This essay originally was published on February 9, 2023, with the email subject line "CT No. 154: Hello? Yes, it's brand voice calling."
As a content creator and consultant, I can’t count the number of times that I’ve asked clients for brand voice guidelines when stepping into a new project only to receive a PDF file full of brand colors, icons, padding rules — endless pages of direction.
Yet only a single page is devoted to the brand “voice.” Rather than containing tangible, actionable information, it is filled with empty platitudes. This page says things like: “our brand is bold, unique, and really human,” never taking the time to define what these words mean in context, why they’re important, and how to ensure content creators can execute the brand voice consistently across multiple channels.
Brands that don’t devote enough space to their voice and tone typically fall into two camps:
- Those who rely so completely on brand visual identity that they fail to understand how important the voice and tone are to the user’s experience.
- Those who don’t think of themselves as a “brand” because the term evokes product branding or the consumer purchasing experience.
The gap between brands with a distinctive, cohesive, voice that seems to effortlessly attract customers and the disjointed experience of brand voice neglect, exists in understanding what a brand really is.
Who or what is a brand? How does a brand speak?
A brand can be the obvious: a corporation, or product. But it can also be an entity or person. So brands include not only big companies like Target or Apple, not just branded products like Nike or Kleenex (quite the brand story there).
A brand is every entity that engages publicly. Universities have a brand, media companies have a brand, small businesses, influencers, and writers all have a brand. In fact, by writing this piece, I am shaping my personal brand.
If you don’t think you need to dedicate attention to your brand, you’re not alone. Even the smartest, most well-meaning people overlook the importance of branding, until they don’t. When my husband first opened a men’s clothing store, I tried to talk to him about building a brand voice. He had an immediately visceral reaction to this, basically calling it “corporate speak.” He wanted his store to be an “authentic experience” and dismissed the notion of a crafted brand voice as a gimmicky ploy for attention anyone with common sense would dismiss.
Flash forward five years: He’s openly struggling with the copy his team developed. He spends more time rewriting his team’s copy than putting energy into the work he needs to focus on. With a nudge, I remind him that a brand voice guide could help. It’s like he’d forgotten the argument of years ago. Immediately, he says, “Yes!”
Because without a defined brand voice guide, he risked alienating his core audience, ones with whom he had worked so hard to build a relationship. With a brand voice guide, both customers —and personal relationships in this case—are reaffirmed.
The impact of an authentic brand voice
The way a brand sounds is as important as how it looks. At its simplest, a brand voice is a consistent way to convey your brand’s message to your audience. It’s how they know it’s “you” when they interact on social media or read an email. A defined voice is critical for those who rely on reader-assisted devices and can’t access your visual identity. More than a logo or a tagline, voice reflects your company in any physical or digital interaction.
When put into thoughtful practice, a brand voice establishes an “entity” for the company with which anyone interacting can have a conversation. The sound of the brand forms the basis of a trustworthy relationship between your company and your audience.
Without clear guidance, consistency and success is challenging. Defining brand voice with intangible concepts makes it impossible for content authors to deliver a consistent, seamless experience. If guidance is limited to vague terms like “bold, unique, really human,” each content creator may interpret differently. Instead of a unified approach, chaos ensues, with drastically different representations across a brand’s various channels.
At best, failing to provide voice guidance results in a disjointed and jarring audience experience. You risk confusing or completely alienating your customers. Bad “takes” and thoughtless social posts or marketing stunts can diminish trust. At the other extreme, lacking any personality whatsoever and failing to connect or resonate with anyone in your audience can be just as harmful.
How to build an authentic brand voice that reaches your ideal audience
1. Start with what defines your brand
Your brand voice should ladder up to your vision. Vision is a springboard for the values that naturally fit with the voice and personality you want to achieve.
Your Mission, Vision, Values statements likely already exist. If they don’t, spend time and research with your potential and current customers. A brand voice begins with the type of relationship and experience you want to create. It speaks to the customer in a voice that reflects their experiences.
2. Have a conversation with your customers
Audiences want an authentic brand experience, one that represents the humans that built the company. Let’s depart from platitudes and get into the heart of what your audience wants.
As much as possible, conduct user research to identify the specific way your audience wants to interact with your content. Understand what attracts audiences to your brand and content. Get a sense of what they consider relatable personalities and experiences. Test words to see what works and what causes a negative reaction.
“Friendly” and “personable” have different meanings depending on the vertical. If you are a restaurant, for instance, more playful language might resonate. If your business is in tax accounting, your user may want a straightforward voice, developed by speaking concisely, avoiding ambiguity with failed attempts at humor.
Once you have a sense of the way your voice should sound, try product-reaction testing to pinpoint how you can flex the tone of your voice. An excellent example of this was an experiment documented by Nielsen Norman Group (NNG). The study defines four key tone of voice dimensions for quantifiable research on the brand voice qualities:
- funny versus serious
- formal versus casual
- respectful versus irreverent
- enthusiastic versus matter-of-fact.
Use NNG’s four dimensions with your customers to refine your foundation so you can come away with a strong playbook for your final brand voice guidelines.
3. Define the guiding principles for your brand voice and create your style guide.
Get into the details! Give examples that make your brand style guide useful to your content authors. Demonstrate how your voice can flex across different content types (e.g., a press release versus a social media post) while maintaining true to the principles you have spent time defining and refining.
A brand voice guide doesn’t have to be over-manufactured to be useful and usable to your content creators. Take, for example, the Tone and Voice guide of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. They define six guiding principles for their tone and voice: Collaborative, Creative, Rigorous, Determined, Genuine, and Progressive. For each, they offer writing types, insight into how principles are used across content types, and occasionally even direct guidance over words to use or avoid.
A few other great examples include:
- MailChimp goes above and beyond, simultaneously offering guidelines alongside training and best practices
- Greenpeace understands the importance of the foundational personality and the mechanics that make sure every content author has the information they need to maintain a consistent brand experience.
- Monday.com uses the ever-helpful Do and Don’t list to easily guide content authors.
Once you have your Brand Voice defined, there are three basic steps to success.