In primary school we had to maintain a diary for a few weeks. I remember taking great pleasure in copying out the copyright warning from a book I was reading at the time and adding it to the start of the diary.
My words, too, I remember thinking, would be protected! The copyright warning felt like a magical formula; as if by writing it down in my exercise book-cum-journal I could share in their power. Bless my teacher at the time who took it all very seriously.
I bring this up not only to endear you to the single-digit aged Benjamin, but as demonstration of my lifelong attention to and fascination with words: their use, their meanings, their sounds and their power. As I age, I find myself paying particular attention to the way words are used by non-people: that is, words used by brands and software and systems and signs and governments and companies.1Of course, generative AI aside, these words are ultimately written by people (and even then, generative AI exists off the back of the stolen IP from real people).
As I’ve thought about this more, and through the occupational hazard that is exposure to management consultancies, I’ve come up with the following general model that one can map the use of language by non-people (for convenience sake, from now on I’ll just use the word brand as a placeholder for all non-people users of language):
On the x-axis we have social distance, which I define as how close the language is intended to make you feel in relation to the brand. Close social distance makes you want to snuggle up with the brand: it seeks to leverage ideas like friendship, familiarity, reciprocity, and community. Far social distance, conversely, uses the power of separation, of otherness, of distance, authority and respect.
And the y-axis considers the formality of the language being used. Formality here is primarily considered with the use of language itself, and how it confirms with standards of grammar, syntax and register. Formal language will feel more considered, often more serious or authoritative, than informal language, which can be shorter, more colloquial, or just feel more relaxed. Words in formal language tend to be longer, whereas informal language is marked by shorter, punchier phrasing.
To demonstrate how the model works, I placed an Australian brand on each quadrant:
With the exception of one of these—Virgin Australia—these are all brands I’m an ongoing customer of, and, moreover, I am quite familiar with how the brand uses language to communicate.
As fans of the 2×2 matrix will know there is always a bad corner and so it is here: the bottom right corner (that is the intersection of informal language x far social distance) is not a common combination for reasons we’ll explore below.
I’ll briefly discuss how these brands use language and provide some examples that hopefully support where I have placed them on the model. I will caveat that this is subjective and is open to interpretation; I’d welcome any contrary thoughts, of course. And if you happen to write for these brands, I would be delighted to speak to you to explore the topic further.
Market Lane Coffee: Formal and Close
Aside from making Melbourne’s best coffee, Market Lane uses language in a quite pleasing way, which manages to be both inviting (come and get a coffee!) while at the same time conveying impressions of quality, commitment to a craft and seriousness: the sort of qualities you’d expect when being asked to pay $6 for a flat white.
While the instagram account is slightly less formal than the brand as a whole—write for the medium and all that—the Market Lane website provides ample examples of the brand’s preference for more formal language:
We realised early on that we wanted to deliver Melbourne’s best coffee experience and to do this, we needed to put all our energy into sourcing, roasting and sharing the very best coffee we could find. Our goal was to make these coffees accessible and exciting, easy to understand and appreciate, and simple to brew and enjoy.Market Lane Coffee: Our Story
It is language that takes itself seriously; and invites the reader to do the same. Market Lane’s use of language is professional and written with a well educated audience in mind. As a brand that has only relatively recently introduced a non-dairy milk option, it is clearly not trying to be all things for all people, which is a rather Japanese attitude and feels unique in the Australian hospitality landscape. The use of language is consistent with this positioning.
The formality of language is complemented well by adopting a close social distance, which is adopted by using quite a cheerful positive tone, shorter more conversation sentences, and a sprinkling of exclamation marks, or sometimes all of these things at once:
As a company, Market Lane commits itself to transparency, which makes the use of close language quite appropriate; the reader is invited into the Market Lane world, where there are no secret skeletons, only delicious coffee awaiting. Likewise, the use of more formal language is commensurate with the overall positioning and brand image of the company.
Aesop: Formal and Far
Aesop is an interesting counterpoint to Market Lane; whereas Market Lane is joyfully throwing the doors open for the world, Aesop is waiting for an inconspicuous moment to open the doors and let in the world.
Aesop’s language choice is meticulous; I can think of no companies that come close to having Aesop’s singular, consistent voice throughout all their channels: generally a brand’s instagram account will deviate somewhat in style, but Aesop’s account stays remarkably consistent.
One wouldn’t normally think of a skincare brand as being literary, but Aesop is, and in quite a sincere way. Yes, this makes them easy to mock: and so many have, often having fun at Aesop’s extensive use of quotes from past thinkers and artists, but I’d much rather a world where Aesop with all of its literary pretensions exists, than the alternative of an even more relentlessly homogenous use of language by brands.
The way Aesop uses language is very formal; words and sentences are both long. Word choice is often poetic, highly literary, or even occasionally archaic: they have, afterall, recently launched a perfume called Gloam. Their use of language is quite beguiling: it begins to feel like Aesop exists in its own little parallel world, a sentiment only further reinforced whenever one goes into an Aesop store, where no matter the prevailing conditions outside, a sort of perfumed calm settles quickly. 2The most laudable thing about Aesop is that each retail space is designed independently and so no two spaces are the same; contrast this to the usual hellish formlessness of most retail offerings.
In contrast to Market Lane the formality is used to create a distance between the brand and any readers. In some contexts, such as hospitality, this would be unusual, as the normal inclination is for brands to position themselves quite closely to people. Here, however, given Aesop’s focus and brand positioning, the distance helps rather than hurts. It feels respectful to customers in a way that is reminiscent of Japanese service mentality. It is also a way of balancing the natural intimacy of skincare. Aesop’s packaging recalls an old world apothecary, and so it is fitting that the brand’s writing supports a relationship with the customer that is slightly old fashioned in its intentional distance between the brand and the customer.
The following paragraph is a good example of how Aesop uses language to sell, in this case, perfume to you: note the lack of subject, the use of non standard words like quietude, reverie and aglow.
Ultra Violette: Informal and Close
A complete contrast to Aeosp’s literary language is the casual, cheerful, gen-z influenced language of excellent Australian sunscreen brand Ultra Violette. Of the four companies in this essay, only one uses the word “slay.”
Whereas the websites of the formal language users above are very polished and professional, Ultra Violette’s website is an eye-searing riot of colour replete with <marquee> text, something I haven’t seen since I first learnt HTML ~15 years ago.
The language matches the use of colour: it’s very internet-y, it’s very in-speak, it’s very young. Reference to internet (tiktok specifically) memes abound.
It’s language that wants you to identify with the brand, it wants you to think of it as your new BFF, just one of the pals, and certainly not as a company looking for private equity funding as part of a valuation just under $80 million. I have no idea why they censor the word shit: which perhaps counterintuitively makes the text look like it was written by a teenager on the family PC after the parents have gone to bed. It seems to suggest a lack of confidence in the brand identity to go so far, but then literally self-censor. Puzzling.
While I love their products, I dread whenever one of their emails arrives in my inbox because it makes me feel old and deeply out of touch:
Who is a Jacob Elordi and why is he like that specific sunscreen? And what do I want to carry them in my bag all day? I could perhaps think of better ways to spend time together, but I digress.
Choosing to centre your entire brand’s identity around a very informal and close language is as much a conscious and intentional decision as the formal and literary language of Aesop. As it comes down to a matter of taste, the utility of objective conclusions about which is better becomes largely irrelevant.
My own biases are such that it just rubs me the wrong way when brands act overly friendly like this; it distorts what is a straightforward relationship of they make nice thing, I buy nice thing. To be clear, I do not think anyone actually thinks a brand is their friend, but the communication style adds to my profound discomfort at a brand strategies that are built around parasocial relationships and fuelled by a myriad of online influencers, who demonstrate their ‘friendship’ with the brand through free merchandise, invitation to special PR events and the like.
I also think that the informal and close language makes it hard to treat the brand as a premium one. This introduces a tension when it is very much charging premium prices: Ultra Violette’s prices are many, many multiples of the price of a chemist or supermarket product. I always have to remind myself how good the products are whenever it comes time to rebuy and a visit to the website makes me question my decision. I don’t want to be sipping cocktails poolside with “Vi” but I do want to be protecting my skin in the best possible way.
Virgin Australia: Informal and Far
I admit I had a relatively interesting time looking through the websites of the three previous companies. While Aesop did the best job, they were all remarkably consistent in how they used language to position their brand and ultimately sell their goods. And while I naturally gravitate towards brands with more formal language, I have to acknowledge my own biases, and so even if the casual ‘texting a friend’ tone of Ultra Violette isn’t for me, it’s still for someone.
Virgin Australia, on the other hand, is written in a manifestly soulless and impersonal way and is perhaps the best representation of the worst quadrant of my model: the intersection of informal and far social distance. This quadrant, and Virgin Australia, is effectively the worst of the worst: it loses any sense of personal connection that informal language can achieve, and by treating the audience as far away, feels, well, quite distant and impassive.
Virgin is a good example of a confused and uncertain brand image which manifests in writing that is, with respect, all over the place. One explanation is that unlike the other companies above (hospitality and consumer goods) Virgin provides transport, something that is more logistically-oriented and therefore warrants a different mindset when it comes to writing. And certainly, people aren’t likely going to airline websites to do anything other than book a trip, so it makes sense that the baseline is more utilitarian. Nonetheless, there is still space and scope for good writing.
Is this just the curse of airlines, which provide little more than buses with wings that take you from point A to point B? Perhaps somewhere out there is an airline with a confident and clear brand identity (at least as far as its writing goes). A fun future project might be to find this special airline, if indeed it exists, and perhaps show the copywriters at Virgin (or more likely their managers) that there is a better way to communicate.
Virgin’s site is a mishmash of informal language, clearly intended to evoke the excitement of travel, with more mechanistic and distant language covering the legal obligations and realities of travel. It is very hard for any reader to get a sense of what Virgin Australia is like as a company, and this feels especially so post-acquisition by Bain Capital. Virgin’s main competitor, Qantas, has a much clearer brand identity, and so it feels Virgin has quite a ways to catch up.
Words to Numbers
In an attempt to add a somewhat objective layer to this analysis, I’ve taken broadly indicative samples of text from each of the four websites under discussion and run them through a readability calculator to derive some basic statistics that I think illustrate how my model works.3These readability tools and calculators are often flawed and so are more useful in a diagnostic sort of sense than anything more authoritative.
|Reading Score (higher is easier to read)
(Average years of education needed to understand)
|Words in Sample
|Syllables in Sample
|Syllable Per Word
The less formal text is, generally, the easier it is to read (and requires less years of education to be understood.) And the opposite is true: more formal language is harder to read and requires more education. This suggests another possible way of presenting the model above:
One important aspect I have not touched upon is accessibility; arguably all four of the above do poorly in terms of accessibility, albeit in different ways.
The more formal language brands create barriers to comprehension that could affect those with learning difficulties or non-native English speakers. And the informal language brands create difficulties around understanding and relating to more casual, referential or non-standard uses of language.
It remains vital for brands to consider the plurality of people that might visit their website and make suitable accommodations, such as labelling images with captions, using clear, simple and inclusive language, being mindful of colour usage and so on.
I cannot profess any specialised expertise in the world of accessibility, however I know there are qualified experts who can—and should–be called on to help by these brands.
Using the model
I encourage curiosity about how others use language to influence, persuade or manipulate us. While language isn’t everything there is to communication and persuasion, it is a critical component.
I hope you’ll find this model useful in understanding how brands use language to sell things to us; how one sort of language creates one set of feelings and impressions whereas another sort of language creates a whole different result. The broad level categories that I have provided alongside considering where your biases lie will be useful tools in this regard. Being an informed and conscious consumer, in a world that very much encourages mindless consumption, is vital.
- 1Of course, generative AI aside, these words are ultimately written by people (and even then, generative AI exists off the back of the stolen IP from real people).
- 2The most laudable thing about Aesop is that each retail space is designed independently and so no two spaces are the same; contrast this to the usual hellish formlessness of most retail offerings.
- 3These readability tools and calculators are often flawed and so are more useful in a diagnostic sort of sense than anything more authoritative.