How to Develop the Right Language and Tone of Voice for B2B Brands
With more channels than ever before, we forget that consumers want to have a conversation with brands they love. The “velocity of language” has never been higher, and this is as relevant in B2B as it is in B2C.
In this first episode of 2023, we have a conversation with brand expert Chris West (CEO, Verbal Identity) about how B2B brands can develop the right language and tone that will improve their communication, positioning, and other facets within their ecosystem. Chris also elaborates on some of the most common mistakes that B2B brands make, the importance of starting with a solid strategy and market research, and some actionable tips on what B2B marketers can do to improve the language they use for their brands.
Topics discussed in this episode:
Companies & links mentioned:
Christian Klepp, Chris West
Christian Klepp 00:03
Welcome to B2B Marketers on a Mission, a podcast for changemakers, where we question the conventional, debunk marketing myths, provide actionable tips, think differently, disrupt industries, and take your marketing to a new level, from improving your campaigns to making you a better marketer. These are the inspirational stories that will help us change the way we think and approach B2B marketing, one conversation at a time. This podcast is brought to you by EINBLICK Consulting, helping you to stand out in the market and drive revenue to your B2B business. And now your host, Christian Klepp.
Christian Klepp 00:44
Welcome, everyone to this episode of B2B Marketers on a Mission. This is the show where we help you to question the conventional, think differently, disrupt your industry, and take your marketing to new heights. This is your host Christian Klepp. And today I am joined by someone on a mission. And let me see if I can get this right, to build company-wide alignment by answering three fundamental questions. Who are we? What do we stand for? And what is our voice? So coming to us from London, England, Mr. Chris West. Welcome to the show, sir.
Chris West 01:14
Thank you very much.
Christian Klepp 01:17
Great to be connected, Chris.
Chris West 01:18
Really great to be here, Christian as well. It’s really great.
Christian Klepp 01:22
Fantastic. I mean, we had such a great time in our previous conversation. So, I would just say we we carry on right.
Chris West 01:29
We did it all that this is gonna be terrible now, because we didn’t… we shot all our bolts in that pre-conversation.
Christian Klepp 01:34
Yes, indeed, we set the bar too high, didn’t we? Where to go from here is question. But um, let’s dive in. Because this is clearly a topic that’s very close to your heart and I’m really hoping that the audience will get a lot of value out of this. So let’s dive in. So, Chris, you’re definitely no stranger when it comes to the world of branding and I believe in the previous conversation that you and I had, you talked about something, okay, let me see if I can quote you accurately here. “With more channels now than ever before we forget that consumers want to have conversations with the brands they love” and you mentioned, “the velocity of language has never been higher.” So please explain what you meant by that and how was that relevant to B2B marketing.
Chris West 02:22
This is from the CMO, the Chief Marketing Officers point of view, I think, we’ve got more channels than ever before, to communicate in for their brand and we did a, Christian, we did a back of the envelope calculation. Even for a midsize brand, the marketing director, the CMO has got to create tomorrow, more words, than the editor of The Guardian newspaper here in the UK has to put into tomorrow’s newspaper. Right? So more. Yeah. So when… it’s not just oh, here, we go to a lot on social media, it’s not just well, we’re turning over this many pages per week or per month on our website, or it’s all about, you know, all the other obvious things. It’s the language is really working everywhere all the time. And it’s, how is it turning up in your customer service communications? If you’re supplying something, which has some kind of info on how to use it, Is the language consistent? By the way blue Mikey? Those are all mics, brilliant language, when they give you a little fold out booklet that comes with their mic super. How are your team that are going out to see your clients? How are they talking about your business? When the CEO stands up next, whether that’s in house, or whether that’s an investor’s meeting, are they going to sound the same? Are they going to be saying talking about the same kind of things that your customer agent was talking about, that your letter was talking about, that you’re well, so there are all these channels. So the absolute amount of language that the CMO is responsible for is, each day, it’s kind of more words than going to the Guardian newspaper here in… the printed version of the Guardian newspaper in the UK. Now, of course, the editor of The Guardian has grown up around language, and the CMO might not have done, so they might not feel as comfortable or as versed or as just comfortable, I think is the right word in how you use or how you manipulate language or how you judge language. So that’s certainly true, but it’s kind of, you know, when I started Christian maybe 20 years ago, you could have a pre pre Twitter, pre social media, if a customer wrote a letter to one of our clients. You know, the customer would expect that letters come back in about a week of replies, that letters come back in a week. Now they put something on Twitter and they expect a response within an hour. They might write to you through customer service portal on the website, and they expect an answer in 24 hours. So it’s not just the volume, it’s the kind of speed and the directionality of the language, which is bigger than ever before. So really, what that means is, I think this about this kind of velocity of language, that the CMO no longer can see everything or look after everything, or kind of ensure quality, QC everything, actually, now they’ve got to trust that if they want to get that response out on Twitter within an hour, if they want to get that reply through the customer services web portal within 24, they’ve got to trust because they just can’t manage it fast. They can’t manage the volume, and they can’t manage it fast enough. That’s why we talked about the velocity of language.
Christian Klepp 05:47
Wow, that’s absolutely incredible. Um, it’s interesting that you mentioned that I just have one follow up question, which I’m sure is on the minds of a lot of CMOs out there, or marketers per se, when you’re talking about the velocity of language and how much CMOs needs to be responsible for the consistency of that language across the board and all channels and what have you. Is it absolutely necessary… I wouldn’t say to be a wordsmith, but to be able to write in prose when it comes to like language in the world of B2B marketing. It certainly doesn’t hurt. But is it an absolute necessity?
Chris West 06:25
Yeah, I think it is, I take slight risk, I feel slight resistance to that word wordsmith when it comes up. Because often, if we hear that in a meeting, early stage, I think we’re probably dealing with the wrong client, or the clients dealing with the wrong partner agency. Because what I’m not interested in doing, what I don’t think the job is about just choosing the right word, or just kind of, you know, can we be a bit more human or friendly or warm or approachable all those term. Actually, I think that language only ever reflects who you are, as a business, what you stand for, as a business. So to the first two of those three questions. So it’s not really about oh, can we say this word instead of that word? Really, it’s like, is this coming from the right place? From us as a business? Is this our worldview? Is this what we stand for? More importantly, is this what we stand against? And if it’s coming from the right place, is it turning up with this with the right feeling of personality? Does this sound like… What’s what’s written? Does it sound like if you’re having a conversation with someone inside our building? And that’s much more important than wordsmithing. So I think that language is, I mean, it is really important and I think half the world maybe is dominated by the visual impact, and half the world is dominated by the verbal impact. I say I wish I had never said that. I wish I never said that Christian, because I don’t think that’s true. Actually, I think it’s this. And it’s something we’ve said before, which is, visuals attract, verbals engage, looking great, it’s fantastic and that’s often what’s going to get someone attracted to you in the first place, but to maintain a relationship with this could be dated advice, to maintain a relationship, you need to have language which expresses who you are, and connects with the other person. So I think having an ability in language is critical for them B2B branding and it’s even more important for the CMO of the brand team. So if you like, know what the levers are, because they’ve grown up, and they’ve sweated for their business, the visual identity of their brand, you know, they will be able to say to me, Hey, Chris, you know, in developing markets, we shift their logo this much, right, we put that we use this color palette in that situation. And this is our photography, they can tell me that. But then when it comes to how they shape their language, so their verbal identity… is it differentiating, is it as powerful and as meaningful as their verbal identity? They don’t have the background experience to be able to do that. Often they can say that, you know, they can say to their agency or their team. That’s not right. That’s not us, but then they can’t say the next bit, which is really critical. What you need to do is, is do more of this here and less of that there, or you need to change from here to there. And then instead what they’re saying is it’s just not right, it’s just not us, have another go. And that’s kind of dispiriting for them, embarrassing, maybe even for them. I doubt in doubt, maybe that embarrassing but for that for their agency or their in house team or their colleagues, it’s kind of hard because then they suddenly feel like they’re stumbling around in the dark just trying to find the right language.
Christian Klepp 10:01
Absolutely, absolutely. And no, I don’t think that that’s dated advice at all. I do believe that you do lead with language. It’s that. I mean, you, you know, you can take your pick. You’ve seen this before, but like, you know that it’s that eternal question about like, you know, when you’re designing a website, does the design come first or the copy? You and I both know, what’s the copy that leads, not the design. There’s others out there that would beg to differ. But I would say well, I beg to differ back.
Chris West 10:30
Yeah, I think the answer is, if you’re just putting a visual style from nowhere, because you like it.
Christian Klepp 10:36
Chris West 10:37
You could be right, but why putting that visual style and when you get and then brief your copywriting agency like us? What are you going to say? Right, like this imagery? I don’t know if that’s right. What you want to be able to say is that here’s our strategic view, this is who we are, this is what we stand for. This is why we’re turning up like this visually. And so we would like you to work out a way of creating a brand tone of voice. So we turn up like that verbally.
Christian Klepp 11:07
Absolutely, absolutely. So, moving on, when one talks about developing the right language, as you said, in the tone of voice, particularly with B2B, what are some of the common mistakes that you’ve seen out there? And what should be done to address them?
Chris West 11:23
I think the biggest mistake out there at the moment is thinking that four adjectives on a page can suitably describe your brand’s tone of voice for all those different channels, all those different moments in those different channels, and all the different leads that your customers clients might have. And particularly Christian, if those four words on the page are human friendly, warm and approachable, which is, you know, that like the default, which, which brand would want to be, instead of human friendly, warm and approachable, inhuman, cold, unfriendly and hostile, right, it doesn’t make any sense, the opposite doesn’t make any sense. So to say human, friendly, warm, approachable, it’s default, it doesn’t differentiate you in any way, you’ve got to dig deeper. And there are ways to dig deeper for sure. And to understand who you really are as a business. So that’s kind of part one of the problem.
Chris West 12:13
And part two of the problem is unless you really know how to define your brand voice. And that’s what it comes down to, you know how to define your visual identity. If you don’t know how to define your brand tone of voice, one of the things that you need to have a definition against, then you kind of end up sounding like everyone else. And here’s the kicker, here’s the kicker. If you are the biggest brand in your market, it’s great that everyone sounds like you. Because really what they’re doing is they’re reinforcing you, your brand and your brand position. If your brand is not number one in your marketplace, do not sound like the number one in the marketplace, because all you’re doing is spending money, reinforcing their positioning.
Christian Klepp 12:58
Absolutely, absolutely. Along we came up with the warm, friendly and approachable. That sounds like a boiler plate briefing.
Chris West 13:04
The more human, friendly, warm and approachable. Yeah, we hear again and again. And it’s not… I mean it’s not. It’s not wrong. It’s just it’s kind of like of course, you would say that.
Christian Klepp 13:14
Yes. Yes, exactly. Exactly.
Christian Klepp 13:18
Hey, it’s Christian Klepp here. We’ll get back to the episode in a second. But first, is your brand struggling to cut through the noise? Are you trying to find more effective ways to reach your target audience and boost sales? Are you trying to pivot your business? If so, book a call with EINBLICK Consulting, our experienced consultants will work with you to help your B2B business to succeed and scale. Go to www.einblick.co for more information.
Christian Klepp 13:46
This is probably like table stakes for somebody you know, with your expertise, but talk to us about the importance of starting and leading with a strategy and conducting market research. So for example, things like understanding who your target audiences and what their buyers journey looks like before you dive straight into the execution. I mean, you know, we’ve seen this time and time again, where some companies tend to skip that part at their own risk.
Chris West 14:11
Yeah, I mean, I think that if you… do you know, the work of Annie Duke, cognitive neuroscientist, who then became a world champion poker player, but her first book, I think, was called “Thinking in Bets” and I can’t attempt to paraphrase dutifully what her book said. But really, that’s the way to think about it, right? If you’re CMO, you’ve got a certain number of bets you’re going to make and none of those bets are guaranteed to come off. But rather than walking into a casino, walking up to one table and saying ah on the Roulette, I think I think it’s gonna be 15, put the money on it doesn’t happen. Oh, damn. Right. That’s crazy strategy. Know what you think anyone doing that is crazy, but to a certain extent, if you don’t research, the customer segmentation, if you don’t work out what the motivation of those customers is, if you don’t look at what their next best alternative to using you if you don’t understand what the challenges are for them using you, if you don’t understand that stuff, you’re walking into a casino walking up to the roulette table, and putting your money down on 15. At least know what the odds are, at least you know, at least you should know what the odds are, at least you should know what the alternatives are, at least you should do some investigation, challenge your own assumptions. That’s what I think.
Christian Klepp 15:35
Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, otherwise, you’re just well, to use another analogy for a kind of talk about analogies. It’s just walking straight into a forest at night without a torch.
Chris West 15:43
Christian Klepp 15:48
Absolutely. I’m now focusing on your area of expertise. But like you touched on it a few minutes ago, but walk us through the process of developing that right language. And that tone of voice for B2B.
Chris West 16:01
I think it’s really important to understand where you want to get to in your guidelines. So we have a particular framework for our guidelines, which identifies every brand voice operates on three levels. So often, someone will say always to tone of voice, or if they’ve come from a journalism PR backgrounds, what they’re really interested, what they’re really experienced in rather, what they know, is what is a style guide, we use this way, not that, we capitalize them not then, we put a comma here, we don’t do this, we do a line breaker. But that’s really the nuts and bolts, that’s the ground level detail. If you come from an advertising background, often, what they’re very good at is the next level up what we would call the 1000 feet level, they’re very good at personality. But sometimes they use entirely the wrong words. And sometimes what they won’t do is really understand where this brand, this B2B brand sits in the client’s life, what their company was set up for, what it’s trying to do in the world, how it’s trying to change the world. And that’s where we recall the 10,000 foot level. So if you look at the most successful brands, and how they use language, what’s really clear in all of them, even though it’s not explicitly mentioned, what’s really clear is, this is the world we believe in. And so therefore, we stand for this, and therefore we stand against that. And that’s kind of like a 10,000 foot level, that informs what they talk about, what are the angles they take on what everyone else is talking about, come down a level as the 1000 foot has a really clear, strong personality. And then come down another level to ground level. And what you’ll notice is how much jargon to their use is consistent. When do they use it is consistent. Their grammar choice? Is it formal grammar? Is it conversational grammar, or is it something else? All of these things are carefully chosen. So each level reinforces the other levels, and provides this idea of a unified sense of the brand voice. One voice for one company, but to get there to answer your question, Christian, sorry, to get there, you’ve really got to do some examination of who you are and what you stand for. Don’t just say like, we want this kind of personality, because if you’re not careful, you’ll have writing, which is very strong personality, but talking about the wrong thing. So knowing where you’re coming from as a business, what you’re trying to achieve, how you going to get there, what you stand against, that’s important, and then using some devices and some workshops, we’ve pioneered to get the personality and then some choices around the ground level detail. So there if you like, is a simple approach, first of all, knowing what you’re trying to fulfill, and then going back into the heart of the business, and you saw, you’re gonna be kind enough to mention my book, “Strong Language” in a minute, but there are some exercises in that book that you can do anyone can do with their business, whether it’s just them, or whether they’ve got a team of people that’s going to do next more extensive review.
Chris West 16:09
Fantastic, fantastic. I have one follow up question to this framework. In your experience, like if this framework that you just mentioned, this is applicable across the board, you know, across different industries are there are some exceptions to the rule.
Chris West 19:29
We’ve not found a single exception, and it’s not really because of… it’s not like this is what you do with brand voices. This is much more fundamental. So what language is. So already as you’re talking to me, I’ve not said this is my worldview. Christian, I believe in this I stand for that right? And I stand for you’re getting an impression of that because of my choice in how it turned up today and in my choice of what we might talk about or my choice of how I might deal with a particular subject, you’ve got an idea of my personality, you know if you were to review this, you might see some ground level details that are consistent. Trying to steer clear of jargon, for example.
Christian Klepp 20:10
Yeah, yeah I do.
Chris West 20:11
That’s how language works. From a linguistics point of view, language seems to work on, it does work on these three levels. So actually, those three levels apply wherever languages is at work. So it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, or what size of business you are. So we’re delighted to have worked with alphabets moonshot factory in Silicon Valley, that place which houses all these kind of crazy, mind bending new technologies. And we’ve worked with a pre-series A data science startup in the UK, we’ve worked with global retailers, luxury brands, all of them have found this framework applies. Of course it does, because it’s language, but I’ve also found it, I think, very useful, because simple, it’s easy to refer back to.
Christian Klepp 21:01
Certainly is, certainly is. We tend to overcomplicate things at times, you know, as marketers or people in the branding world. So it’s good to have a framework that actually helps to keep everything simple. Providing an example of a great B2B brand that uses the approach you’re referring to, and ideally from your own experience.
Chris West 21:21
Yeah. Okay, so this is me. This is such a great question because when you and I talk about B2B well, I don’t know. I mean, other people have views of B2B depends where they are, but if you talk to them and talk to a lot of people about B2B, they’re going to immediately think of some of these big companies like Cisco or SAP or Accenture. Quite right. I mean, they’re hugely successful businesses and if I have any criticism, I am only like a mosquito trying to stick an elephant, you know, to get it to pay attention. But then, also, you and I, in our world, we will have certain businesses, which don’t have that kind of, which don’t sit in the same place in our heads, like Slack, like MailChimp, for your business owner, up to a certain size. Zero, for your financial package and the way those two kind of groups use language is quite different, yet they’re both B2B and it’s really funny, you know, so I won’t name names, but I just looked at someone’s website today and it says a big headline on the landing pages act quickly to manage inflation risk, is that Cisco? is that SAP? Is that Accenture? And another one of those big firm big, you know, big global brands said, as a landing page headline, Art of AI maturity. Could you definitely say one is this one is that? Don’t think you could. They all kind of sound like, yeah, so I don’t, in front of me have examples of Slacks language or MailChimp language, but I think that you, everyone that listens to you would instantly recognize yeah, that’s Slack. Yeah, that’s MailChimp.
Christian Klepp 23:13
Chris West 23:14
So I was thinking, what’s going on? Why these kind of sitting in two different places in our heads? It’s not because of the scale of company that they’re approaching. I mean, maybe to a certain extent, but actually, I think it’s this thing of, I tell you what, before I say what I think it is, about two, two and a half, three years ago, there was a little bit of video footage that turned up on Instagram and it was a one of those guys that brings the plane in and out, docking at an airport, you know, brings them up to the jetway and I don’t know if you remember it, it was a guy that wasn’t just given the hand signals with, you know, the illuminated batteries but he was actually make it into a dance routine and it…
Christian Klepp 24:04
Yes I did see that. Yeah, yeah.
Chris West 24:07
And lots of people posted about it and I thought, why is that caught everyone’s imagination so much. And it was because he knew who the end user was. The end user was the person on the plane, and he made it good for the pilot, and good for the end user, and I think what Slack, Zero, MailChimp all do really well is they talk to the end user, and they encourage those people to build a consensus, to build a demand to ask for that software to be used in their business, and as a consequence, the ad spend, I reckon is smaller, but the loyalty is much greater. Whereas those bigger behemoths, and there’s nothing wrong with their approach the Cisco, the SAP, the Accenture. They’re good, but they’re talking to the purchasing committee, and when that decision is made, and when the decision is made, and they’re the choices imposed on people, everyone is like, Yeah, okay. There hasn’t been this groundswell of demand.
Christian Klepp 25:17
Chris West 25:17
So I’m not saying one is right one is wrong, it’s easy to dismiss and they will probably be right based on company size they’re talking to decision making, process everything else. But I do believe that language in Slack, Zero MailChimp, those legitimate B2B businesses and let’s not forget Slack has got a valuation north of 20 billion.
Christian Klepp 25:34
Oh yes, yes.
Chris West 25:36
Those businesses, yeah, those businesses are using language, in a way which builds loyalty, is de-positioning rivals, and it’s winning customers.
Christian Klepp 25:47
Chris West 25:48
Three things really important that language can do, win customers, de-position rivals, and build loyalty.
Christian Klepp 25:53
Correct, Correct. The show was about actionable tips, and you have given some of them already, but like just off the top of your head, what is something that B2B marketers can do after listening to this interview that they can immediately implement in terms of developing the right language and tone for their practice?
Chris West 26:08
Yeah, I think if you’ve got three hours, then just get a sample of four, five, six pieces from each of your competitors in your industry, across maybe three, four channels for each one and then just say, what language do we all have to use to signal that we’re all in the same category? And then, what is everyone else using that we don’t have to use? And if we choose not to use it, how will this create true differentiation for us link to our value? So it’s really saying, at the heart of this is this idea that, you particularly B2B world, you have to use some language, which shows your member of a category, but if you use all the same language, then you’re no one in the category. So try and work out what is the language that is essential to show you’re a member of the category, and then look for the opportunities where you can use language, style or content, which means that you are different and valuable in that category.
Chris West 26:08
Then the next thing I say is, if they have one more hour, then look at your own communications, put out three or four pieces from five or six channels, and just rate just score, how do you score? for clarity, for differentiation in each of those pieces, compared to your competitors, might be that you come out, you gotta we’re doing alright, might be come out and say, no, it’s just on our website our language sucks. It might be just on our customer service communications that our language sucks. Okay, focus on that, and I would say, if you only have five minutes, then buy my book, and read far more, find some time then and read far more in it about all the different things you can do. Quick wins charts, auditing for ROI, looking for the kind of human cost of maintaining a voice that isn’t working or those kinds of things.
Christian Klepp 28:25
Fantastic. Fantastic advice, Chris. I’m gonna ask you to like, pull the book up one more time, because it was blurred on the screen. Yeah, there we go, Strong Language. There we go. Perfect. Perfecto. Thank you so much. Thank you so much for your time, Chris. And for, you know, sharing your experience and expertise with the audience and please, quick intro to yourself and help people out there can get in touch with you.
Chris West 28:47
Oh, thank you very much, Christian. I, my name is Chris West. 12 years ago, I started a business called Verbal Identity and I will say we are super specialists in helping CMOs, use language more effectively, but here’s the key thing. Enjoy doing it and get their teams to enjoy using language more effectively. You can find us at verbalidentity.com Or I communicate. I spent too much time I feel on LinkedIn, where if you put in Chris West verbal identity, you should be able to see me and what I’m sharing what I’m seeing in language today.
Christian Klepp 29:24
The comments on the ads that he’s seen.
Chris West 29:27
Christian Klepp 29:29
The haunted houses that were being used by the real estate brokers.
Chris West 29:33
It’s Halloween. Yeah.
Christian Klepp 29:35
Oh, that was perfect.
Chris West 29:37
Christian Klepp 29:38
Fantastic, Chris. As expected. This was an incredible session. So thanks again for your time. Take care. Stay safe and talk to you soon.
Chris West 29:46
Talk to you soon. Thank you very much for your time. Thank you.
Christian Klepp 29:48
Thanks. Bye for now. Thank you for joining us on this episode of the B2B Marketers on a Mission podcast. To learn more about what we do here at EINBLICK, please visit our website at www.einblick.co and be sure to subscribe to the show on iTunes or your favorite podcast player.
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