For many of my clients I'm the namer-in-chief. For a few others I'm in charge of what's usually called "content"--I come up with ideas, do research and interviews, and write copy. For others I'm a ghostwriter of books or speeches. And for some clients I do something that falls somewhere in between: I create a vocabulary that becomes the client's verbal brand.
Verbal branding is what I did for RepairPal, the auto-maintenance site that launched last month. The site allows users to find and rate repair shops, get accurate and unbiased estimates for repairs, look up common repair problems and issues specific to their car's make and model, read about car parts and systems, and securely store repair records online.
My work for RepairPal began just before Christmas of 2007 with a proposal I submitted for "positioning the company, creating an effective and engaging corporate voice, bringing home and landing pages into focus, and establishing a verbal brand that can be extended into other parts of the website and other communications." This sort of work is hard to describe and (usually) even harder to sell. Fortunately, in RepairPal I had a smart and receptive client. CEO David Sturtz and his management team knew they needed an outsider's perspective to clarify, simplify, and "warmify" their content.¹ David's a self-professed car buff who knows a lot about how cars work; he took for granted many of the questions his less-sophisticated audience would have. He wanted a woman's perspective, too: for most of my six-month engagement, all of RepairPal's executives and technical advisers were men, but they expected most of the site's users to be women.
So my assignment was clear--and also vague. "Voice" and "tone" in writing are notoriously difficult to define. Here's what Jack Hitt says about them in a chapter titled "Voice" in his excellent book, A Writer's Coach:
Like a singer's, a writer's voice is an elusive thing, the sum of everything that goes into his or her style of written expression. A distinctive vocabulary might contribute to it. So might a preference for particular sentence forms or syntax. Or voice might emerge from even more subtle dimensions of writing. Unique angles of approach to subjects, maybe. Or a characteristic pace or degree of formality.
Later in the chapter, Hitt identifies some of the enemies of an authentic writing voice: pomposity, trendspeak, clichés (he provides a long list), private languages, and the "elegant variation" (a tortured effort to avoid repetition, as when a writer refers to Mickey Mouse as "the Disney rodent").
Hitt is addressing journalists and essayists, but we verbal branders face the same challenge--with the added twist that we're channeling (or inventing) a corporate personality that needs to be perceived as authentic and consistent.
The draft copy RepairPal showed me of the home page and main landing pages had predictable first-draft problems. Much of the language was stilted and formal. In striving for brevity, the team had sacrificed warmth, connection, and even essential information. The copy was sprinkled with MBA-isms like "metrics," "benchmarks," and "next steps." You could hear the effort that had gone into writing it. And this was for a website that needed to sound relaxed, confident, and friendly--like a repair pal.
(A note about the name: it had already been chosen and registered by the time I signed on. At my first meeting I mentioned my concerns about conflicts with PayPal--would customers think RepairPal was a subsidiary? Would PayPal sue?--and was told that trademark lawyers had already looked into those issues and given a green light.)
Many of my recommendations had to do with consistency: on the home page, each of the three "action" boxes now has a headline that starts with an imperative verb. Consistency leads to clarity, and clarity builds confidence. I also recommended using "you" and "your" as often as possible: strange as it seems, that direct connection with the user had been missing. I also came up with the home page's main headline, "We take the mystery out of auto repair!" We went through a lot of rounds on that single line. Should it be "mystery", "headache," or "guesswork"? Did we really need the exclamation point? (I said yes.) At one point the line was going to be "Take the despair out of auto repair," which has the cute rhyme and that touch of darkness I personally find appealing. But it was a tad too dark for many other folks.
I did a lot of work on the tagline, too. In the end, David Sturtz chose a line he'd been working on himself: Car Care Confidence. (For several weeks it was Confident Car Care, which I preferred. What do you think?)
Then there were all the brandable elements: What should we call the huge parts-and-service database, the estimating function, the record-storage section? And there were questions about whether certain terms--including car make--were too jargon-y for a general audience. I said most people--yes, even women--knew what make meant. The word went in. We went back and forth on such seemingly trivial points as whether the record-storage section (a nifty and valuable feature of the site) should be called MyCar or My Car. I said the closed-up version looked too artificial. The space went in.
It may seem mind-boggling that this sort of work can occupy six months, on and off, but the RepairPal guys, to their credit, take language very seriously. The site is still in beta, and I'm sure much will change. Still, I'm pleased that I could give RepairPal many of its first public words. Take the site for a test drive (sorry; couldn't resist) and let me know what you think. The really impressive section is the one for which I did no consulting at all: the auto repair encyclopedia. An army of auto experts shared their collective wisdom to create it (and a professional copyeditor helped smooth out the language). It's a beautiful thing.
¹ I discovered "warmify" on Picasa, the photo storage and editing site: it's one of the effects you can apply to your pictures. I've been using the word in other contexts ever since.