Be All That You Can Be: The Company Persona and Language Alignment
April 9, 2017
It’s not just CEOs and corporate spokespeople who need effective language to be the message. The most successful advertising taglines are not seen as slogans for a product. They are the product. From M&M’s “melts in your mouth, not in your hand” to “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin” bathroom tissue, from the “plop, plop, fizz, fizz” of Alka-Seltzer to “Fly the friendly skies of United,” there is no light space between the product and its marketing. Words that work reflect “not only the soul of the brand, but the company itself and its reason for being in business,” according to Publicis worldwide executive creative director David Droga.
In the same vein, advertising experts identify a common quality among the most popular and long-lasting corporate icons: Rather than selling for their companies, these characters personify them. Ronald McDonald, the Marlboro Man, Betty Crocker, the Energizer Bunny — they aren’t shills trying to talk us into buying a Big Mac, a pack of smokes, a box of cake mix, a package of batteries; they don’t even personalize the product. Just like the most celebrated slogans, they are the product.
Walk through any bookstore and you’ll find dozens of books about the marketing and branding efforts of corporate America. The process of corporate communication has been thinly sliced and diced over and over, but what you won’t find is a book about the one truly essential characteristic in our twenty-first-century world: the company persona and how words that work are used to create and sustain it.
The company persona is the sum of the corporate leadership, the corporate ethos, the products and services offered, interaction with the customer, and, most importantly, the language that ties it all together. A majority of large companies do not have a company persona, but those that do benefit significantly. Ben & Jerry’s attracts customers in part because of the funky names they gave to the conventional (and unconventional) flavors they offer, but the positive relationship between corporate management and their employees also plays a role, even after Ben and Jerry sold the company. McDonald’s in the 1970s and Starbucks over the past decade became an integral part of the American culture as much for the lifestyle they reflected as the food and beverages they offered, but the in-store lexicon helped by setting them apart from their competition. (Did any customers ever call the person who served them a cup of coffee a “barista” before Starbucks made the term popular?) Language is never the sole determinant in creating a company persona, but you’ll find words that work associated with all companies that have one.
And when the message, messenger, and recipient are all on the same page, I call this rare phenomenon “language alignment,” and it happens far less frequently than you might expect. In fact, virtually all of the companies that have hired my firm for communication guidance have found themselves linguistically unaligned.
This manifests itself in two ways. First, in service-oriented businesses, the sales force is too often selling with a different language than the marketing people are using. There’s nothing wrong with individualizing the sales approach to each customer, but when you have your sales force promoting a message that has no similarity with the advertising campaign, it undermines both efforts. The language in the ads and promotions must match the language on the street, in the shop, and on the floor. For example, Boost Mobile, which caters to an inner city youth demographic, uses the slogan “Where you at?” Not grammatically (or politically) correct — but it’s the language of their consumer.
And second, corporations with multiple products in the same space too often allow the language of those products to blur and bleed into each other. Procter & Gamble may sell a hundred different items, but even though each one fills a different need, a different space, and/or a different category, it is perfectly fine for them to share similar language. You can use some of the same verbiage to sell soap as you would to sell towels, because no consumer will confuse the products and what they do.
Not so for a company that is in a single line of work, say selling cars or selling beer, where companies use the exact same adjectives to describe very different products. In this instance, achieving linguistic alignment requires a much more disciplined linguistic segmentation. It is almost always a more effective sales strategy to divvy up the appropriate adjectives and create a unique lexicon for each individual brand.
An example of a major corporation that has confronted both of these challenges and still managed to achieve linguistic alignment, even as they are laying off thousands of workers, is the Ford Motor Company — which manages a surprisingly diverse group of brands ranging from Mazda to Aston Martin. The Ford corporate leadership recognized that it was impossible to separate the Ford name, corporate history, heritage, and range of vehicles — so why bother. They came as a package. Sure, Ford maintains individual brand identity, through national and local ad campaigns and by creating and maintaining a separate image and language for each brand. For example, “uniquely sensual styling” certainly applies when one is talking about a Jaguar S Type, but would probably not be pertinent for a Ford F 250 pickup truck. But the fact that the CEO carries the Ford name communicates continuity to the company’s customers, and Bill Ford sitting in front of an assembly line talking about leadership and innovation in all of Ford’s vehicles effectively puts all the individual brands into alignment.
The words he uses — “innovation,” “driven,” “re-committed,” “dramatically,” “dedicated” — represent the simplicity and brevity of effective communications, and they are wrapped around the CEO who is the fourth-generation Ford to lead the company — hence credibility. The cars are the message, Bill Ford is the messenger, the language is dead-on, and Ford is weathering the American automotive crisis far better than its larger rival General Motors. Again, the language of Ford isn’t the only driver of corporate image and sales — but it certainly is a factor.
In fact, the brand-building campaign was so successful that GM jumped on board. But Ford quickly took it a step further. In early 2006, they began to leverage their ownership of Volvo (I wonder how many readers did not know that Ford bought Volvo in 1999 and purchased Jaguar a decade earlier) to communicate a corporate-wide commitment to automotive safety, across all of its individual brands and vehicles. Volvo is one of the most respected cars on the road today, and aligning all of Ford behind an industry leader is a very smart strategy indeed.
So what about the competition?
General Motors, once the automotive powerhouse of the world, has an equally diverse product line and arguably a richer history of technology and innovation, but their public message of cutbacks, buy-backs, and layoffs was designed to appeal to Wall Street, not Main Street, and it crushed new car sales. At the time of this writing, GM is suffering through record losses, record job layoffs, and a record number of bad stories about its failing marketing efforts.
It didn’t have to be this way.
The actual attributes of many of the GM product lines are more appealing than the competition, but the product image itself is not. To own a GM car is to tell the world that you’re so 1970s, and since what you drive is considered an extension and expression of yourself to others, people end up buying cars they actually like less because they feel the cars will say something more about them.
Think about it. Here’s a company that was the first to develop a catalytic converter, the first to develop an advanced anti-tipping stabilization technology, the first to develop engines that could use all sorts of blended gasolines, and most importantly in today’s market, the creator of OnStar — an incredible new-age computerized safety and tracking device. Yet most American consumers have no idea that any of these valuable innovations came from General Motors, simply because GM decided not to tell them. So instead of using its latest and greatest emerging technology to align itself with its customers, GM finds itself in a deteriorating dialogue with shareholders. No alignment = no sales.
Another problem with GM: No one knew that the various brands under the GM moniker were in fact . . . GM. Even such well-known brands as Corvette and Cadillac had become disconnected from the parent company. Worse yet, all the various brands (with the exception of Hummer, which couldn’t get lost in a crowd even if the brand manager wanted it to) were using similar language, similar visuals, and a similar message — blurring the distinction between brands and turning GM vehicles into nothing more than generic American cars. Repeated marketing failures were just part of GM’s recurring problems, but as that issue was completely within their control, it should have been the easiest to address.
When products, services, and language are aligned, they gain another essential attribute: authenticity. In my own market research for dozens of Fortune 500 companies, I have found that the best way to communicate authenticity is to trigger personalization: Do audience members see themselves in the slogan . . . and therefore in the product? Unfortunately, achieving personalization is by no means easy.
To illustrate how companies and brands in a competitive space create compelling personas for themselves while addressing the needs of different consumer groups, let’s take a look at cereals. Anyone can go out and buy a box of cereal. But different cereals offer different experiences. Watch and listen carefully to their marketing approach and the words they use.
Most cereals geared toward children sell energy, excitement, adventure, and the potential for fun — even more than the actual taste of the sugar-coated rice or wheat puffs in the cardboard box. On the other hand, cereal aimed at grown-ups is sold based on its utility to the maintenance and enhancement of health — with taste once again secondary.
Children’s cereals are pitched by nonthreatening cartoon characters — tigers, parrots, chocolate-loving vampires, Cap’ns, and a tiny trio in stocking caps — never an adult or authority figure. Adult cereals come at you head-on with a not-so-subtle Food Police message, wrapped in saccharine-sweet smiles, exclaiming that this cereal is a favorite of healthy and cholesterol-conscious adults who don’t want to get colon cancer! Ugghhh. Kids buy Frosted Flakes because “They’re grrrreat!” Adults buy Special K because we want to be as attractive and vigorous as the actors who promote it. When it comes to cereal, about the only thing parents and kids have in common is that the taste matters only slightly more than the image, experience, and product association — and if the communication appears authentic, they’ll buy.
And cereal certainly sells. From Cheerios to Cinnamon Toast Crunch, more than $6 billion worth of cold cereal was sold in the United States alone in 2005. If you were to look at the five top-selling brands, you would see a diverse list targeted to a diverse set of customers. The language used for each of these five brands is noticeably different, but in all cases totally essential.
In looking at the first and third best-selling brands of cereal, one might initially think that only a slight variation in ingredients mark their distinctions. Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios are both based around the same whole-grain O shaped cereal, but are in fact two very different products, beyond the addition of honey and a nut-like crunch.
The language behind Cheerios is remarkably simple and all-encompassing — “The one and only Cheerios.” Could be for kids . . . could be for young adults . . . could be for parents. Actually, Cheerios wants to sell to all of them. As its Web site states, Cheerios is the right cereal for “toddlers to adults and everyone in between.” The subtle heart-shaped bowl on each box suggests to the older consumer that the “whole-grain” cereal is a healthy start to a healthy day. But the Web site also has a section devoted entirely to younger adults, complete with testimonials and “tips from new parents” talking about how Cheerios has helped them to raise happy, healthy children. The language behind Cheerios works because it transcends the traditional societal boundaries of age and adds a sense of authenticity to the product.
While you could probably live a happy and healthy existence with Cheerios as your sole cereal choice, there is a substantial segment of the cereal market that demands more. For the cereal-consuming public roughly between the ages of four and fourteen, a different taste and linguistic approach is required. Buzz the Bee, the kid-friendly mascot of Honey Nut Cheerios, pitches the “irresistible taste of golden honey,” selling the sweetness of the product to a demographic that craves sweet foods. While the parent knows that his or her child wants the cereal because of its sweet taste (as conveyed through the packaging), Honey Nut Cheerios must still pass the parent test. By putting such statements as “whole-grain” and “13 essential vitamins and minerals” on the box, the product gains authenticity, credibility, and the approval of the parent.
Two different messages on one common box effectively markets the same product to both children and parents alike, helping to make Honey Nut Cheerios the number three top-selling cereal in 2004. So with the addition of honey and nuts, General Mills, the producer of the Cheerios line, has filled the gap between toddlers and young adults, and completed the Cheerios cradle-to-grave lifetime hold on the consumer.
To take another example, if you want people to think you’re hip and healthy, you make sure they see you drinking bottled water — and the fancier the better. No one walking around with a diet Dr Pepper in hand is looking to impress anybody. These days, there’s almost a feeling that soft drinks are exclusively for kids and the uneducated masses. There’s a cache to the consumption of water, and expensive and exclusive brands are all the rage. Now, there may be a few people who have such extremely refined, educated taste buds that they can taste the difference between Dasani and Aquafina (I certainly can’t), but the connoisseurs of modish waters are more likely than not posers (or, to continue the snobbery theme, poseurs). You won’t see many people walking around Cincinnati or Syracuse clutching fancy bottled water. Hollywood, South Beach, and the Upper East Side of New York City are, as usual, another story.
There’s one final aspect of being the message that impacts what we hear and how we hear it. How our language is delivered can be as important as the words themselves, and no one understands this principle better than Hollywood.
At a small table tucked away in the corner of a boutique Italian restaurant on the outskirts of Beverly Hills, I had the opportunity to dine with legendary actors Charles Durning, Jack Klugman, and Dom DeLuise. The entire dinner was a litany of stories of actors, writers, and the most memorable movie lines ever delivered. (Says Klugman, an Emmy Award winner, “A great line isn’t spoken, it is delivered.”) Best known for his roles in The Odd Couple and Quincy, Klugman told a story about how Spencer Tracy was practicing his lines for a movie late in his career in the presence of the film’s screenwriter. Apparently not pleased with the reading, the writer said to Tracy, “Would you please pay more attention to how you are reading that line? It took me six months to write it,” to which Tracy shot back, “It took me thirty years to learn how to say correctly the line that took you only six months to write.”
Spencer Tracy knew how to be the message — and his shelf of Academy Awards proved it.
Excerpted from WORDS THAT WORK by Dr. Frank Luntz. Copyright 2007 Dr. Frank Luntz. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.