into the sentence.

There is significant evidence to suggest that having a recognisable and strong written style has a measurable financial impact on the bottom line, as Simon Grover explained. Translating what you want and who you are as a brand verbally will not only help you to stand out in the crowd but will also ensure that you get it ‘right’ – both the message and the tone – consistently.

Simon provided a few examples of brands within the FS industry who are succeeding in differentiating verbally, pointing out that the fundamental game-changing element to their communications is not the styling of language but the focus of the message.

Instead of focusing on the product, process or service, the text placed the customer and brand into the story in a physical sense, using words such as ‘I’, ‘You’ and ‘Me’.
Simon pointed out that by doing so, the brands demonstrated that they were fully aligned with the customer’s point of view and the relationship they wanted; ‘it is my world, my service, make it easy for me and be on my side’.

With this in mind, Simon’s practical suggestions for getting started with writing engaging customer focused content were as follows:

• Talk in a human way. Put the customer into the sentence and provide clarity on what exactly is going on. Far too many communications lack ‘I’, ‘You’, ‘Me’ and this can make the message unclear to the receiver.

• Avoid too many nouns and abstract nouns (things you cannot touch or see) – this has the unintended effect of making the content feel hypothetical. Utilise verbs instead.

• Avoid long sentences. Shorter sentences are easier to read and process.

• Create a tone of voice guide that will make colleagues lives easier, not more complicated. Provide tangible recommendations rather than focusing on intricacy and detail.

Try your brand voice on for size: exercise, vet, adapt. Keep creative juices flowing.

Providing some examples from a client-side experience, Monica Woodley advised that before embarking on their journey to create a verbal identity, marketers should spend time reflecting on the personality and principles of the brand, examining how they will translate and ‘feel’ in writing. Ask, if it were a person, what personality traits would define the brand? What would it stand for and against?

Monica added that the underlying business strategy of the company should create the foundation for the tone of voice, with the aim of each communication to demonstrate the firm’s understanding of what the client’s goals are. In each communication, demonstrate to clients that you are here to build towards their goals and the outcomes that they require.

Monica advised that in embarking upon setting a tone of voice and/or tone of voice guide, it is important to include everyone from the board down in the discussion. The team should focus initially on analysing the business from an internal and external perspective before deciding on how to build the core brand values into a distinctive voice.

Monica outlined some key experience principles, to help both build a voice and gain internal buy-in from senior executives:

• Get everyone in the room and put the full force of the firm behind the project, starting at the top and keeping executives engaged.

• Choose an archetype that fits the purpose of the business and the personality of the brand.

• Try the voice on and see if it works. Then talk to colleagues about what is working and what isn’t. Adapt, exercise, vet, and keep creative juices flowing.

• Be consistent in training. Remember that training staff on tone of voice is a continuous journey of learning and adaption, not just a one-off session.

Align the context, the message and the consumer

NS&I are a business that count almost half of the UK population as customers. Finding a tone of voice that engages with all levels and segments of this broad customer base has not been without its own unique challenges, as Sue Simpson explained. The company communicates with their customers on a regular basis with messages largely concerning transactions. This means that the voice of back-office functions have as much part to play in the personification of the brand as the more exciting and forward facing advertising messages.

Touching upon learnings from the journey NS&I have been on, Sue explained that the context in which the customer receives the message, as well as ‘what’ the message being communicated is, has as much importance as the tone of voice that is being used. In order to avoid patronising the customer, it is critical that the two align. Even for the more playful FMCG brands, poking fun at the consumer in order to be perceived as funny and relevant may not be to everyone’s taste.

As financial services marketers, we must not forget that financial services products are emotional at their core, representing hope, dismay and even fear in the minds of our customers. It is crucial to take into consideration how the message will ‘feel’ to the customer when it is received. The wrong message delivered at the wrong time in the wrong context could result in significant upset as well as damage to brand.

Yet despite these challenges, there are still ways for financial services providers to adopt a tone of voice that is both likeable and distinct. NS&I keep audience, context and message front of mind and have adopted a tone of voice that above all else, embodies how truly focused on their customers they are. As Sue concluded, although unlike FMCG brands, we don’t communicate with our consumers on a daily basis, when we do – it counts.

The session drew to a close with a number of insightful and thought provoking questions from the audience, leading to some closing thoughts from the speakers. An excellent morning, with a special thank you to the speakers for their participation, Lucian Camp for chairing the discussion – and to our hosts Aberdeen Asset Management for lending us their fantastic venue once again.

You can find a link to Sue Simpson’s blog with further thoughts here. Please feel free to add your thoughts to the discussion.

Or you can download and distribute a PDF version of this summary by clicking the download button (top right).