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Be All That You Can Be: The Company Persona and the Magic of 'Language Alignment'

by Frank Luntz  |  
January 30, 2007
  |  8,690 views

It's not just CEOs and corporate spokespeople who need effective language to be the message. The most successful advertising taglines are not seen as slogans for a product. They are the product. From M&M's "melts in your mouth, not in your hand" to "Please don't squeeze the Charmin" bathroom tissue, from the "plop, plop, fizz, fizz" of Alka-Seltzer to "Fly the friendly skies of United," there is no light space between the product and its marketing. Words that work reflect "not only the soul of the brand, but the company itself and its reason for being in business," according to Publicis worldwide executive creative director David Droga.

In the same vein, advertising experts identify a common quality among the most popular and long-lasting corporate icons: Rather than selling for their companies, these characters personify them. Ronald McDonald, the Marlboro Man, Betty Crocker, the Energizer Bunny—they aren't shills trying to talk us into buying a Big Mac, a pack of smokes, a box of cake mix, a package of batteries; they don't even personalize the product. Just like the most celebrated slogans, they are the product.

Walk through any bookstore and you'll find dozens of books about the marketing and branding efforts of corporate America. The process of corporate communication has been thinly sliced and diced over and over, but what you won't find is a book about the one truly essential characteristic in our twenty-first-century world: the company persona and how words that work are used to create and sustain it.

The company persona is the sum of the corporate leadership, the corporate ethos, the products and services offered, interaction with the customer, and, most importantly, the language that ties it all together. A majority of large companies do not have a company persona, but those that do benefit significantly. Ben & Jerry's attracts customers in part because of the funky names they gave to the conventional (and unconventional) flavors they offer, but the positive relationship between corporate management and their employees also plays a role, even after Ben and Jerry sold the company. McDonald's in the 1970s and Starbucks over the past decade became an integral part of the American culture as much for the lifestyle they reflected as the food and beverages they offered, but the in-store lexicon helped by setting them apart from their competition. (Did any customers ever call the person who served them a cup of coffee a "barista" before Starbucks made the term popular?) Language is never the sole determinant in creating a company persona, but you'll find words that work associated with all companies that have one.

And when the message, messenger, and recipient are all on the same page, I call this rare phenomenon "language alignment," and it happens far less frequently than you might expect. In fact, virtually all of the companies that have hired my firm for communication guidance have found themselves linguistically unaligned.


This manifests itself in two ways. First, in service-oriented businesses, the sales force is too often selling with a different language than the one marketing people are using. There's nothing wrong with individualizing the sales approach to each customer, but when you have your sales force promoting a message that has no similarity with the advertising campaign, it undermines both efforts. The language in the ads and promotions must match the language on the street, in the shop, and on the floor. For example, Boost Mobile, which caters to an inner city youth demographic, uses the slogan "Where you at?" Not grammatically (or politically) correct—but it's the language of the consumer.

And second, corporations with multiple products in the same space too often allow the language of those products to blur and bleed into each other. Procter & Gamble may sell a hundred different items, but even though each one fills a different need, a different space, and/or a different category, it is perfectly fine for them to share similar language. You can use some of the same verbiage to sell soap as you would to sell towels, because no consumer will confuse the products and what they do.

Not so for a company that is in a single line of work, say selling cars or selling beer, where companies use the exact same adjectives to describe very different products. In this instance, achieving linguistic alignment requires a much more disciplined linguistic segmentation. It is almost always a more effective sales strategy to divvy up the appropriate adjectives and create a unique lexicon for each individual brand.


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Frank Luntz has written, supervised, and conducted more than a thousand surveys and focus groups for corporate and public affairs clients in 11 countries since forming The Luntz Research Companies in 1992. Dr. Luntz is considered a strategic architect of the Republican landslide in 1994 and played a key role in creating House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Contract with America.

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