Blog Post By: Jonathan Miller

Brand Voice: When Changing a Word Doesn’t Change a Thing


As media evolves further into an interactive endeavor and brands subsequently follow suit, they’ve come to have things expected of them. Brands are like people now, anthropomorphized to the point of behavioral traits like voice — a prerequisite to engaging in actual two-way conversation with human consumers. Now, a brand has to know not only what to say at all times, but also what to do at all times, and especially what not to do.

What’s more, as the average person is exposed to increasing amounts of media, brands face greater pressure to stand out in order to cut through. Even when a brand has a well-established voice, this effort to stand out leads many astray from the values that define them, doing more harm than good.

The goal of advertising is to connect in an earnest and meaningful way with real humans who might be interested in a brand’s product or service. To do so requires a commitment to a brand voice that rings distinctly true in an interesting way while respecting the consumer’s time and intelligence.

BRAND NOISE RISING: HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Conversation between brands and consumers was largely limited to customer service phone banks for all of marketing history until the arrival of Zuck and @Jack and their social media money train. Brands had to open profiles and act like other users and talk and answer questions — no wonder nobody was prepared for it in earnest. A new frontier, truly.

And when not engaging in conversation with consumers, however shall a brand spend its time? By shouting about its own greatness, of course! Three times a day, every day, in every channel — like clockwork. And then it snowballs: As more brands engage, the noise floor rises, and everyone begins shouting in order to cut through, reaching their brand into tired memes and desperate attempts to stand out that serve no strategic brand purpose. Diminishing returns, lost in a sea of GIFs and Beliebers — a shame, really.

So how does a brand keep from falling into that noise trap — defining a voice that is distinct, genuine, practical, and applicable for execution by different stakeholders in varied and evolving channels? By developing a point of view, looking beyond the words, defining a sphere of influence and ensuring quality at every step.

1. DEVELOP A POINT OF VIEW

When stakeholders understand that their brands are increasingly acting as publishers — creating loads of sweet, branded, biased “editorial” content — teams can start to better understand what brand voice truly is and how to distinguish themselves in a way that is representative of their values.

Take a men’s or women’s lifestyle magazine, for example. Part of the publication’s voice is the collective and individual style of its authors, sure. But it’s also about the stories the editor assigns, the weight given to a story versus a feature, and the lens through which any item is written. Everything is judged for relevance against an editorial mission, or point of view (POV), that ensures the creation of content that is relevant to the readership. This is analogous to the new approach to defining brand voice: let the mission (point of view) come first, and the words and actions will fall into place.

2. LOOK BEYOND THE WORDS

Perhaps you’ve been in a creative review and heard someone say something like, “Could we use a more aggressive word in the copy?” (insert your brand adjective of the week). The motive is genuine: trying to bring a statement more in line with the brand’s voice. But is word selection the sole variable in the execution of a brand’s voice? Not anymore.

This isn’t to say our words aren’t important (I’m a copywriter; I believe strongly in the power of language). But the words we use — that’s vocabulary. Voice is something larger.

A brand’s vocabulary is but a part of its voice; we have to further consider its POV: the lens through which our brand interprets the world and subsequently acts. Our brand personification is always on: it has to answer customer questions, create engaging content, decide if retweeting that meme will bring valuable or useless attention, figure out just what the hell this Pokémon Gothing is and if we can use it, etc. The line between speaking and decision-making has blurred. And actions speak louder than words.

3. DEFINE YOUR SPHERE OF INFLUENCE

What will help solve for POV is your existing brand collateral: Take corporate values, positioning statements, and other identifiers, then map them against topics of your industry and pop culture at large that cross, or don’t, with your brand. This can help define your sphere of influence: traits and topics that are relevant to your brand and its followers.

Take time to do this — it matters. This is the answer to every random question fielded from social media, every is-this-brand-appropriate retweet decision, every everything involving words. Everything. Define your sphere of influence.

Then, move into defining useful, actionable voice guidelines. Are you funny, direct, dry, wacky, superlative, supportive? The same positioning statements, brand pillars and the like should define this as well. If you don’t have core values or pillars or positioning then you should get to work defining them. Translate them into something active, such as “create aspiration” or “always delight” or “stay sharp.” This helps all involved understand how to execute on the point of view once it’s been defined.

4. QUALITY ASSURANCE

How many people touch and influence every piece of copy that ships for your brand? A dozen from start to finish, including agency staff that created it? More? A great many, in all likelihood. Each one drawing from their own experience and vision for the brand. And while much of that experience is extremely valuable, in practice it’s usually wildly inconsistent. The writer and creative director have their perspective. So does the brand manager. Product manager. VP of Brand Integrations. The CMO and the brand strategist and then of course the lawyers — oh, the horror, the lawyers! The point is, it’s damn near impossible to maintain a strong and consistent brand voice and POV if not all of these people are on the my-brand-makes-fart-jokes train.

Communication solves everything. Beyond the initial briefings and on-boardings, take time in reviewing collateral and tactics to check it against the principles and parameters (the mission) you’ve established. If everyone wants to partake in establishing and judging the POV, then they ought to eagerly defend the purity of its execution — objectively judging against the rubric. When sending items through legal or product review, explain how your work falls within the POV you’ve all agreed on. Not so you can influence them to approve it, but rather to provide them the context required for intelligent due diligence.

(Read our previous post where HYFN’s Director of Sales lists four ways to make some of the inherent friction between teams less abrasive)

It’s important to allow for and encourage debate on the execution of the voice, while taking care not to water it down by groupthink or inattention to that which defines the brand voice itself. It is then that our voice fails to achieve its directive: to connect earnestly with our potential and existing customers.

And that’s what’s at stake: your brand’s identity, its reputation, its standing in the eye of the consumer, and in summation, its ability or inability connect in a way that can incite action.

Take care to establish a strong and distinct POV for your brand, and take greater care in executing it efficiently — there’s no need to shout. Just be true

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