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‘X’, Alphabet’s top-secret lab: shaping language to shape culture

How do you attract the best minds in the world? How do you make sure they fit your culture before you hire them? How do you align them with your culture once they arrive? These are questions that every leadership team asks itself, but X’s leadership team had an even greater challenge: their company is Alphabet’s top-secret R&D lab and is wrapped tightly in secrecy.

X is Alphabet’s home to ‘moonshots’, those ideas which the rest of the world thinks are crazy, but Alphabet and Xers think can be done: driverless cars, drone deliveries, airborne windmills, contact lenses which measure your blood glucose levels…. To succeed, incremental change isn’t part of the plan.

To solve the world’s problems, you need to 10x the technology – and the thinking.

Courtney Hohne is X’s Storyteller – she is what some people might call the CMO. But with X, her role is about more than marketing, it’s about much more than ‘tone of voice for a tech firm’, it’s all about shaping culture and attracting the right people.

She realised that to produce a 10x change in development, your language has to outperform everyone else’s.
And that includes MIT’s, NASA’s and the money-waving VC firms’ brand language.

Unfortunately, there isn’t 10x as much time in an Xer’s week as anyone else’s week. Even if they are working most weekends and late evenings. What can you do?

Courtney realised she had to codify the language – but much more than merely creating a tone of voice, the language had to reflect the company’s unique culture and narrative.

She approached Verbal Identity and called on our brand language experience to help her and her team with the project.

One of the first things you realise when you visit X in Mountain View, Ca, is that ‘top secret’ really means top secret. There were projects and floors in the re-purposed shopping mall we never got to see. But in this environment, we realised that secrecy could act against the brand: making it suspicious rather than enigmatic.

Through a series of workshops, 1:1 interviews, desk work and creative development, we helped the leadership team to co-create a full set of verbal branding guidelines. We worked with the dynamics of secrecy and revelation. We worked with giving the voice a strong narrative and tone, just as the company does. We made sure these guidelines were designed to let everyone talk about the company and its objectives, but also to strongly codify and amplify the unique culture. This framed everything that was communicated internally and externally, and acted as filter to identify the right candidates.

We always say that creating the verbal guidelines are only 49% of the task. The bigger part is encouraging everyone to use the new language. In Phase II of the project, we worked with some of the world’s brightest minds to help them understand how language works on 3 levels, how those levels reinforce each other, and the daily decisions they could make to reinforce their culture and communications through the right language.

After two months of work with the team at X, a new set of guidelines were in place, and training had been successfully rolled out.

The proof of success is always whether the new language guidelines are lived every day, by everyone. They are.

But a greater test we applied to ourselves was to make sure that we had helped the communications team 10x the effectiveness of their writing -without an impact on their already heavy workload. We are delighted to say that we passed this test as well.