Brand Voice: When is a Swear Word Not a Swear Word?

Brand Voice: When is a Swear Word Not a Swear Word?

Is swearing on-brand for your business?

Maybe it is. There are definitely more than a few businesses these days who use the words George Carlin said you “couldn’t say on television” in their everyday brand messaging.

(If you’re offended by foul language, do us both a favor and don’t click that link. 👆 If you’re not, you can watch it right here. 👇)

There are also a lot of businesses who don’t ever use that language. And probably the biggest group are in the middle.

Because when it comes to swearing, there’s a gray area. One person’s mild curse word is another’s casual vulgarity.

A story about swearing and brand voice

Once upon a time, I had a client who liked a snarky, edgy brand voice, but was very clear – no swearing.

Cool, I thought. No sweat.

I even helped them write brand voice guidelines that included that little bullet point.


We never actually defined what swearing was.

I’m not saying you need an exhaustive list of all the words you don’t say. But a line in the sand between edgy, vulgar, and obscene is helpful.

Because it turned out, words that I used without a thought, thinking them perfectly clean, were considered by my clients to be blasphemy and curses.

Geez. Gosh. Darn. Shoot. Heck.

No, no, no, no, no.

So here’s the thing.

Maybe your brand voice curses. You still need some guidelines around how frequently foul words appear, any that are off limits, and any that are repeat favorites.

Maybe you like to toe the line but not cross it. You definitely need to document which words are flat-out off limits and how vulgar is too vulgar.

Maybe you have a blanket no-cursing rule.

That doesn’t get you off the hook for your brand voice guidelines. Like me and my former client, you and your creators might not agree on what constitutes a swear word.

Save yourself editing time later by documenting off-limits language up front.

A good voice guide isn’t just an archetype and some punctuation rules. It documents nuances like, “no swearing, but substitute words like shoot and fudge are OK,” or “four-letter epithets are fine, but no blasphemy.”

The clearer you are on what your brand sounds like…

And the more completely your creators can understand those rules…

The more likely they are to deliver on-brand content the first time, without going back and forth revising things you thought would be obvious.

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