Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

You’re ignoring your brand language and it’s hurting your customer experience

By Parry Malm, CEO at Phrasee

In a recent report, Forrester put brand language at the forefront of the customer journey. According to them, that journey “must infuse the brand’s personality into the language, visuals, and other ways it manifests across all interactions – whether digital or human”.

Said another way: what you say matters. It matters now more than it ever has. And not paying attention to that is hurting your customer experience.

There are some smart brands catching on to the importance of their language. What do these brands have in common? A relentless focus on customer experience – some have even gone so far as to break down their channel-focused siloes and reorganize their teams around the holistic customer journey.

Sadly though, they’re in the minority. While the future of CX lies in a pervasive look at the end-to-end journey, many large brands are clinging to the old ways of operating, delivering a fractured customer experience that at best is turning off their customers, and at worse is actively offending them. How can they change it? First, let’s look at what’s broken before we fix it.

Profile of a bad customer experience

A shopper sees a new gadget on a social media ad and has to have it. They click, buy, and post to Instagram when it arrives.

Now our shopper sees more ads from that brand, as well as emails. But confusingly, the ad copy doesn’t mesh with the emails. In an era where the brands you associate with attract more scrutiny, our shopper starts to wonder, “Who are these guys? Do I actually like them beyond this one gadget?”

Then, our shopper sees the social media backlash to one of the brand’s ads, which was offensive. Our shopper unsubscribes, takes down their Instagram post, and joins in the social media condemnation, not wanting to be associated with the brand at all.

It’s your typical shopper-meets-gadget-meets-cancel-culture story.

Unpacking the mess

So how did we get here? Let’s go back and look at all the things that caused this breakdown.

Since the brand operates in channel-focused siloes, each silo was given a brand playbook and then left to interpret it on their own. But since each human brought their own biases into play, the 23-year-old female ad manager ended up saying something very different than the 42-year-old male copywriter that handles email.

Each piece of content made its way up the approval chain with each approver’s gut instinct driving the edits. The most senior person in the approval chain – and THEIR gut instinct – emerged victorious, and that’s what shipped to the customer.

And if there wasn’t enough diversity in that chain of approval, you end up with something like this ad from the UK government which depicts women as maidservants in their own homes. Or this ad from Volkswagen, which if you think about it for any longer than 1.5 seconds is definitely problematic.

Then comes the social media outcry, which people are happy to join in on because no one wants to be seen as racist or sexist – even if they are racist or sexist. Not excited about public mea culpas? Then you should pay VERY close attention to what you say and how you say it.

The stakes are higher than ever

Marketers are feeling plenty of anxiety right now, and cancel culture is only adding fuel to the fire. But why has it gotten so bad?

Since they’ve had so much solo time, people are thinking more about their values, their place in the world, and how they can contribute to making it better. They’re being much louder about which side they’re on, voting with their dollars as well as their ballots. This is especially true for younger people who have inherited “a bit of a mess” (to make a vast understatement).

And finally, our rapidly expanding online life brings an influx of data streaming at our eyeballs all the time. A brand message that is confusing, cluttered, too similar to others, or offensive just won’t be tolerated anymore. Attention spans are getting shorter by the minute, which means marketers are working ever harder to constantly prove themselves. One false move, and you’re out – and who knows if you could ever get back in.

Between a rock and another rock: tough times for marketers

On a daily basis, your marketing team has to maintain and express a unique brand voice across channels in an organization that might make it harder. They have to sound authentic and human. They have to be sensitive to what’s going on in the world. They have to keep one eye on the news and hope that when they send their “Hot sale” campaign that it doesn’t coincide with a massive wildfire.

Hopefully, it means that everything going out the door is getting scrutinized more closely, and that diversity is not only occurring in who’s getting hired, but also who is allowed to speak up and have their feedback heard and acted upon.

But that increased oversight means bottlenecks. And it didn’t solve the problem of marketers just flat-out having a lot of work to do, pumping out fresh content to an ever-expanding list of channels.

That anxiety is well-earned. But it’s not sustainable.

The tough technology decisions that marketer’s must make

Marketers and tech companies alike have seen the promise of AI in language (it can predict which language will perform best so you can maximize ROI with less effort). And they’ve seen new solutions are proliferating like bunnies in springtime. ESPs have gotten in on the act, bolting on features that analyze what you’ve written and suggest improvements. Which is neat, but how do you know the new version is actually better? Plus, you’re still doing the hard work – the writing – so it’s not actually saving you much time.

Then there’s the current tech world darling of GPT-3, which is hotter than a volcano on a sunny day right now. Startups are popping up everywhere promising to harness this amazing technology, and you should go try them. They’re cool, they’ll write a bit of copy for you, it’ll be neat, and then that’s that. What it won’t do is 1) adapt to your unique brand voice; or 2) reliably predict what’s good and what’s bad – which is arguably even more important.  Why won’t they do this? Because that’s a much harder problem to solve. You don’t just need a bunch of language; you need language that fits your brand.

The good news is that AI can help you accomplish this – with a little help from humans. The combination of man and machine can help you produce high-performing language at scale. It should be a matter of generating the language, giving it a quick once-over to make sure it’s all good, and then letting the AI handle the testing and data gathering for you.

But whatever you do, it’s important to think about your entire customer journey, not just one small bit of content in a vacuum. Your brand language is at the heart of your customer experience, so getting it right is critical. Hiring more people to produce more content isn’t infinitely scalable; bringing in a machine to help may be just what you need.

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