Magazine article Communication World

Managing Your Organization's Collective Voice: Just like Visual Identity, Verbal Identity Is Crucial to Building a Global Brand

Magazine article Communication World

Managing Your Organization's Collective Voice: Just like Visual Identity, Verbal Identity Is Crucial to Building a Global Brand

Article excerpt

I define verbal identity as the accumulated collection of words and phrases that defines the business culture of a global organization. Marketing slogans, advertisements and trademarks are part of a company's verbal identity. But there's more to verbal identity than that.

When I was working for a multinational firm in Europe, it struck me how thick the company's handbook on its visual identity was, and how non-existent the one dealing with its verbal identity was. There was plenty of guidance on how to use the company logo, but very little on the norms of consistent use of terminology in corporate communication.

I was in Nice, France, earlier this year and was surprised to learn that the first Worldwide Globalization Summit was being held nearby. The summit was sponsored by TRADOS, a global solutions firm, and attended by executives of companies such as FedEx, Glaxo-SmithKline, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems. Conference participants stated that two of the top three insights they took away from the conference were that "successful global business requires brand consistency across markets ... and enterprisewide terminology is essential for corporate communications."

"No variations are permitted"

Not surprisingly, it seems that the importance of verbal identity is gaining recognition. Today, any company with a web site is already a global business, so what you write has to be readily understood even if you haven't gotten around to translating your site into multiple languages. Before going to Nice, I looked for some up-to-date metrics on visual identity by looking at how companies handle visual and verbal identities. Here are some examples from software developer Macromedia's visual style guide, which is similar to the style guides of many Fortune 1000 firms:

Colors: The corporate logo is a Macromedia blue, black and white. No variations are permitted.

Shapes : The oblongs are outlined in white; all text is white. No variations are permitted.

And so on. Visually, no variations are permitted.

In the verbal identity sphere, there is usually little consistency in how terms are used. This becomes more problematic when you translate willy-nilly into other languages. To put it another way, where verbal identity is concerned, variations are permitted. This seems ironic, given that mare firms depend extensively on international sales.

"Visual identity can set an emotional tone for a company, but verbal identity is more important for every business--every multinational business--because verbal identity persuades a customer to take action," says Bill Seawick, chief marketing officer of TRADOS. "We'll all eventually learn that unless we speak with one voice across world markets, inconsistent verbal identity will confuse customers and hurt the bottom line."

Companies like Microsoft fully understand this. Its international sales represent 60 percent of total sales. It maintains a web site called Dr. International ( /DrIntl) to coach developers, web designers and corporate communicators on how to write for the international marketplace. Industrial controls manufacturer Allen-Bradley takes a technical term such as key switch and then finds the corresponding term in German (Schalter) or French (commutateur a cle). Its glossary provides a usage example translated into each language: "A three-position key switch on the front panel of the processor module lets you select one of the three modes of the operation."

Even with that simple example, think of all the corporate agreements or buy-ins that are needed before content can be translated. For example, whose French, Spanish or Chinese should be used? Inna Geller, the longtime translation manager at Medtronic, a medical-device manufacturer, recalls having to convince management of the value of consistent terminology in the first place. It is hard to get management to sit in on a talk about glossaries. …

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