Break the Rules: Brand Language is Yours to Create
Originally published on Brandingmag.com January 31st, 2023
Like most people, writers are drawn to rules, or guidelines at the very least. The internet and bookstores are saturated with manuals on what and what not to do in the craft of writing, whether that writing is professional, literary, academic, or somewhere in between. This is understandable. For brand writing in particular, language and narrative are massively important to the success or failure of a brand, so marketing writers are wise to seek some guidance or counsel.
There are a few rules in writing that are repeated so often they don’t do much at all anymore, except cow writers into believing that swift prosecution awaits if they break them.
Here are just a few:
“Show, don’t tell.” — Unknown
“Never use a five dollar word when a fifty cent word will do.” — Mark Twain
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” — Stephen King
“Write what you know! “— Unknown
In copy, brand, and content writing, the screws of convention tighten further, given the purpose or function of the writing: to sell, to inform, or persuade. This is because there’s a lot on the line — money, mostly — but also brand consistency, legal compliance, cultural and political sensitivity, and more. In turn, the most prominent and inviolable rules of marketing writing tend to revolve around clarity and concision, and are downstream from William Strunk and E.B. White’s command to “omit needless words,” in their influential manual for writers, The Elements of Style. Keep it simple. Trim the extra fat, clip the shaggy verbal hedges, and excise all redundant or flowery analogies.
Simplicity is a useful, even vital principle for all writers to learn. It teaches them to remain focused on their purpose and to only choose words that help them achieve it. It reminds them to consider the limited time and energy of their audience, who may not carry dictionaries on their person.
One recent variation of the rule says Never use a word you wouldn’t use in your own daily life—a combination of Write what you know and Omit needless words. Most professional writers, especially those in marketing, seem to agree with this one. If a word isn’t in your own everyday vocabulary, cut it.
Most people don’t want to read at all, so you have to bring language to a level where it informs, but never excludes or frustrates. This is the most logical justification for slicing every bit of language that might be perceived as excessive. Ultimately, it could push readers away before they’ve been engaged, which hurts your bottom line in the long run. Rules exist for a reason.
But the result of these rules is often sameness. Terse language. Single. Word. Sentences. A dry and unconvincing substitute for wit. Snarky rhetorical questions? You bet.
What a rule like this lacks is context. It lacks any regard for the elements that must be considered in the foundational stages of brand development, and in the writing process in general — questions about the network of relationships that exist in the real world beyond the writer, beyond their blank page or blinking cursor, and beyond whatever rules they’ve swallowed without chewing.
Before determining what type of language a writer can or can’t use, they have to consider a host of other questions relating to context. These are questions about market audience, about their product and its competitors, their economic and cultural context, and so many more. If engaged with intelligence, imagination, and a sense of possibility, these questions provide the fuel for crucial creative choices that make up a brand’s identity.
If, in brand development stages, you determine that it benefits a brand to use the word “speed” instead of “velocity” for a meaningful reason, you can save yourself a few syllables and banish the latter from your style guide. But if your target market happens to be comprised of amateur or professional physicists who know the difference between the two, you may diminish the credibility of your brand by insisting on the simpler word. If your designers and copywriters determine that “velocity” lends itself to more dynamic visuals and taglines, you may find yourself breaking, to your own dismay, a sacred Rule of Writing.
Once your brand determines its verbal and visual aesthetic, banning flowery words from your copy makes as much sense as banning simple ones.
What rules like the above do is discourage marketers from asking the thoughtful and imaginative questions that lead to original branding ideas. They suggest that the answers already exist, that the way to do it is the way it’s been done before, and that standing out is worse than blending in. Dr. Bronner’s Castile Soap succeeded in creating a brand design that visually and verbally suggests a bounty of benefits that go far beyond better personal hygiene. Apple, the North Star for brand designers and writers everywhere, actualized the notion that intelligent creativity could be deeply cool, even sexy.
What these brands do is evoke a sense of possibility and aspiration. I highly doubt the creatives who dreamed them up devoted a second’s effort to limiting their vocabulary to what they “know”. There’s a lot we don’t know. Isn’t the purpose of creativity to go beyond limits and build new realities — ones beyond what we already know?
The less-considered risk of limiting vocabulary — and for that matter, our ideas — to that which is simple, digestible, and predictable, is that we may end up boring and frustrating audiences by pandering to them, patronizing them, or spoon feeding them more of the same thin soup.
The question is not whether your language is too simple or too complex, but whether or not that language is on brand — whether it aligns with the aesthetic identity you’ve made through a dynamic, even demanding creative process.
However, the point is not to give creatives unlimited freedom to shoehorn their pet stylistic preferences into copy that doesn’t require or benefit from them. A lot of ambitious marketing fails because creatives misalign their own interests with those of their brand. You may enjoy the art of Andy Warhol, but that doesn’t mean he should appear in your hamburger advertisement. Instead, those same creatives could find greater success — and satisfaction — in developing unique, ambitious brands, and then discovering the best language to live within them.
Without considering context in brand development — the relationship between language, audience, culture, and more — no rule will save your writing from stinking like so many wilting flowers. For brand writers, this consideration of context is an essential part of the brand development process.
This is the part of the process where we can take creative risks and make imaginative leaps, where creatives can work together to dream up brands that aren’t timidly beholden to arbitrary rules. We can choose what we want our brands to be — what feelings or ideas they might evoke, and what words we’ll use to do so, no matter how flowery. In branding, we don’t write what we know, but what we want to create. The language that follows, whether plain or Victorian, baroque or blunt, should grow directly out of the brand, not limits or rules.