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Reed Words is an Agency Focused Solely on Language and Brands’ Verbal Identities

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 09/11/2023 | 7 Minute Read

Reed Words, a verbal branding and copywriting agency, started as an experiment. 

“We sort of set it up thinking, ‘I think there's something here,’ and we wanted to test that theory and see if there's an opportunity,” Mike Reed, co-founder and executive creative director, said. He set up Reed Words ten years ago alongside co-founder Wendy Martin. “We honestly weren't sure if we would end up with a business and have four people or forty people. It was quite an open thing when we set up.”

Mike’s own career had started in 1993 as a junior copywriter at an ad agency. Soon after, he and a fellow writer started their agency, Other, which operated for six years until Mike went freelance. But early on, he couldn’t stop thinking about words and how they weren’t as valued in the graphic design world. Often, the verbal side of a design was relegated to the final steps in the process.


“Having started in advertising, where the copywriter-art director thing is so established, having those two sides of working in harmony all the way through was in my blood,” he explained. “I couldn't quite understand why graphic designers were getting into almost the end of a job when they’d come to me with laid out pages for a piece with these sort of Lorem ipsum blocks. It was a very blunt process in that way. Like, ‘Here's the client's details; we just need to turn the Lorem ipsum into English.’ I thought words could be doing a lot more in the design and brand world, and writers could be doing more.”

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Reed Words handles everything surrounding brands and words, like voice, brand messaging, brand strategy naming, and copywriting. Ideally, Mike says this verbal side will get developed in tandem with the visual work. “The closer that collaboration happens from the beginning, the better,” he explained. “It's about bringing the two together and collaborating with lots of different partners.”


Every project has different needs, but they have a standard process with four steps that they tailor depending on the client. The discover phase is when they sit down and brainstorm what the client needs and who the customer is. After this, they go into create mode—the phase they typically spend the longest time in—and start playing with words.


“It’s very important to us that we get practical very quickly so we get words on the page,” Mike said. “It's easy with language to get stuck in the abstract. You have long conversations, and someone says, ‘I think we should be more like this,’ or ‘We're thinking perhaps our voice could be more like that.’ It's sort of vague a lot of the time, and it's often our job to say, ‘Do you mean this?’ and actually put something in front of them. We'll often do a paragraph or two and show them the different directions a voice could take based on what they've been saying. Then they're able to respond in a much more specific way.”

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With that feedback, the Reed Words team can build out the voice and create guidelines for the brand. Typically, a brand deck includes a little information about the characteristics of a voice—emphasis on little. There will usually be a few descriptors of what the voice should sound like, a couple of examples, and that's about it. That makes it incredibly challenging to take that voice and actually put it into action, so in the following phase, launch, Reed Words also provides training workshops to ensure clients understand and can use the verbal aspect of a brand.


“I always feel like it’s unfair that brand guidelines traditionally have had a quite short voice or tone section,” Mike said. “You have to get people in a room, especially if they aren't experienced marketing or brand people or writers. They might be from customer service, or they might be from the shop if it’s a retail store. We let them play with the voice and help them understand why it matters and how it works, and it’s quite fun. They tend to come out of those workshops much more confident about how to use the voice and how to use language expressively, and they look forward to having a go in real life."


“The work of a brand team can feel a bit abstract and divorced from other people’s reality, so actually playing with it and seeing how language connects people in different ways is quite energizing," Mike added. "That’s how the voice properly gets used and comes to life in business, rather than just being a PDF somewhere.”

Finally, once they’ve handed off guidelines and trained a client, the maintain phase gives Reed Words a chance to check back with them a few months later to find out what’s working and if there are any trouble areas. Based on feedback, they tweak the guidelines or do additional training.


Reed Words has wielded its word magic on brands like Formula 1, bringing forth the brand’s edginess and fire, CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), a suicide prevention charity with a supportive yet humorous tone, and Byron, a burger restaurant “turning patties into poetry.” The work they do is sharp, clever, and defined in a way that the verbiage doesn’t simply support the graphic elements but truly gives the brand a voice.


When brands have a flimsy verbal structure, it manifests not only in the words that go on packaging or billboards but also in elements like customer service communication or social media interactions. “The pandemic was a good example of this,” Mike said. “Brands hadn't done enough work on their voices or how they should use language. So when they were presented with such an unexpected need to speak, they didn't really know how to do it and fell back on the safe stuff like ‘We’re all in this together,’ which was inevitably a bit cliche.”

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Throughout the years, Mike has seen the internet and social media make immense changes in the ways brands must communicate with their consumers. He’s also witnessed the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) in this space, too—for better and for worse. Reed Words sometimes harnesses the power of AI in initial brainstorming phases to get some of the more basic ideas out of the way and see if results spark anything more innovative. He’s very much aware that some people are putting the responsibility of brand voice and copywriting solely on tools like ChatGPT, and there’s the pessimistic point-of-view that eventually, and maybe sometime soon, AI will develop and deem jobs like his irrelevant. Mike remains optimistic, though.

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“AI can do a lot of the legwork,” he said. “In our case, it’s the human bit that starts to become more focused on setting up a verbal identity or voice, and, hopefully, you still need a human to understand the needs of that business, the customers they're talking to, the context and the culture around it, and then to develop a voice that will work. The creative bit and the subtler stuff around personality and character and how language gets formed feel like it's still the exclusive purview of the humans.”

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When it comes to AI, Mike admitted that neither he nor anyone else has any answers about the future. But what he does know for sure is that the attention brands give to the verbal side of their identity continues to expand, and it looks like that grand experiment a decade ago to start Reed Words was worth it.

“Twenty years ago, the design world overlooked verbal branding,” Mike said. “We’ve seen quite a major change in awareness of how much language can do for brands. There are agencies like us. Not many, but the numbers are increasing, and it suggests an appetite and understanding that’s growing all the time.”