Brand voice can be a financial drag if you’re getting it wrong and a financial success if you’re getting it right. Chris West has some pointers.  

Language is the superpower which allowed homo sapiens to proliferate over other human species. Our ancestors’ brains were smaller, but with language they were able to share ideas and build relationships. Language acted as a multiplier.

So, from the earliest days, there’s been a clear ROI on language.

Today we live in an era when we need to attach valuations to any suggested change, so can we prove the ROI on changing a brand’s language? There’s a great story about proving ROI from a very specific campaign, but generally, in our work with brands around the world, I have to admit I’d like to be able to prove the ROI with more rigour.

We know that our work creating conversation strategies for TalkTalk’s customer services teams produced a 171% improvement in sentiment on social media … if you believe Facebook’s measurements.

We know that our work creating verbal brand guidelines for Vauxhall doubled engagement and reduced the time it took to develop new creative work by the in-house and agency teams … but our work was part of a wider brand alignment.

So, when you feel a brand voice just ‘isn’t us’ or you feel that perhaps society has moved on and left the brand sounding patriarchal, how can you create an ROI for an update of the brand voice?

Many of the established, rigorous ROI measures (both quant and qual) can be tweaked to apply to the brand voice, leaving you to look at the role of brand voice in creating (or failing to create) brand awareness, brand relevance and brand strength.

There are costs in not having a clear approach to language

There are some ways you can identify the financial impact of a badly defined brand voice inside a business.

We often start by looking at the ongoing cost of revising work. The simplest way to do this is to gather together a broad sample of 100 pieces of written work from across multiple channels. Work out what proportion were signed off in Version 1 or 2 and how many pieces required revisions beyond that. You can then work out what proportion of work needs to be revised. Make an estimate of the total salary budget for the brand’s writers across all the channels and you can put a monetary value on the cost of constantly re-writing work.

(It’s sometimes interesting to compare the costs of revisioning for different agencies as well.)

But there are some hidden costs of a badly defined voice to be taken into account as well. 

When we worked with one of Alphabet’s businesses in Silicon Valley, they had a ‘good enough’ brand voice definition, but the small in-house team was working three weekends out of four. And they were spending that time drafting and creating written copy, to position the business and attract some of the best minds in the world.

There’d have been no obvious cost saving if the team stopped having to work weekends. But to find the investment to create a set of robust brand voice guidelines and cut down on unpaid overtime, their director wanted to quantify the impact of their current schedule. We used a proxy measure, calculating the theoretical cost of overtime – and since these people weren’t paid overtime, we reasoned that they were effectively paying the company that much money just to work there.

Language can make the brand

Of course, we all know that when we want to change a brand’s language, we have to win the hearts as well as the minds of the brand’s leadership. A good way is to simply look at the best performing campaigns in an industry – and the best performing campaigns outside a category as well.

One of our favourites is Oatly. I’ve never met anyone that can taste the difference between Oatly’s oat milk and any other brand’s oat milk. No surprise really – they’re oats and water.

Not only do they taste the same, Oatly is sold in the same packaging and the same chiller cabinets as other oat milks.

The second-most-valuable oat milk brand I’ve been able to find tastes the same, is packaged the same, and is available on the same shelf as Oatly. Except it’s valued at £12m and Oatly, after its recent IPO, is valued at a cool $13bn.

The difference in the two brands? It’s 99% attitude. And 99% of that attitude is coming out of the brand’s combative, awareness-raising language confronting the dairy-industry for its impact on our climate.

So we know language works. But can we find some final proof?

Copy has the highest ROI

I mentioned a campaign earlier. Here’s the story. Long ago, an idealistic young presidential candidate wanted to raise money to get elected and change the world. His team experimented with different layouts on the fund-raising website. They changed the colour palette. They ran different photos of the candidate.

And because language is quick and easy to change, they also ran different call-to-action language: ‘Join us Now’, ‘Learn More’, ‘Sign up now’, ‘Sign up’.

Halfway through the campaign, they figured out that “of all the variables that affected user behaviour (design, usability, imagery etc.) copy has the highest ROI”.

In fact, the change in language produced a 40.6% increase in sign-ups, which gave the team an additional $60m in donations. And that was the fuel that Barack Obama needed to become the 44th President of the United States.

Can we prove that changing language has an ROI? Yes we can.