Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, a brand exists in the mind of the consumer.
No matter how good of a brand manager you are, the truth is that you only control one side of the equation. You send out key signals with your positioning, your messages, your brand codes, channel choice and the like, but ultimately it’s the consumer’s interpretation of those signals that will form their perception of you as a brand.
One of the most important signals you can use to connect with consumers and stand out from competitors is your brand voice. Whether online, in-app or in-real-life, how you say what you say shapes someone’s experience of your brand.
What is a brand voice?
Let’s make things crystal clear and start by distinguishing between brand voice and tone.
Your brand’s voice is the consistent way you show up in the world, running through all the company’s communications and customer touch-points. It’s closely associated with the brand’s personality – it’s your point of view, how you behave, think and express your values.
When we talk about brand tone, it’s about the variations you might use in different channels, with different audience segments. It can change depending on the context. It becomes even more relevant when you are a global brand needing to speak to a local market.
The easiest way to understand it is to recognise that, as individuals, we have a consistent voice and style of communicating, including the rhythm and pacing of our sentences. But we modify the language we use, how we use humour and even the content we share depending on our audience.
How we write to our grandparents is different to the texts we send our friends and different still to the emails and reports we write at work.
Brand voice and tone are strategy, not a tactical marketing exercise. It’s a strategic set of choices about where to play and how to win.
Your brand voice should be the embodiment of your company’s values paired with the expectations and needs of your core customer segments. And it should always consider the competitive landscape, ensuring you stand out in the right way.
Why is brand voice important?
There are four key reasons why you need to develop a strong brand voice:
1. Your brand voice makes you memorable
When done right, your brand’s voice can help you stick in people’s minds. The way you talk to your customers can have an emotive impact on them, making them feel empowered, reassured, recognised or entertained.
They’ll remember how you made them feel and that contributes to mental availability in the future. Mental availability is the extent to which your brand comes to mind when the customer encounters a buying trigger. Anything that can help keep you front of mind with customers is worth investing in.
2. Your brand voice enables consistency
Today’s consumers are moving fluidly between online and offline experiences, between devices and across multiple channels. Speaking with a consistent voice will ensure they recognise you every time they encounter you.
A strong brand voice with accompanying guidelines will also help guide your content creation between in-house and agency teams, across different geographies and different departments internally.
3. Your brand voice contributes to authenticity
A lack of trust in governments and media organisations has been growing for years, and people are looking to private enterprises to help solve the biggest challenges facing us today.
They want brands to take a stand, live up to higher values and own up to any mistakes they make. Brand authenticity – a sense of genuineness or sincerity – can lead to trust and loyalty, increase brand equity and add value to the customer experience.
Brands like Patagonia and Dove are held up as examples of authentic brands because they act in accordance with their values and take action to support their customers with the things that matter most to them.
Remember, what you say matters, but you also need to back it up with your actions.
4. Your brand voice makes you distinct
A strong brand voice can help you stand out from the competition – and that’s not just direct competitors for your product or service. It’s also competing demands for your customers’ attention in a media landscape that has exploded.
Your brand voice – the distillation of your personality and ethos – shouldn’t sound like anyone else. Look at your purpose, positioning, messaging, style and pair that with customer insights to help you find a unique way of communicating that other brands can’t copy.
How to create your brand voice
Whether you work at a new brand or you’re joining a brand and want to refine your existing brand voice, here’s how to start.
Understand your origin story
The first place to start is by looking at the ethos of the company – your vision and mission. Why was the company set up in the first place? What is the human value your company enables / offers?
Then start to look at what makes you different from the other companies in the category. How is the way you work different?
Then look at your values:
- What do they look like in practice?
- How do they come to life?
- How does it feel to be acting from a brand value?
- What does that brand value look like in the customer’s experience?
Understand your customers
Once you have a clear view of the company, it’s time to turn to market research.
You’re trying to understand what it’s like navigating the industry from your customers’ perspective:
- What are the steps they go through when exploring and evaluating options?
- What language do they use to talk about the products/services that solve their problems in this context?
- How do they feel about their situation in this context?
- Try to describe their emotional state and the levels of attention they bring to each task.
Define your brand voice
Working with key stakeholders in the business, start to work through the tactical choices of your brand voice and tone.
This is where you’ll have discussions about the style of language, your word choice, the rhythm of your sentences and other aspects affecting how you might be perceived.
Gain consensus on what you are trying to achieve with your content, and what the implications are of how you need to communicate.
For example, Mailchimp seeks to guide people through using their product in an empowering way to build their business. They do this well by ensuring their content is clear, useful and friendly.
This translates to a brand voice that is plainspoken, genuine and uses dry humour to present their technology as a useful tool.
Make decisions around how formal or informal your tone will be in different contexts, and agree where and how humour might be used. You’ll also want to find the right balance between using plain language or industry jargon.
Codify everything in your brand guidelines
Your brand guidelines should be a living, breathing document that everyone in the organisation can access. Ensuring everyone understands and uses them means you’ll be delivering a consistent brand experience whenever and wherever a customer interacts with you.
In addition to your logo guidelines, typography, colour palette and image style, you also need to explain how people within the organisation, as well as any creative or marketing partner you work with, can nail your brand tone of voice.
Our brand experts prefer using a series of dials (usually no more than three) that let the brand turn up or down a particular tone of voice, like “energetic” or “knowledgeable”.
This will allow you to match the tone and word choice to the mental state and levels of attention the customer has when they encounter your message on specific channels.
Our Head of Creative, Steve Pannett, said:
“With the ‘dials’ approach you can dial-up your ‘irreverence’ or you can dial it down, but doing the latter shouldn’t send you to the opposite end of the spectrum. To me this better mimics what we do as individuals (i.e. writing to grandparents versus texting friends), your personality remains intact but you just dial up or down depending on who you are communicating with.”
It can also be helpful to include a style guide, again to ensure consistency. This should include the grammatical rules your organisation adheres to around spelling, capitalisation, writing numbers and more, but it can also address active versus passive voice and include a list of words or phrases to avoid.
Defining your authentic brand voice and tone is a strategic activity that has huge implications for your company.
It can help you stand out in a crowded marketplace so that customers remember your brand, and codifying it in brand and style guidelines will ensure consistency across every customer touchpoint.