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.

  Photoshop team unveils “Living History Brush”

San Jose-based Adobe Systems has announced the addition of the Living History Brush, an innovative new tool for its Photoshop image editing software. The brush is specifically designed to simplify the retouching of images taken at historical reenactments.

“The Living History Brush is the first in what we hope will be an ongoing series of market-specific image editing tools,” said Shantanu Narayen, Adobe president and chief executive officer. “It’s a creative spin-off of the same technologies behind the Clone Stamp and the Content-Aware Fill feature, but optimized for images that demand complete historical authenticity. And today that Photoshop magic is available to millions of users, thanks to Adobe Creative Cloud.”

The Living History Brush automatically eliminates modern elements such as power lines, airplanes, mobile phones and even hairstyles by substituting historic equivalents or removing them with content-aware retouching. The initial release of the brush includes presets for the American Revolution, War of 1812, and American Civil War. Additional eras, including Renaissance England and ancient Rome, are scheduled to be added in the next 3-6 months.

This stunning before and after comparison shows the Living History Brush in action.

This stunning before and after comparison shows the Living History Brush in action. (Photo: G. Smith)

“This will be a huge time-saver for both the design and the reenactment communities,” says Albert Roberts, a freelance graphic designer who also portrays a 19th-century British navy surgeon for HMS Acasta, a living history organization. “There’s nothing worse than getting a great shot of your reenacting buddies in painstakingly reconstructed uniforms, only to discover that someone was texting on his iPhone in the background.”

The details of the technology are proprietary, but Adobe has indicated that it combines specialized algorithms with databases of historical artifacts from leading museums, historic sites and academic partners, including the Smithsonian, the National Portrait Gallery, Colonial Williamsburg, and Japan’s Kobe Fashion Museum.

The new brush is available to Creative Cloud users in the latest update of Photoshop CC, released this morning.

Narayen declined to comment on what other industries Adobe has under consideration, but widespread speculation on user forums suggests specialized brushes for healthcare, finance, and the hospitality industry could follow in the next 12 months if response to the Living History Brush is favorable.

The Living History Brush is an utterly bogus figment of Tom’s imagination. Happy April Fool’s Day!

  13 traits of a great ghostwriter

Ghostwriter's-keyboardOctober is the month of goblins, ghouls, and my favorite phantom—the “ghost” writer. While skeptics dismiss them as skeletons in the closet, ghostwriters are in fact friendly spirits who bridge the yawning chasm between people with great ideas and the arcane craft of writing.

If you’re contemplating a pact with one of these ghostly scribes, the best way to avoid getting spooked is to be mindful of these 13 observable phenomena, which separate merely grisly phantoms from the ranks of the supernatural.

  1. Discretion—Responsible ghosts respect the privacy of their clients before, during, and into the afterlife of your project. While they may advertise ghostwriting services, they won’t reveal Secrets Men Were Not Meant to Know unless they have prior permission to do so. Your best hope is to seek referrals from those who’ve had prior encounters.
  2. Versatility—Your ghost should possess the ability to write in your voice, adapting his or her style to match your own. A skilled ghost will eventually develop a paranormal ability to channel your style—to the point that you may wonder which of you actually wrote a particular passage. (Whether this qualifies as ESP remains open to debate.) Wise apparitions recognize that a key part of this process is a willingness to respond to constructive criticism without losing one’s head. If the two of you disagree, it’s okay for the ghost to make a case for her way, but ultimately you always have the right to say “no, never in life would I say such a horrid thing!”
  3. Humility—Ghosts work from the shadows, leaving their clients to bask in the bright light of day. If the ghost’s name appears in public at all, it’s in smaller type below the client’s name. This is the nature of the business, so anonymity shouldn’t give your writer chills.
  4. Initiative—You don’t need to be haunted by the responsibility of keeping your project alive. Look for a self-starting specter who will keep it moving relentlessly forward until it meets its ultimate fate.
  5. Follow-through—Many clients who use ghostwriters are “idea people” who work best with partners who excel at execution. Your ghost should have a proven ability to meet dead-lines.
  6. Curiosity—A ghost who takes an interest in the mortal world will be more open to the ideas and perspectives of others, making it easier for them to see things through your eyes (figuratively, that is). It’s a good sign if your ghost asks a lot of insightful questions, such as: “What types of beings do you wish to make contact with?”, “Did you always want to be a vampire?” or “Is this haunted room actually stretching?”
  7. Interviewing skill—Professional ghosts have a knack for putting you at ease while they unearth details of interest to your readers that might not have occurred to you otherwise. Of course this doesn’t mean you have to reveal Secrets Men Were Not Meant to Know—if something comes up that could threaten the world as we know it, inform your ghost that it’s off the record (see item #1).
  8. Category experience—If your publication requires specialized or technical knowledge, it’s helpful to have a ghost who’s already somewhat familiar with your specialty—or at least a Jack-O’-Lantern of all trades who’s dabbled in your field. For example, if you want to write a book on the use of lightning to animate artificial humans crafted from the bodies of the dead, the process will take much less time if your writer already has a basic understanding of anatomy, meteorological phenomena, and common laboratory equipment.
  9. Organizational skill—Assembling thoughts and ideas in a compelling way is a useful skill for any writer, but it’s especially important for ghosts. It can be a frightfully complicated task to reassemble the many items of lore from the various notes, interviews, and other sources your writer will spend hours poring over in his lair or local coffeehouse.
  10. Judgement—Ghost writing requires a good sense for what will lure your readers and what should be left unsaid.
  11. Respect—Working with a ghost requires you to entrust someone else with your voice and reputation. That’s a grave responsibility that can easily leave you feeling vulnerable. If the thought of revealing your personal thoughts to a particular writer leaves you with a sense of lingering dread, it’s probably a good idea to try a different ghost. (Hint: Pay close attention to the background music.)
  12. Self-awareness—Truly objective apparitions must recognize the difference between their own ideas and opinions and those of their clients. When the two conflict they must be willing to take the client’s path, even if it seems a bit otherworldly.
  13. Enthusiasm—Don’t settle for a hazy revenant who just goes through the motions. Your project should excite and inspire your ghost, encouraging him or her to manifest the true spirit of your ideas.

  9 Marketing Lessons from 1812

erie-jibOr: “All I really need to know about marketing I learned from Commodore Perry.”

(with apologies to Robert Fulghum)

All I really need to know about how to write and motivate readers to take action I learned by participating in the 200th anniversary re-creation of the Battle of Lake Erie in 2013. (Need a quick history refresher? Check out the 90-Second Know-it-All’s humorous recap of the event.)

These are the things I learned:

  • Use prevailing winds to your advantage by knowing what your customer really needs and wants.
  • Make sure everyone is willing to follow the battle plan before you set sail.
  • Positioning is everything.
  • Great victories sometimes require risk-taking. If choppy waters make you seasick, keep your eyes on the horizon.
  • Don’t give up the ship—though it might be prudent to change ships if the one you’re on is sinking.
  • You can’t change course quickly without good sailors, even if your navy has more ships than anyone else.
  • The biggest competitor can be outmaneuvered by an energetic young upstart.
  • And then remember the Aubrey/Maturin books and their timeless lesson — Lose not a minute!

And it is still true, no matter how many years you’ve been sailing, when you go out on the lake, it is best for all the ships in the line to stick together.

Wednesday, September 10 marked the 201st anniversary of the battle.

  “Seeds for Change” promo

seeds-for-change-iconAnother whimsical promotion for Cause Farm Creative, featuring a slingshot and a pair of “seed bombs.” The fine print reads: “Please don’t shoot anyone’s eye out—and use the slingshot only for good.” (Click the image to see the full copy block.)

  Dripp website

Dripp-thumbWhen this new coffee and ice cream franchise launched in Chino Hills, CA, they needed a website that conveyed both the quality of the product and a playful sense of fun.

  “Little Bag of Do-Goodness”

Bag-thumbThis fun little Earth Day promo for Cause Farm Creative is one of those reusable shopping bags that can be rolled up into a ball small enough to fit into a pocket or purse. My role was to write the tag copy and help brainstorm a name for the promo. Click the image at right to see larger images, including both sides of the tag.

  Cold Calling Bingo Card

Cold-Calling-Bingo-ThumbJust for fun, this whimsical Bingo card was created as a resource for readers of the Creative Freelancer Blog (alas, no longer being published) and freelancers everywhere. Use it on your own or challenge another freelancer to see who can get a row first. Better yet, see who can cover a full card! Just don’t get so involved in the game that you’re disappointed when the person you’re calling is actually interested in hiring you. Click the image at right to download the PDF version.

  Juve Creative “Tourist Guide”

juvTourists have guidebooks for great travel destinations, so why shouldn’t the hospitality industry have a guide to profitable tourists? Published during the economic downturn, this whimsical B2B bait piece identified eleven emerging tourist types with advice on how to attract and keep their business.