The Grammar of Brand Writing: Effective Branding and the Myth of Proper Grammar
Effective marketing is effective writing – but what is effective writing?
Wait, one second, let me get my Mark Twain on: Now there ain’t a rule in this here language what can’t be broke. The so-called rules of English grammar and style were not spoken by a burning bush; they’re just guidelines about what’s likely to be effective. If you learn to treat them that way, you’ll live a happier life.
Effective writing comes down to 3 simple steps:
- Figure out where your audience is now.
- Figure out where you want your audience to end up.
- Take them from one to the other.
If you can pull it off, anything goes.
If these guidelines sound familiar, they should – they also apply to marketing. Effective writing and effective marketing both come from the same place: a strong sense of audience.
Just as different companies must develop content targeted to a range of markets and personas, content writing must speak to the tastes and norms of specific audiences. Moreover, different brands, like different personalities, assume unique voices and styles. If the key to effective marketing lies in differentiation, then the key to producing effective content writing requires the ability—and agility—to write content in diverse voices.
Writing in different voices can make it difficult to discern the difference between good and bad, “correct” and “incorrect” writing. My advice is to think of grammar and style as analogous to, say, table manners. Grammatical rules have no absolute, independent existence; there are—thankfully—no grammar police to track you down for using “whose” when “of which” is more proper.
Does that mean all traditional rules of correct usage and mechanics do not apply? Not at all. The question is how you can get your audience from where they are to where you want them to end up. This is no easy task. Audiences are composed of people with widely varied experiences, backgrounds, and–in the case of writing–diverse stylistic tastes. Writing—again, like marketing—is an inescapably psychological endeavor, since you have to crawl inside your readers’ heads and figure out what’s likely to have the desired effects on them.
That’s where the rules come in: Rules are attempts to systematically lay out the effect certain usages will have on certain audiences.
Instead of simply knowing and following a set of abstract rules, engaging an audience means you have to exercise judgment in deciding which rules to apply and when. Writing is about much (much) more than following rules. Writing is a process for developing ideas and crafting a voice—both of which require the ability to make strategic rhetorical choices based on careful critical thought, not the instrumental application of rules.
Here’s the principle that guides what I write and say whenever traditional (“correct”) usage differs from colloquial (“incorrect”) usage:
Does the traditional usage, hallowed as “rules” in prescriptive grammars and style guides, improve the clarity or precision of the sentence? If so, follow the traditional rules.
Sometimes the traditional usage, the one you’ve been taught is “right,” is downright clumsy or what is called “unidiomatic.” According to the rules, Toys R Us, should be Toys Are We. “R” aside, nobody would say, “toys are we.” Neither does anyone ever say, “It’s I,” which, though “right” — traditionalists will tell you it is in the nominative case, and that a linking (for instance, “is, are, were, was verb”) requires the same case in the subject and the predicate — is too stilted for all but the most formal situations. “It’s me” sounds a thousand times more natural. If you like being the sort of person who says “it’s I,” or “It is I,” that’s fine, but know that most of your audience–including most of the educated part of your audience—will more than likely think you sound like a pretentious weirdo.
That said, all else being equal, I aim for the traditional “rules.” If neither one is inherently better, for reasons of logic, clarity, or whatever, does the traditional “correct” usage sound odd? Is it intrusive? If it’s not going to draw attention to itself, I prefer to stick with the traditional rules of correctness, even if the reasons for its being “correct” are completely arbitrary.
For instance, the word “only” can go so many places in a sentence. Putting it in a position the traditionalists call “wrong” will probably distract a few readers; putting it in a position the traditionalists call “right” won’t bother anyone, even those who are less hung up about word placement. In this case, unlike the “it’s I” case, following the “rule” will keep the grammar police happy without making you sound like a pretentious weirdo to the rest of the world.
For me it’s a simple calculation. Which is going to be more effective: The traditional “rules” or the common, colloquial usage? Since, most of the time, the traditional “rules” work in most everyday contexts, and since everyday, informal usage does not work in most formal contexts, I default to the “rules.”
Rebels without a clause
Some determined, bad-boy iconoclasts are simply set on breaking the rules. They consider it selling out to follow any traditional rule they don’t like. These die-hard non-conformists will do everything they can to flout the old grammar books. I suppose some think wanton infinitive-splitting shows the world what free spirits they are.
Maybe. If rebellion for the sake of rebellion makes you happy, go nuts; I certainly won’t stop you. But for my part, writing is a matter of having an impact on an audience, and my experience, for what’s it’s worth, has shown me that some of the old rules of grammar and style help you, and some hurt you. Think about each one, not in terms of what you’re “allowed” to say, but in terms of what your words can do for you. A dogmatic prejudice against the rules is no better than a dogmatic prejudice in their favor.
House Style: What this all Means in Practice
Each company has its own House Style. The goal is to capture and martial this style to
- Effectively develop and communicate brand voice.
- Present a brand in ways that effectively engage audiences.
Capturing the appropriate voice is an ongoing process of carefully gauged judgment, execution, reflection, revision and refinement.
Authenticity in Voice and Tone: Sound like Yourself
Instead of focusing on grammar rules, I recommend focusing on developing an effective style. Grammar rules are simply tools to a higher end. Style consists of two, often underrated, elements of brand development: Voice and tone. Both tone and voice inform perceptions of brands at often unnoticed, emotional levels. And when speaking to an audience, emotion is everything.
Often confused, the difference between voice and tone can be considered as follows:
Voice: Your voice expresses the personality of your brand. Your voice indicates a constant disposition.
Tone: A specific version of your brand’s voice. Tone refers to the specific feel and energy of your voice in specific contexts like audience, situation, and channel.
Essentially, there is one voice for your brand and many ways to adjust that voice in various tones.
Learn more at MarketScale.com.