Establishing a clear and recognizable brand voice is an important exercise for start-ups and small businesses that want to show up in the marketplace. Not everyone makes it here, to be honest. I've worked with some brands who have no clarity. They speak in different voices, tones and messages... and it is a problem. It makes ads less effective, your website unreadable and emails super confusing. Who are you, again?
People shift from "I" to "we" or "you" without any thought (which, of course, is a grammar problem that sends shivers up my spine). Companies also tend to change their tone: one minute they're a friend, the next minute they're an expert, they next minute they're warning you about danger. This feels inconsistent and, even on an unconscious level, undermines buyer confidence.
It may feel unimportant whether you do or don't capitalize a certain word, whether you use the same fonts or what margin your headers has. Most of those things feel like a graphic designer's problem anyway, right? Well, those things are important. But this conversation goes even deeper than style. A brand guide and a brand voice are two different things.
What is a Brand Voice?
Your brand voice is what people hear when you talk. Let me say that again: a brand voice is what peoplehear when you talk. Object: people. Defining your brand voice is not primarily about you, it's about how people will perceive you.
Abrand voice is NOT the voice in your head.
I have worked with many brands and I can say, not everyone gets this. It is super easy for a start-up or small company to, by default, have the voice of the founder, owner or CEO. I can also say that this is something that can be changed. Because I write for so many different brands, I've had to become very adaptable in communicating in a way that is totally NOT my voice.
I am a young white woman with a post-graduate education who lives in a suburban environment. I have written (in FIRST PERSON) for:
A middle-aged black pastor
A Latino millionaire
A black, female spiritual leader
An IT company owner with a HEAVY Boston accent (I joke to him that I write in his accent)
A white, female body intelligence expert
Two Aussie dudes who own a CBD company
A Canadian student consulting organization
A black man who is running for government in California
To name a few.
So, communicating in a voice that is not your own is very possible. You are not limited to what you can say and how you can say it. Exercising this agility is going to be vital if you're going to establish a brand voice that gets heard.
How to Create a Brand Voice
Because a brand voice is about the audience, that's where you start. WHO do you want to hear your message? This naturally goes back to defining a buyer persona. Are you talking to:
A tired stay-at-home mom?
A millionaire investor?
A stressed-out businessman?
An elderly retiree?
An under-25 fitness fanatic?
You can see how it would be impossible (or at least wildly inadvisable) to talk to those audiences the same way. So, establish your basic audience. It can include a variety of people, for instance:
Our audience is minority females in urban areas between the ages of 25 and 45 who want to improve their self-esteem and regularly spend money in boutique salons and on beauty enhancement supplies.
Understanding an audience that way is the first step to finding your brand voice.
How to Develop a Brand Voice
Once you have a good idea of who your audience is, you need to develop a brand voice. Whether you are writing marketing materials or overseeing a marketing team, somebody has to be "in charge" of this: holding the space for what you sound like. There will be plenty of times when editing requires adjusting this, especially as you hire freelancers or independent workers who aren't as entrenched in your company culture.
First, pay attention to your own voice. What do you talk like? Most people never do this. What do you sound like? What words do you pronounce differently and how do you phrase things? Understanding the basic components that make up a voice is vital to crafting one for your brand.
Second, establish the basics:
Your Brand Personality
If your brand took a personality test, what would the results be? Maybe take one for your brand. Online, you should look at Myers-Briggs, 16 Personalities or DISC. Things that can define a brand may include:
Your Brand Tone
Tone is easier illustrated than explained. For instance, I could write the same idea many different ways:
Three out of every ten adults in the United States report that they are almost constantly online.
Did you know that three out of ten adults are online all of the time?
ALMOST CONSTANTLY. That's how often adults are online!
Nearly 30% of adults in our country are constantly online.
Constantly. All the time. Every second. Exhaustively. We're talking about adults being online.
Step away from the smartphone, people! New studies indicate that adults in the U.S. are almost always online.
How much is too much? A report shows that adults are online all day every day.
Bunch of nerds? Adults in the U.S. are "almost always" online.
Addiction in the U.S.: internet addiction skyrockets, threatening our nation's productivity and relationships
3 out of 10 Americans show signs of addiction to the internet.
Those are 10 different ways of saying essentially the same thing. Some are dark, some irreverent, some impersonal, some factual, some playful. You get the idea. Find a tone that works. Of course you will vary your tone for different platforms and deliveries, but establishing a basic, recognizable tone of voice is important.
Your Brand Language
I don't mean English versus Afrikaans. You want to get clear, especially as you grow, the kinds of words your brand will use. Some areas to address include:
Metaphors and similes
For instance, if you use a lot of comparisons, keep them consistent. You can't be an ocean one day and a valley the next. If you're going to cuss, do it the same way (with the same spelling) each time. Acronyms and abbreviations are dangerous areas, because they make customers feel like they don't know what's going on. Think about how sly, sexy or slick you want to be. Keep it simple but always always always keep it the same.
Working On Your Brand Voice
Especially for start-ups, a brand voice is a blank slate. For companies who have been around for a while, I see huge seasons of brand shifts that require intensive work to update materials and ideas. Keep in mind that brand voice is a huge component of both your internal and external culture. Speak up! And make sure that, when you do, people can hear you loud and clear.