Watch your brand's words

Dan Dufour
Dan Dufour
  • This article was amended on 15 February: see final paragraph

A brand’s personality can, of course, be expressed through design, via logos, fonts, graphics and colours. It can be expressed in sonic mnemonics like the Intel tune. But it can also be expressed in the words it chooses.

A caring support-based brand like Macmillan will communicate in a very different style to a campaigning one such as Amnesty International.

In an increasingly crowded marketplace, where audiences are bombarded with visual, auditory and text information, it is vital that every element of the brand is working as hard as possible to attract and sustain attention.

To overlook language is to miss an important trick, and yet there are few examples of charity brands defining a ‘tone of voice’ (style of language) with as much distinction as commercial brands like Innocent or FirstDirect.

But even individual words or phrases can help to open-up or prevent brand engagement. Here are some examples I’ve encountered over the years.

Parkinson’s UK

In the case of Parkinson’s UK, scientific research was already part of their brand’s portfolio but not its pinnacle. Whereas the research conducted during the brand development highlighted that what supporters wanted first and foremost was a ‘cure’. This led to the charity becoming the first brand to use the word ‘cure’ in its vision and strapline.


When working on Mind’s brand development, their blanket term ‘mental distress’ was found to alienate people, so was replaced with the words people use in everyday life instead, such as ‘stress’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’.

Blue Cross

Blue Cross defined their brand essence as creating and protecting the bond between people and their ‘companion animals’. Companion what? Asked their supporters. So what followed was a simple substitution to the word ‘pets’. If Red Cross is known for helping people in a crisis, Blue Cross can become better known for helping pets over time.  


Sometimes it’s not only the choice of words that matters but how they work together and their order.

RSPB’s brand development was designed to reposition them as a popular force for nature protecting both birds and UK wildlife, or ‘giving nature a home’ as they affectionately call it.

‘Wildlife’ was found to be the most evocative word in the mix as it more instantly evokes animals people are fond of and care about protecting such as red squirrels and hedgehogs, but to retain the brand’s heritage they decided to use the phrase ‘birds and wildlife’ together initially. ‘Nature’ is then the all-encompassing term that encompasses birds, wildlife and the places they live in.   


RNIB’s brand development was designed to make sure they are known for providing emotional and practical support at the point of diagnosis when people are told they are losing their sight, as well as helping people who are blind or partially sighted live independently. This meant working out when to use ‘losing your sight’, ‘blind’, partially sighted’, or the all-encompassing ‘sight loss’.

It’s worth noting that neither RSPB nor RNIB decided not to change their names because of the equity within them unlike RNID, which became Action on Hearing Loss and then plummeted down the Charity Brand Index.

Top Tips

  • People often get hung up on exactly which choice of words is right or wrong, in which case listen to your target audiences and echo which words work for them first.

  • At its best, tone of voice enables brands to own a distinctive set of words and reinforce your brand values.

  • Clear delivery comes from clarity of thought. Even the Financial Times targets a reading age of 16.1 because it knows its readers are busy people.

Anyone who has crafted a brand story (manifesto, positioning statement, descriptor, case for support or whatever else you choose to call it) will know that Directors and Trustees can pick over every detail. But when individual words and phrases matter so much to brand engagement it shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Dan Dufour is brand strategy director at The Team

  • Two passages have been removed from this article because of potential copyright issues

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