Crain’s Feature Article by Laura Sheridan: What do you call your customer?

Published in Crain’s Cleveland Business December 1, 2018

What do you call your customer? Ever wonder why Disney calls them “guests,” Costco calls them “members” and Ritz-Carlton calls them “ladies and gentlemen”? It’s not by accident or a casual decision.

Most businesspeople know to use the same logo on every ad and marketing piece. Why should language be any different? Many companies fall short on keeping their words and messaging consistent when describing the experiences they help create.

Brand language matters

Business is tough. Consumers are often overwhelmed by the many choices they face. Your brand assets must work together to create a meaningful brand experience, and brand language is a key brand asset.

Language as a connector

Language connects people to each other and to brands. It can either steer a consumer through choosing a brand’s products or turn them off. Language helps determine whether we notice a brand, buy, then buy again, and even become a brand advocate.

Where to start

Defining your brand’s character is step one. We help our clients pick a handful of words to describe their brand character.

The exercise starts with imagining their brand as a person. What character traits are authentic and help establish trust? Are you sassy or traditional? Friendly or formal? Funny or serious?

Once your brand character is defined, it’s time to establish your brand language. It’s about determining how your brand character gets translated into your writing style.

Sophisticated brands consider these five language elements:

1. Word length

2. Sentence length (Viva La Brand is known for short, punchy phrases — no long, multimessage sentences)

3. Jargon (Starbucks created its own; more on that below)

4. Word plays (think of Trader Joe’s famously cheap private-label wine Two-Buck Chuck)

5. Colloquialisms (MailChimp is known for using language like “grab coffee”, “bare bones” and “big a-ha moments”)

Next comes creating a brand language guide. Savvy marketers have embraced brand style guides (also known as brand books or brand guides) for decades.

This repository of brand identity assets — including the logo, color palette and typography — acts as a set of rules to explain how a brand should be presented at all times and in all applications. Guides enable consistency among employees and external design partners, which is key to establishing brand awareness and an emotional connection with customers.

Your brand language guide is home to words and phrases carefully selected to promote your brand. We also like to include the don’ts: those words that should never be used when describing your brand.

So, what brands have nailed their brand language?

Example No. 1: Starbucks

Forget small, medium and large — it’s short, tall, grande and venti when you order a drink at Starbucks. There’s a reason for this brand language convention. Howard Schultz, the brand founder, wanted his coffee chain to resemble the Italian coffee bars he visited in 1983 that romanced the coffee experience. Using only these names helps differentiate the brand and create a more adventurous feel than simply ordering a cup of joe. The brand lingo extends beyond cup sizes with words like doppio, macchiato, misto and barista.

Example No. 2: Rothy’s

Know Rothy’s? The washable, woven shoes for women made from recycled plastic?

From the names of its $125 and $145 washable slip-ons — The Flat, The Point, The Loafer and The Sneaker — to the company’s brand language describing its audience as “game changers”, Rothy’s has created a truly unique brand experience. It deliberately picked simple product names rather than use monikers that require additional information such as Johnston & Murphy’s Wallace or Gleason.

In less than two years, the company has raised more than $12 million in investment funding, sold over $10 million, and amassed 153,000 Instagram followers and 216,000 likes on its Facebook page.

One reason for the brand’s swift adoption? A clear and consistent use of its logo and unique blue color, coupled with frequent use of its product and customer names. “Game changer”? That’s what the marketer calls Rothy’s-wearing women who are “disrupting their industries.” These women — including Meghan Markle, now Duchess of Sussex, who was spotted wearing Rothy’s during her first royal tour appearance —are the heroines of Rothy’s ads.

First steps

What can you do to catapult your own audience’s connection with your brand? Here are five takeaways for your business:

1. Define your brand language. Start by articulating your brand character. Then, translate your brand’s voice into your writing style.

2. Pick words to describe your customer, your products, its benefits and the experiences that are consistent with your brand character and help differentiate your brand.

3. Create a brand language guide just like your brand style guide.

4. Share your brand language guide with your employees. Discuss how it applies to what they do every day. Brainstorm how they’d use it when they talk to customers.

5. Share your brand language guide with your external creative partners, advisers, board members and others who talk about your brand. Ensure they understand it at a gut level.

Laura Sheridan
Laura Sheridan, Founder & President of Viva La Brand has a proven track record of effective branding and advertising, spanning over twenty five years with some of the best in the business: Foote, Cone & Belding in Chicago; Hill, Holliday and Polaroid in Boston; and, Progressive Insurance and Viva La Brand in Cleveland. Laura founded Viva La Brand to offer large and small organizations alike strategic marketing expertise to catapult their visibility, growth and profitability. Viva La Brand develops effective brand strategies and conducts ad agency searches that successfully match clients with the optimal ad agency partners. Laura is proud to work with smart, innovative leader Brands in a wide range of industries from health care to manufacturing to technology and financial services. In addition to her work with clients, Laura is an author and speaker on all topics related to Brand.
More articles by: Laura Sheridan
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