SMPL Q&A is a blog feature in which we interview experts on all things relevant to branding, design and simplicity. In this Q&A, we speak with Billy Kingsland, group director of naming, about the intersection of brand naming and brand voice, and how they work together to help define the brand.
How are a brand’s name and its tone of voice related?
A brand’s name is the first word in its story, which means that it’s often the most important word in its story. But from that first word on, the story needs to be told in a coherent and believable way. That’s where brand voice comes in. Brand voice defines the distinct verbal style and word choice a brand uses across its communications.
A successful brand name strategy and a successful brand voice work together to capture the essence of a brand. They create a sense of personality, which, like anyone’s personality, is informed by their values, culture, aspirations and an overall sense of purpose.
The interplay between a brand’s name and its voice, however, is not the same from one brand to another. Sometimes a name sets the tone for the way the rest of a brand’s story is told. Oscar, the health insurance company, is a terrific example of this—of a brand name and brand voice being very clearly and purposefully in sync. The name “Oscar” stands out in the larger healthcare space, telling us that something different is happening. Something friendly, fresh and a little irreverent. The tone Oscar uses in its writing, as you can see in its ad campaigns, strikes exactly this chord—a chord I think a health insurance start-up (and challenger brand) should strike.
Old Spice is a now-classic example of the opposite. The brand dates back to the 1930s, but, starting in 2010 with its “Smell Like a Man, Man” ad campaign, the brand’s new voice played in direct opposition to its name, and everything that it had come to represent (essentially, your grandfather’s deodorant). It’s the tension between the two—between an iconic name with a sagging reputation and a completely revamped, borderline slapstick voice—that helped turn the brand around. Changing the name “Old Spice” wasn’t necessary. In fact, doing so probably wouldn’t have had the same effect, because with “Old Spice,” the brand was set up for a new voice to tell a new story about a classic brand.
Which comes first, brand naming or brand voice?
Sometimes a brand voice is defined from the get-go, and its name can clearly express that voice. This is often the case when the founder or CEO of a brand has a strong presence, both within the brand and outside, in the larger culture. That is, when the founder’s voice and brand’s voice are one, or very close to it. Take Richard Branson and Virgin. Virgin, the brand (and its communications style) very much embodies the spirit and ethos of Richard Branson. The name he chose for his company, at its founding, continues to signal this.
At other times, a brand’s name plants a certain tonal stake in the ground, but—to extend the metaphor—that ground has to be cultivated. Uber is a good, current example of this. Uber leads in its category, and I think its name plays no small roll in that fact. “Uber” is unexpected. It’s memorable and easily turned into a verb—turned into the action consumers take when using the app (this can be crucial in the service-oriented app space). And, surge pricing aside, the service Uber provides is actually “uber,” exemplary compared to traditional taxi and car services and to its Silicon Valley competitors.
But I’d argue that Uber has just begun developing a discernible tone of voice, moving from sounding mostly transactional to sounding like a brand with a personality. Its verbal style is growing more representative of its market-leading position and its ambitions. In other words, it’s growing up.
How can a brand’s name influence the voice it uses? And vice versa?
The beauty of a successful brand name is that it can serve as a touchstone for a brand’s communications. One can ask: Strategically, do the verbal tone and style of my communications resonate with my brand’s name. And, most important, with what that name stands for?
What a name stands for, of course, has to be developed and supported over time. A clear, distinct tone of voice helps do exactly this—it builds equity in a brand’s name by connecting audiences more deeply and personally to the brand. When those audiences see the brand’s name, they understand the brand more immediately.
It’s also important to keep in mind that as a brand matures, its voice should mature. And, sometimes, so should its name. Siegel+Gale’s work with Hightail, the cloud-based, file-sharing and project management service, nicely illustrates this idea.
Hightail’s original name was YouSendIt, but as the company grew in both size and sophistication, “YouSendIt” came to sound outdated and limiting. Hightail, the name we developed to replace YouSendIt, comes directly from the expression “to hightail it out of here,” something commonly understood and yet surprising in the context of file sharing. The name is richly suggestive of the benefits the service provides: speed, ease, confidence. And it allows the company to signal its core offerings—and more—without losing the meaning in its name. Hightail’s tone of voice supports the name, expressing the entrepreneurial spirit of the company while helping to convey the brand’s higher-level benefits.
With Hightail, Old Spice, Uber and others, you can see clearly that the successful interplay of a brand’s name with its voice creates a more cohesive and resonant experience for the brand’s users—one that drives loyalty, supports growth and, as we like to say at Siegel+Gale, tells the truth of the brand. And that’s ultimately what we want brands to achieve.
Billy Kingsland is group director of naming at Siegel+Gale. Follow Billy on Twitter: @billykingsland