Verbal identities

Verbal identities. Plural.

Verbal identities. Adj. and n.pl.
The image of a company formed by all its external and internal communications messages that help it make sense. • “They had done absolutely nothing about their verbal identity to the point where they didn’t even know what their name was any more” (anonymous reader of “.com”). • Syn.: Narrative image; Linguistic heritage; Semantic footprint. • Ant.: Copy-paste; Blah-blah; Bullshit.

Every company has a logo, its own graphic coat of arms that allows it to be recognised from all others. The logo is a visual symbol, a sign composed of letters, colours and forms, a calligraphy that helps to forge its identity. In this little design, almost like a visual haiku, are encapsulated values and promises, allowing those who see it to create for themselves a whole horizon of expectations. Thus the importance of visual identity – which also encompasses other peripheral production by the brand, such as advertising or websites – is clear. In this field, there’s no longer any need to justify a company’s decision to hire an expensive graphics agency whenever it decides to revamp its brand image.

But when it comes to verbal identity, there’s plenty to be done. There’s a popular game on the Internet consisting of identifying brands by their logos, from which any words used have been removed, otherwise the game would be too easy. Corporate messages today are often so similar to one another that a verbal blind test game in which you had to recognise an entity by the language it produces would be impossible.

But just for a moment, imagine a really attractive person. You’re on a first date, but the more time goes by, the more you realise that you’re just not made for each other: all you hear are platitudes, formulaic utterances, almost as if it’s a computer talking. You go home alone disappointed, with the bitter taste of a broken promise: it’s not just a problem of consistency (what did s/he say?), but also singularity (what did s/he say that only s/he could have said and said in that way?) and effects produced (what effect did it have on you?).

Companies need spin doctors less than they need speech doctors: language is at the same time an asset, an instrument of meaning and a not insignificant way of engaging with your audiences. I often call this verbal capital “passwords”: like passwords, verbal identities act as a means of authentication and recognition, a means of accessing your targets and a means of securing your access and keeping your competitors out.

Verbal Identities: in the plural, not the singular. Not only because each unique verbal identity corresponds to each company and they are therefore all different. Or because there may be variations of tone and content between corporate discourse and brand discourse. Or because since the various stakeholders of a company themselves have specific verbal identities, it is essential to adapt to their respective verbal horizons.

But also because, philosophically, I refuse an identitarian approach to identity, which is a reduction to sameness, which pronounces blacklists and “what-to-say” lists, which thinks you have to speak “in a single voice”. On the contrary, I believe that linguistic identity has to be rich, pluralistic, polyphonic*. Identity is a dynamic process of self-creation from a set of given basics, “a permanent invention created from non-invented material,” as Jean-Claude Kaufmann puts it**.

Emphasize differences that come through repetition, reflect the multiplicity of voices working in collaboration and the irreducible added value of each spokesperson, be capable of changing tone, adapting, conversing, depending on the context and your listeners. Refuse to be the language police or parrot trainers. Defend a certain idea of language as language that liberates.

*At least double. In Identity Trap (Fayard, 2016), Gilles Finchelstein quotes the philosopher Norberto Bobbio, who writes in Right and Left: “There are examples in all fields of thought; the all-inclusive distinction or dyad dominates every discipline. In sociology it is society/community, in economics market/planned, in law public/private, in aesthetics classical/romantic, and in philosophy transcendent/immanent.” Finchelstein adds: “In politics, it is a left-right divide. A reduction to just one stifles debate, which is the fundamental of democracy.”

**Jean-Claude Kaufmann, The Invention of the Self: A Theory of Identity, Fayard/Pluriel, 2010.

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