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Stories from Design Bridge: A chat with the Brand Language team

In the latest of our “Stories from Design Bridge” blog interviews, we sat down with Caroline Slade and Francesca Tenenbaum from our Brand Language team to find out more about their roles, the projects they work on and what makes them tick creatively…

First things first, what is “brand language”?
Caroline: Well, it’s the language of brands! It’s linguistic expression. Some designers refer to brand language as “anything visual”, but for us it’s about how words work in harmony with visuals. Although my job title is Senior Copywriter, and words are my craft, my background is film and poetry and you can’t get anything more visual than that.

Francesca: I also think of brand language as being not just what you say, but the way that you say it. By using the right words in the right way, you can make something that might be quite functional sound really appealing and interesting. There’s that saying that “a picture paints a thousand words”, but I think that one word can paint a thousand pictures. That’s how I think about brand language.

C: Everything we do is overseen by our brilliant Creative Director Holly Kielty. I think it’s quite a rarity for a brand design agency to have a Creative Director who specialises in brand language.

Thinking about words and visuals working in harmony, do you work collaboratively with designers?
C: Ideally yes. There’s no point working in isolation whatever your craft or skill set, working collaboratively can produce great creative work. Though the nature of this job means that sometimes you just need to get your head down and roam in your own thoughts.

F: I think that you can still think visually as a writer, just like you can also think linguistically as a designer. For me, the best ideas come from those things mingling together rather than one person doing the pictures, one person doing the words, and then seeing if they fit together. It’s much better to work organically from the start.

C: Sometimes writing is about knowing when not to use words. When to be speechless and let the imagery do the talking. That’s part of our job, too.

Tell us about some of the things you work on…
C: Very nearly everything. Packaging design, film scripts, tone of voice, brand books, brand personalities, pitches, creative guiding principles, design ideas, straplines, naming… the list goes on! The best projects for us are generally those where language is allowed to play a pivotal role so we can create something original and delightful. Like Fortnum & Mason. I really like work where we can flex our creative muscles.

Fortnum and Mason inner

F: Our job can also be to define a brand’s tone of voice and its personality. We have to think about who the brand is, what they stand for, who they want to speak to and what they want to say. That then feeds into everything else – from packaging design to brand worlds, above-the-line to online, and everything in between.

C: We work quite closely with the Strategy Team, which a lot of people might not realise. Our focus is usually defining creative guiding principles, delineating territories, “finessing” presentations, and articulating and applying a tone of voice and personality wherever possible. When it comes to naming it can be fun to make up words and draw upon your high school knowledge of French and Spanish, your holiday Italian and German…

F: …looking up Latin words, or thinking about how we might name things after constellations or cloud formations…

C: The places we travel to through words in a day can be quite incredible.

F: We also work on scripts and storyboarding for films with the Realisation team.

C: Proof reading, editing, answering questions from people like, “Does this make sense?, “Is this a word?” – basically anything with a word in it, we’re there!

Where do you go for creative inspiration?
F: It sounds like the biggest cliché of all time but honestly anywhere and everywhere. I think people should read as much as they can, whether it’s supplements in newspapers or novels, biographies or websites. I don’t believe that everything you read has to always be highbrow or educational, either. Just read it all! But also we’re talking about how words and images play together, so I will also find inspiration in galleries, pictures, paintings and trusty Instagram from time to time! Inspiration really is everywhere, just be a sponge and absorb everything that you can. Be curious. It could be a menu in a restaurant…

C: I have actually taken photos of menus that I thought did a good job. Modern wine brands are a particular favourite. “Like a teenage Chianti in a night club, dancing all night.”

My inspiration comes from everywhere too. Lyrics, film scripts, postcards, letters, children’s books, illustration, painting, cities. I have a slightly weird preoccupation with words. When I was a kid I would write down 2 words every day from the dictionary that I thought were unusual and I’d memorise them so I could expand my vocabulary.

Do you remember any of them?
C: I do! Things like “rubify”, which means “to make red”. Of course no one actually uses these words, which is frustrating because I’d love to be able to use them!

F: OK so now that you’ve said that I can also admit that I have a little notebook, which I use to write down everything I need to remember to complete my timesheets at the end of the week, but I also use it for a “word of the day”. This is a word that I’ve learnt during that day, or something I’ve come across that I’d forgotten and think, “what a nice word”.

What was yesterday’s word of the day?
F: Linking very nicely with “rubify” – today’s was oenophile, which means a connoisseur of wines, if you can believe it.

I really fancy a glass of wine now… Anything else to add on creative inspiration?
C: Song lyrics are great for brand language inspiration because everything has to be succinct and accessible.

F: Listening is just as important as reading. For example, if we’re working on a Christmas brief then we’ll listen to festive music to get us into the mood and atmosphere of that time of year.

C: You also have to think about how people talk. Every time I write something for a brand, I have to read it out loud to make sure that it sounds right. If it doesn’t sound natural, or like something I would say, then (in most cases) it’s wrong.

F: We work for clients and markets across the whole world, so we have to think really carefully about how things will be read by all sorts of people. Sometimes a word or phrase might just sound a little bit too British, or maybe it won’t translate into another language well, so that is always something to be mindful of.

C: Things that are difficult to describe with words, like perfume, also inspire me. You very rarely see a description on a perfume bottle. I really like those creative challenges – when something is too ephemeral or intangible to describe easily.

Let’s talk about some of your work. Any favourite projects you’ve worked on here at DB?
C: Mine has to be the Chic Novelties and Matchbox Novelties for Fortnum & Mason. I had a really open brief, which was the best thing ever, and I even got to write poems for the Matchbox Novelties.

Fortnum and Mason Novelties sides

F: I think that everything we’ve done at DB for Fortnum & Mason is just glorious! It’s language that really makes you smile widely because it’s wonderful, and so right for the brand. And the Lyle’s Limited Edition tins – Pancakes, Sticky Summer, they’re perfect.

Lyle's Treacle BBQ in situ

Lovely examples. How about things to avoid when it comes to brand language – anything that really irks you?
C: Yes, a lot. Innocent springs to mind.

F: Innocent were very good once upon a time, but they’ve been copied so much over the years and I think those copycat brands have ruined it.

C: It’s become a parody. Every brand advertising on the tube now is saying, “Hey, you, how’s it going?” I think some brands see that as being authentic, but it’s not. I don’t want to be friends with my smoothie.

F: I think, on the point of being friends with your smoothie, this seemingly never-ending need to “connect” and “have conversations” with people needs to stop. People don’t think or speak in marketing terms, so why are companies so obsessed with forcing it upon them. People are people, not consumers or customers – let’s just talk to them normally. With no expectation or silly jargon. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt!

C: Another pet peeve of mine is category codes. Clients can get so nervous about saying something new and breaking out of the norms for what their category looks and sounds like. For example, the colour and flavour of orange is always “zingy”, but why can’t we break away from that and trust that the consumers will enjoy and understand it? It’s two extremes: the chatty and familiar vs. the stiff and rigid.

F: This is going to sound like the strangest thing for a writer to say, but it really bothers me when people don’t see any flexibility in language. I like a colon, I like a well-placed full stop, but I think it’s such a shame when people look at words and focus on the antiquated grammatical “rules” rather than seeing language for the joy, the flow and the movement. Just go with the flow and see where the words can take you.

C: A long dash is very helpful!

F: Yes! Sometimes the rules work, and sometimes things work better when you break them.

C: Punctuation should aid reading. I think people add in commas and semi-colons to look more intelligent. You’ve got to know the rules to break them!

So you are experts in grammar and vocabulary!
F: Strangely, people often say to me, “You must be really good at crosswords”. I’m not! I mean, I love words, but I can’t work out what the answer should be on a cryptic crossword!

C: I often get asked to recommend people books, or what my favourite book is. I don’t think the majority of people who ask me that will actually like my suggestions…

Speaking of that, what is your favourite book?
C: I have two. ‘Catcher In The Rye’ and ‘The Golden Gate’, which is written in rhyme. At the moment I’m re-reading the ‘Just So Stories’ by Rudyard Kipling. I also just finished ‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walter and it was truly wonderful.

F: I think I’d recommend a children’s book, like ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’! I’d happily talk about children’s books all day. Or literally anything by Nancy Mitford. She was a remarkable writer.

As well as being asked about books, I imagine you often get asked about who you think does brand language well?
F: Yes, and I like getting asked that! There are so many brands that do it well.

Go on…
C: Froosh was a brand I worked on at another agency. They have a really cool manifesto style. “We believe in bananas!” That kind of thing. I think &Other Stories do nice work on their perfumes. Barry Brothers wine. Cannonball wine. Garage Project for naming. And Dishoom have a really richly layered approach to provenance and storytelling.

A post shared by Dishoom (@dishoom) on

F: It’s an oldie but a goodie. Waitrose packaging always makes me just go “Yeah!” when I see it. “A generous sprinkling of” here, “a dollop of” there. It’s so literal, and so evocative of taste and cooking.

Waitrose Cooks design & photography by Lewis Moberly.

Waitrose Cooks’ packaging design & photography by Lewis Moberly.

C: It’s recipe language, almost as if Nigella was in store, scribbling on packs. It’s very brave of them to trust that consumers are going to be ok with it. They must be great clients to work with.

Final question: what makes a good brand language writer?
C: Reading, being observant, listening to how people talk and someone who loves to write, write, write! Like most things, it takes practise.

F: A person who simply appreciates language. Caring about what you write, no matter how long you’ve been doing it for or how senior you are, and never thinking that you can stop learning, or stop reading, or that an idea can’t come from anywhere.

C: I would never elevate myself to writer but I don’t think the term ‘copywriter’ is right for this role. It feels a bit 80s, slapdash and unconsidered. I agree with everything Francesca said, but would also add that having a passion for detail is incredibly important.

F: Having the tenacity to point out that something is wrong and should be changed, and fighting for using the right words. Going back to my analogy about how a word can paint a thousand pictures, I genuinely believe that one word, one sentence, or one tiny thing can be completely transformative.

C: A strong visual intuition is key. Words and letters evoke colour, scent and taste as well as meaning and sound so in design, you have to think carefully about words on the page (or pack or screen). Where does the line break? Poetry helps: onomatopoeia, rhythm and layout is vital.

I’ve worked with some great designers who have a real affinity for words too – sometimes without even knowing it. There shouldn’t be any ownership on language. Good writers just want to help start a wonderfully wandering, open chat.

Wise words, as always.

Fancy collaborating with our Brand Language team? We’re always looking for brilliant people to join us.

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