High and Low Brand Diction: Little Differences, Big Differentiation

High and Low Brand Diction: Little Differences, Big Differentiation

April 5, 2018

Small is Tall: Marketing in a Nutshell

Yeah yeah–small, tall, whatever.  Just give me the caffeine.  

We all know that clever little “disruptor”: some sneaky marketing genius at Starbucks decided that their small coffee would be known as a “tall”–a shift in diction that happens to earn about twice as much for the comparably sized “small” cup of coffee at McDonalds.

Words matter.  What’s the difference between a hotel and a motel?  Sometimes–maybe often–just a letter and about $50 a night.  And there you have it: marketing in a nutshell. 

Actually, marketing is about communicating and defending the differences that make-up the unique value of a brand.  And when it comes to defending the differences that make a difference in brand identity, no detail is too small.  In fact, as exemplified in Starbuck’s disruptively relativistic cup sizes, it’s the small details of diction that often lead to tall-order differences in value.  (I think that last line was very likely the byproduct of caffeine overload–the grande mild roast in a venti cup, sitting half-full on my desk.)

The Diction Hierarchy

Ahh–“diction”–such a wonderfully English-teacher word!  I actually remember the first time I heard the term. It was 1985, Benito Juarez Elementary School, Cerritos, California.  I was in 5th grade.  I was wearing parachute pants–I know this because I was always wearing parachute pants.  Anyway, our teacher, Mr. Preece–for reasons that now escape me–instructed our class to “elevate our use of diction.”  “Ladies, Gentlemen–and the rest of you–we need to elevate our use of diction.”  I basically, if somewhat vaguely, understood his meaning.  But the moment stands out because the phrase sounded so impressive–which, I later realized, was actually the whole point.   Mr. Preece was using the “elevated diction” of the phrase “elevated diction” to impress upon us the importance of “elevated diction.”  Mr. Preece was my favorite teacher.

What is “Elevated Diction”?

The English language sports many near synonyms: groups of words which may share more or less the same basic meaning (denotation), but which differ in associative meanings (connotations).  A “car” can be an “automobile,” a “ride,” a “sweet set of wheels,” or simply, well, a “car.”  All have the same meaning, but carry different associations.  And, often, these associative meanings can be arranged in levels, according to a hierarchy, from “high” to “low.”  That’s right–there’s a hierarchy of diction: A literal class system differentiating the value of otherwise synonymous terms: From high, medium, and low diction, all the way to the downright vulgar (which, by the way, is higher than “dirty,” but lower than “uncouth.”)     

Examples: Consider these levels of diction as they apply to variations on the word “food”

  1. Cuisine (high diction), 
  2. Food, Meal (middle),
  3. Grub, Chow (low);

Now apply the hierarchy to the word “clothing”

  1. Apparel (high), 
  2. Clothes (middle),
  3. Duds (low).

Higher diction often involves French or Latinate words (even the word “Latinate” is pretty high diction), and lower diction Germanic, but not always.

To craft a brand is to construct the world anew.  And diction operates as an building block.  It follows that, when writing marketing content, changes in the level of diction lead to real changes in the value of a brand. But, be careful: It’s not simply a matter of raising brand value by using fancy, 50-cent words. Over-inflate your language, and you risk undermining the authenticity of your voice. Drink “select roast” coffee at McDonald’s, and you’re putting on airs.  Drink cheap coffee at a Dunkin’ Donuts, and you’re keeping it real.  

It’s not simply a matter of raising value by using fancy, 50-cent words. Over-inflate your language, and you risk undermining the authenticity of your voice.

The important thing is to be purposeful.  When it comes to diction, jump at random between levels of diction, and you’re likely to confuse your audience.  Confuse your audience, and you could lower the value of your brand.

Try Categorizing Your Key Terms into Levels of Diction

Develop a Brand Lexicon: So how do use this news?  Well, consider developing a list of key terms that differentiate your brand–call it your “brand lexicon.”  (This list is good to have for many reasons.  For one, a brand lexicon provides an easy reference source when writing content.)  Then look up synonyms to the words in your brand lexicon. Compare the options, perhaps listing them according to a simple scale, like “high,” “medium,” “low” (or any other categories you consider useful.)  

For Example: A pharmaceutical company specializing in “non-opioid analgesics” may, for instance, want to maintain consistent use of terms in the range of “pain alleviation,” “pain relief,” headache, and fever, but stay away from high-end scientific formulations like “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia” (headache) or  “non-steroidal anti-inflammatories.”

Be Purposeful and Don’t Box Yourself In: In short, whether your brand voice goes high, low, or somewhere in the middle of the diction hierarchy, make sure your use of language maintains a purposeful attention to the climates of connotation.  You need not necessarily box your brand into certain categories.  However, if your brand voice needs to occasionally ascend or descend to varying altitudes of tone, make sure to prepare your readers accordingly.   

And there you have it: consistent diction in your brand voice! 

Learn more about creating effective content for your brand here.


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