I know that (brand) voice…

Brand voice in actionDriving home down I-71 a few months ago, I looked out the window and chuckled. Standing in an open field was a lonely billboard asking: “Does this board make my ad look big?”

There was no phone number. In fact, there was no other copy at all. The tiny logo below the board was barely visible. But I knew exactly who had written it. How? The brand voice.

While there are a lot of great reasons to make people laugh at marketing copy, a joke that’s “too good” can easily outshine everything else on a billboard. But in this case it works, because the advertiser — Lamar — is known for snarky messages like this one.

Can the reader tell it’s you even if they can’t see your logo or design? That’s the ultimate test of brand voice. But how do you “craft” a voice for your organization? The key thing is to make sure your organization speaks in a way that appeals to your audience. Here’s a handy list of characteristics to consider.

Brand voice development checklist

  • Attitude — What’s your brand’s approach to life? Does it have a sense of adventure, or would it prefer to stay home watching TV? For example, many handyman brands (Lowes, Home Depot) try to present a “can do” attitude. Coke, Pepsi, and most alcohol brands want to be around when you’re relaxing or having fun.
  • Traits — What characteristics does your brand have? Is it helpful and friendly? Cynical and confrontational? Many brand voice descriptions include a short list of traits ranging from level of expertise (“XYZ brand is an expert in widget defenestration”) to communication style (“Bobbie Brandvoice never talks down to customers who have questions about installation.”) Sometimes traits are simply listed (“HealthBrand Q is effective, thoughtful, caring, compassionate, and understanding”).
  • Values — What’s most important to your brand? Protecting the environment? Making a tough job easier? Influencing the next election? While most items on this list shape how you “talk” in print, values help you identify what to talk about.
  • Formality — How casual is your brand? Brands that want to be hip and cool often cultivate a “laid-back” tone. Medical, legal, and financial services are typically at the opposite end of the spectrum. Hotels, restaurants, and the like often fall somewhere in between, adjusting their level of solemnity to the type of business they want to attract.
  • Humor — Is your brand funny? This tends to make your band tilt toward the informal, but not in every case. Some brands are serious in traditional channels, but let their hair down a bit on social media. For an excellent example, check out the Merriam-Webster Twitter feed.
  • Education level — Did most of your buyers go to college, or are they high-school dropouts with a knack for taking things apart? Your brand voice needs to talk on their level. Aim too low and they’ll feel like you lack the proper expertise, or worse, are insulting their intelligence. Go over the top and you can come off sounding arrogant, pretentious, or condescending. This is especially tricky if you’re dealing with multiple related audiences, such as architects and general contractors. In such cases, it’s often worth segmenting your message for each set of readers.
  • Word choices — There’s often more than one way to say the same thing. You can “implement a scalable solution to expedite the elimination of excess vegetation on the enterprise campus,” but it’s usually a lot less effort just to “cut the grass.” Be particularly clear about how you will handle words that create “in” and “out” groups, such as industry jargon or slang. These can make you sound knowledgable and trendy to the right people — if you use them properly — but they can also come back to bite you by confusing potential buyers or making your copy sound dated. When in doubt, stick to words that communicate clearly and quickly. Will your brand use contractions (I’ve, isn’t, he’d, etc.)? If so, does your brand use informal ones like “ain’t” or even “y’all?”
  • Sentence length — Character limits in texts and Twitter posts aside, sentence length influences how “fast” your copy seems to read. Shorter sentences seem quick and punchy. Good for billboards or creating tension. Longer sentences seem to take, well, longer, to deliver their content, which can be good if you want to sound scholarly, clinical, scientific, or otherwise brainy.
  • “Pagans” — No, I’m not talking about your wiccan customers. The term in this sense was coined by Patrick Hanlon in the book Primalbranding to describe people who are wrong for your brand. You don’t have to cater to your pagans, and can actually create a closer relationship with your buyers by poking fun at them.
  • Make up your own stuff — “Finger-licking good,” “drinkability”, “uncola,” and the ill-fated “Fahrvergnugen” are just a few examples of phrases and made-up words associated with specific brands (with varying degrees of success).

Summing up: documenting the brand voice persona

What ultimately makes a “brand voice” is when your organization agrees on where it stands on each of these points, and — most importantly — documents those decisions. That way they can be implemented consistently, over and over, by everyone who writes for you. Even outside providers like freelancers can match your voice reliably if they know the “rules” it lives by.

An easy way to jump-start this process is to ask this question: if your brand were a person, what would he or she be like? If you’re in the design business, you might envision your brand as a slick hipster in tune with all the latest trendy fashions. On the other hand, if you sell tools for fixing industrial machinery, your persona is probably wearing blue jeans and driving a pickup truck.

One agency I write for designs each brand voice in this way. The end result is a lot like a customer persona, complete with a name, photo, and distinguishing characteristics. This might be the founder of the company, a spokesperson prominent in the organization’s marketing, or a fictional character who’s only used in-house. It’s a useful exercise whichever option you choose.

Do you know your organization’s brand voice? If not, try defining it now. Having clear, documented guidelines about how your organization “talks” will make everything you write easier to create, more consistent, and — if you do your job right — a lot more recognizable.

Even if we can’t see your logo.

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