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.

  Mission Rubber website refresh

Click to see the new website

After

Click to see original website

Before

Mission Rubber Company, Inc. is a leading global supplier of couplings, caps and other related products to the construction industry. Re-branding this 50-year old giant created an opportunity for differentiation, broader exposure and increased market share. The challenge was to reposition Mission as the industry leader, develop a brand personality, voice and new identity and create a credible brand foundation for future growth and expansion.

WordStreamCopy served as part of the team assembled by Felt Design Group to tackle this project, achieving all these goals and more. Their new online presence recently launched and the overall buzz has been electric. Distributor reps and employees alike have a renewed enthusiasm for Mission.

  Retronym revival

Taco FlavorSometimes words wear out. Those that fall out of fashion get labeled “archaic,” such as forsooth, rapscallion, or thee and thou. But other words get stuck in awkward places by change. People still want to use them, but they don’t quite mean what they did before. Enter the retronym.

Birth of a retronym

Retronyms appear when an existing word is no longer adequate to describe something. The word “analog” is a good example. No one wore an “analog watch” until digital watches came along. The miniature clock on your wrist was just a “watch.” The need to distinguish old from new also gave us analog recordings, analog signals, and analog circuits.

Here are a few more:

  • “Plain” M&M’s (now called “Milk Chocolate”) didn’t exist until 1954, when Peanut M&M’s were first introduced.
  • “Manual typewriters” were “typewriters” until electric ones were invented.
  • “British English” was just “English” until rambunctious colonists started throwing tea overboard and writing their own dictionaries.

Where retronyms come from

Changing technology creates many retronyms. “Acoustic” guitars. “Hard” copies. “Landline” — and later “flip” — phones. The term “broadcast television” was coined in response to cable and satellite television. More recently, e-commerce has given us the “brick-and-mortar” store.

But retronyms can also be used as a branding and marketing tool. One of the most famous examples is “Coca-Cola Classic,” used to re-introduce something close to the original formula after “New Coke” flopped.

Pepsi went one step further a few years ago, using “throwback” as a kind of retro-retronym. These alternate and vintage versions of their products — from soft drinks to chips — appeal both to nostalgia (“This is what it tasted like when we were kids!”) and the modern preference for real sugar over high fructose corn syrup.

Some marketers try to slap retronyms on competitors’ products when pitching new ideas. “Traditional,” “old-school,” “conventional,” and “legacy” are just a few words that can make the competition sound so last year. The same strategy can be reversed to make your own product sound cutting edge, as in “Web 2.0.”

The language it is a-changin’

From a writer’s perspective, retronyms highlight the reality that language is not a fixed or rigid thing. It’s constantly evolving to meet the needs of humanity. And while changes to structure and grammar are often slow and gradual, retronyms show how new words can appear literally overnight — transforming the way we speak, write, and even think.

And that can be a valuable tool to anyone who wants to change the conversation.

  What goes in a copy style guide?

A copy style guide doesn't need to be this complicated.Every set of brand standards should include a copy style guide to keep your writing team on track. Just as you define rules for how logos and other visual elements should be used, a style guide will help your writer(s) present your brand in the proper way.

A good copy style guide is especially useful if you’re working with multiple writers. It encourages a consistent “voice” that supports your brand strategy even if you have more work than one writer can handle.

But even if you only have one writer, it’s still a good idea to have clear standards. Freelancers and in-house writers who work on multiple brands will find it easier to stay on target. A guide helps maintain consistency over time, especially if there’s a lag between projects. Your guide will also make it simpler to bring new writers up to speed if you need to add or replace a team member.

Here are six tips for creating a great copy style guide:

Know your audience

Before you define anything else, create at least one audience persona that represents your target readers. Give this person a name, a photo, and a story that makes them seem real. If you have multiple audience segments, create a different persona for each one.

Define your style

The “voice” of your brand should complement its look by using a matching style and tone. If your logo is colorful and playful, you don’t want copy that’s stuffy and formal. A good voice should be distinctive enough that buyers will know it’s you even if they can’t see the logo. (Check out these five tips for creating an authentic voice.)

Show AND tell

Don’t just describe the type of writing you want. Back up your guidelines with specific samples. Most copy style guides include several examples of good writing that match the desired voice. Some guides also show copy that doesn’t fit the style, often followed by corrected versions. This “do this/not that” approach is especially useful when updating an existing copy strategy.

Document your quirks

Clearly spell out any style or grammar practices specific to your brand. One popular toy brand I’ve written for has a two-word name that can never be broken up by a line, column, or page break. Your writers will need to know how to deal with conflicts if your brand deviates from common grammar practices. (Should “eBay” or “iPhone” be capitalized at the beginning of a sentence?)

Depending on your brand, you might also list specific words to use (or not to use). This works best as part of a positioning strategy. For example, your brand may want to define everything it sells as “solutions” instead of “products,” or avoid terms that have strong associations with a competitor. Your guide probably isn’t the best place for SEO keyword lists, which need to be flexible enough to respond to changing market conditions and strategies.

Know your backup plan

Your guide can’t cover everything, and shouldn’t try. Instead, wrap up your playbook by designating a broader style guide as your go-to source for grammar and other style questions. Some of the most commonly used by marketing people include:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style. Published since 1906, Chicago is one of the most respected style guides used in the US. If you’re a professional editor or come from a publishing background this is probably your bible — and it’s almost as thick. It covers several different style formats and is great for squishing spiders too. Thankfully there’s also a searchable online version.
  • The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law (usually called the “AP Stylebook”) is designed for professional journalists. It includes guidelines for writing about major organizations and brands. You’ll also find useful comparisons of similar words, such as when to use “it’s” instead of “its”. AP is updated every year to stay current with changes to language, usage, and law.
  • The Business Style Handbook is specifically for people who write on the job (as opposed to journalists), based on surveys of communications executives at Fortune 500 companies. It was last revised in 2012 to add best practices for online communication.

Keep your copy style guide current

Market trends, customer needs, legislation, and even the language itself are all moving targets. Effective marketing teams review their copy style guides at least once a year, adjusting as needed to keep their messaging on target.

You’ll also want to update your guide any time your own brand objectives change. One of my clients recently realized most of their buyers were outside their target age demographic. Part of their response was to create a completely new style guide to shift their marketing focus.

  Marketing Blueprints for LinkedIn profiles

Marketing MentorIlise Benun of Marketing Mentor has unveiled the second episode of her Marketing Blueprints series, featuring Excellent Examples of LinkedIn Profiles of Copywriters and Content Strategists. While I confess I got a nice ego boost from being one of the featured “blueprints,” I also learned a lot from what my colleagues are doing. Check out the video here.

Designers — There’s no reason for you to feel left out! Ilise recently created a similar video just for you: 6 Excellent Examples of LinkedIn Profiles of Designers.

  Managing Multiple Writers

Rubber ducks in a rowHaving a writing partner who knows your business inside and out can be a great marketing asset. But what if you have more work than one writer can handle? Working with multiple writers makes the process a bit trickier, but it’s easy to manage if you have the right process in place.

Make consistency your goal

While your audience may not realize it, they expect to have the same experience every time they read something you publish. For example, if you’re serious one day and cracking jokes the next, your prospects might get confused or question your credibility.

The primary challenge when working with multiple writers, therefore, is to make sure you still “sound like you” no matter which member of your team does the writing. In fact, it’s more important for your writers to be consistent than it is for them to be clever, witty, or even brilliant. You can try to standardize your approach by having conversations with your writers, but it’s much better to have your expectations documented in writing.

Build a playbook

One of the best ways to keep multiple writers on the same page, as it were, is to set up a style guide or “playbook” that spells out what you’re looking for.

I’ll talk about what goes into a writing style guide in more detail in an upcoming post, but at a glance it should include:

  • Guidelines for the voice and tone of your brand, including who you’re writing for
  • Examples of good writing in your desired style
  • Writing examples that don’t fit your style
  • Specific words to use (or not use)
  • Any style or grammar practices you care about
  • A default stylebook for anything you haven’t covered, such as the Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Stylebook

Be generous with feedback

A good writer will eventually have an instinctive idea for how your brand should sound. It might even seem like he or she is reading your mind. Until they reach that level, the more feedback you can provide the better.

One of the most effective ways to give constructive feedback to multiple writers is to refer to the playbook, and to be as specific as possible. For example, you might suggest keywords that could be added to the copy, or indicate where the tone could be altered to emphasize the needs of a particular market segment. Don’t just say “this is wrong.” Be as specific as possible about what isn’t right, where relevant guidelines can be found in the playbook, and what could be changed to improve it.

As you give feedback, be open to the suggestions your writers come back with, especially if they work outside your organization. They may provide insights that hadn’t occurred to you. If they make sense, consider changing the playbook to accommodate them. If you’re not ready to go that far, try an A/B test to see which approach gets the best response.

  Better Industrial Brands website

bib-thumbBetter Industrial Brands is a marketing collaboration optimized specifically for B2B industrial companies in Greater Cincinnati. As a co-founder of this new venture I’m partnering with Industrial Branding Consultant Victor Frances, plus a virtual team of talented designers, writers, programmers, and other experts. Our early launch tasks have included concept development, creating a brand personality, website copy, and digital marketing.

Visit the Better Industrial Brands website.