Building your brand with a distinctive voice

Digital360 on 2 November 2017

There are the obvious parts of a brand. There's the logo on a business card and the packaging of a product. But there are parts of a brand that are harder to define and get right – and harder to control.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos described a brand as "what other people say about you when you’re not in the room.” In other words, a brand is the sentiment people associate with your company. It's the thoughts and feelings when they hear a name, see a logo or use a product.

Defining and controlling the personality of a company is a major part of branding. Although the company doesn’t exist physically, it’s convenient to think as if it does. That's what a brand is, and it builds trust, familiarity and recall with consumers.

Imagine if brands changed their logo every time you went to the supermarket. Not only do you have to use mental energy searching each shelf, comparing packages, you’re also left thinking ‘is this still the same product that I liked and trusted before?’. The brand – the personality you’ve come to trust – is important in these moments.

The modern carton design for Tropicana orange juice was rejected by consumers.

The power of a brand: Tropicana returned to their old brand design (left) after their customers weren’t making the same emotional connection with a modern brand (right).

What is a brand ‘voice’? And what is tone?

First, what does brand 'voice’mean? And what’s the difference between ‘voice’ and ‘tone’?

Voice is a way of speaking – certain mannerisms, choice of words, phrasing and style. Voice is a set of broad parameters that we tend to speak in. And if a company can have a 'personality', it can have a voice, too.

Confident, bold and commanding. Polite, professional and charming. Cheeky, coy and flirtatious. These are all possible brand voices. Naturally, it’s easy to see what types of businesses these might fit – from political, corporate to consumer.

Why is defining a brand voice important? Simply put, as marketers we don’t want to break the illusion of a company's personality. If voice is inconsistent, communication is more ineffective. And without personality, a brand (or lack thereof) is much less likely to gather a following of true fans.

So if voice is how the brand speaks, then what is 'tone'? Here's a helpful analogy. Consider a music record which contains a catalogue of individual songs. While each song is distinct, they're unified by the central themes of the record. In this case, the record is the 'voice' and each song is a 'tone'.

Tone is important to get right when context is important. And this is becoming more and more important in the age of the digital consumer. In the days of advertising, variations in tone were less important – the context was always promotional. But these days, brands now operate across social media, websites and campaign landing pages. Not to mention, there's the rise of other customer interfaces such as chat bots, too.

This means a brand is speaking to audiences in more places, more often. And that means understanding not just the brand’s voice, but the various contexts and appropriate tones it should apply in each.

So what are the first steps to creating a brand’s voice?

Knowing the brand

The first step is to understand the brand. And that comes from understanding the business, its goals, products and services, as well as the market, customers and competitors.

A brand style guide with a mission statement and clear, unique selling propositions are a good place to start. A brand resource like this helps clarify the goal of the company and its unique offer to customers.

For instance, here are two example mission statements:

  • 'To organise the world’s information' (Google)
  • 'To inspire healthier communities by connecting people to real food' (Sweetgreen)

Google’s mission is one of utility – to help people get access to the world's information. The voice that works with this mission needs to be clear and accessible, but also bold and ambitious. A pinch of optimism works well too. After all, organising the world's information is a herculean task.

Sweetgreen has a local mission. The company wants to help people live healthier lives through a better choice in diet. Therefore the brand needs to be considerate, passionate and inspirational. The brand needs to signal its willingness to educate people on the benefits of quality food.

Once you have the basic building blocks of your brand, the components of brand voice can come together. Unlike a visual identity (such as colour, logos and typography), language is more difficult to codify into a set of specifications and rules. Instead, a set of tools need to be developed so that writers, salespeople and customer service representatives can easily digest and understand the right voice of the brand.

One tool to use is a simple list to describe the voice. This list highlights adjectives that show how the brand should sound and act, and then contrast them with the counterexample.

At Digital360, for instance, we aim to be professional, friendly and helpful to readers, without following hyperbole. Here is how we would try to describe our brand voice:

We are...We are not...
  • Consultative
  • Professional
  • Friendly
  • Approachable
  • Calm
  • Knowledgeable
  • Credible
  • Respectful
  • Condescending
  • Egotistic
  • Obfuscating
  • Lazy
  • Aggressive
  • Ambiguous
  • Sly
  • Flippant

Examples are always instructive, too. Here are two contrasting sentences, asking a reader to view a case study:

  1. We increased a company's profits by 1509% in just three years. View the complete strategy.
  2. INCREASE YOUR PROFITS BY 1509!! CLICK HERE for 300 secret growth hacks for Business Rockstars.

With brand guidelines in place, it's easy to know which voice is the right choice for the Digital360 brand.

Setting the style

In the world of writing, 'style' refers to the set of rules around the usage of certain words, grammar and formatting.

There are various standard takes on style, with guides like the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook being regular choices. Many brands also adopt a ‘house style’ – modifications on these styles tailored to the company's preferred way of communicating.

Why is style important? In one word: consistency. A standard of quality is upheld and a sense of uniformity is maintained across websites, products, marketing, sales and editorial. Wherever the consumer reads a message from the brand, the copywriter behind it is invisible.

Instead, the voice remains the familiar personality of the company. What’s included in a style guide?

  • A ‘word list’ of important words, such as product names and trademarks.
  • Grammar and punctuation choices.
  • Use of headings and capitalisation.
  • Use of numbers and symbols.
  • Date and time formats.
  • Use and formatting of lists.
  • Quotation and referencing styles.

Many of these are covered in a standard style guide, such as Chicago and AP. Smaller organisations may choose to reference one of these guides, along with a choice in dictionary. Popular choices in Australian dictionaries include the Macquarie Dictionary and the Australian Oxford Dictionary.

The real key to a style guide is its ability to be referenced. While a style guide is good for documenting decisions, it’s useless if these are not used. Too often, style guides get buried in a lonely folder filed away on a hard drive or gather dust in a forgotten office corner.

How can you make sure that your style guide is easily used? For some businesses, this may be a book or print out, given to all relevant stakeholders to keep close at hand. For others, it may be a PDF. Increasingly for many, it’s using an online service, such as GatherContent. Even a Google document may work well for some organisations.

However the guide is stored, it needs to be easy to find, navigate and share with a range of stakeholders –from agency professionals to writers and salespeople.

Identify context

For branding to be effective, it needs to set the right tone across every consumer ‘touchpoint’. In the fragmented digital age, this is challenge. Here are all the places a customer can encounter a company and its brand:

  • Website (both mobile and desktop)
  • Social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter)
  • Media and PR
  • Apps and software
  • Messenger/chatbot
  • Customer service phone
  • Email
  • Advertising (Print, television, radio, online display)

The message needs to be tailored to the context of the audience, including the tone of the message. An error message should be different in tone to a welcome message. A promotional email is different to an online display ad. Even a social media post on Facebook could be vastly different to a post on LinkedIn.

What is a good framework for delivering the right tone at the right time? MailChimp, an email marketing service, sets the standard for tone guidelines.

MailChimp approaches the task by considering the emotional state of the user. Are they relieved or joyful? Curious? Or are they frustrated and angry? Each of these states has an appropriate way to approach the message – even if the message is in the same voice.

Consider how the message might change according to user emotions, and use an appropriate positive, neutral or a serious tone in response. Here is a simple framework to consider:

Use a...Positive toneNeutral toneSerious tone
When users are...

Happy

Confident

Optimistic

Curious

Interested

Passive

Sceptical

Cautious

Bored

Confused

Stressed

Frustrated

Is it possible to test voice and tone?

It's always a good approach to test ideas where possible. And while voice and tone seem like a subjective concept, there are still ways to get feedback and make sure it's the right match for your brand.

First, you can try testing using both qualitative and quantitative methods. These days, tone analysers are also available. While analysers won't give you any preferential judgements, they can be used to measure whether your voice or tone matches your brand.

Customer research

  • First click and preference tests – First click tests are a common usability testing tool. In the test, the participant indicates what they would click on first on an interface, such as a website or software product. Preference tests present the user with two options, allowing the user to select their preferred option. These tests can reveal message resonates the most with the consumer.
  • Card sorts – Card sorting can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of various messages and ones. In a card sorting session, participants organise cards into categories that make sense to them. This reveals how people think about your business, products and brand.
  • Split tests – The use of an A/B test can also test message variations with quantitative data. By using a targeted advertising campaign on Google or Facebook to direct audience traffic can reveal which variant of copy and messages resonate with customers. This could be either a landing page or running two ad variants and comparing the results.
  • Asking customers– Of course, there are also other ways to get feedback such as interviewing or surveying customers. This is part of building up your brand and why your customers choose you – then distilling key messages and USPs that are most effective.

Tone analysers

Is your voice coming across as you intended? In the past, finding out the answer to this question would have meant hours of reading material and assigning subjective scores to the suitability of the content.

However there are modern machine learning services that can analyse natural language for tone and sentiment.

One tool is IBM Watson’s Tone Analyser. This tool can take input text or a URL to break down content into various sentiment categories, such as ‘angry’, confident’ or ‘analytical’. According to the company, 'IBM selected a set of 53 tones from the tone dimensions used in marketing, the dimensions used to describe writing styles, and emotion and personality scales from psychology.'

Tone analysis for the SpillPro brand is confident and analytical Here is an example snippet of copy from the home page of an industrial manufacturing company:

'It's been more than 40 years since we entered the market. In that time, we've been known by many different names. But we've always maintained the same objective – to help our customers manage spills, oil containment, parts cleaning, waste incineration, and worksite safety and hygiene.'

The tone analyser suggests this content is most likely to be ‘confident and analytical’. This is an appropriate tone for this brand, given the B2B market and the technical background of the target audience.

Tone analysis for the AceKarts brand is confident and joyous As another example, here is homepage copy from a Melbourne outdoor entertainment provider:

"Outdoors. Under glowing floodlights. In the rain. Our track captures the excitement of real racing. And it means you'll race exactly as the racing gods intended – in all conditions. A series of intensifying bends will test the limits of your cornering skills. And a 105m straight will push your kart to its capacity."

Although this copy was written by the same copywriter, the tone here is distinctly different. It's still confident, but it's more exciting and vivid for the reader, who is likely to be a thrill seeker. The analyser judges this copy as confident and joyful.

Governance: How to keep a consistent brand voice

So, now you have your brand’s voice. You’ve figured out how and when to respond to readers with the right tone. You’ve even run some tests and analysis to see whether your voice hits the mark.

But all this could be for nothing without proper governance in place.

‘Governance’ is a key part of content strategy. It's the tools and systems in place that ensures content is accurate, up-to-date, approved – and adhering to brand guidelines, such as voice.

What are the tools of governance?

We’ve already talked about the need for style and brand guidelines. In summary, a comprehensive toolkit for your brand will include:

  • A brand style guide, including colour and logo usage.
  • Editorial guidelines, such as tone and voice usage.
  • A style guide, such as grammar and formatting rules.

Often brand and editorial guidelines can be integrated. For instance, some brands like Skype have created a comprehensive brand guide that includes the use of its assets but is also written in the style and voice of the brand. However, like in the Mailchimp example, these guides may be separate too.

The most important thing is that guidelines are clear and readily accessible to the stakeholders who need them.

What are the other aspects of governance?

While not just related to the tone and voice of a brand, consideration must be made for other aspects of content governance in order to maintain consistency. For instance:

  • How are guidelines enforced?
  • Who is in charge of brand and content?
  • Where is content being published? And by whom?
  • What are the systems of approval?

These are broad content strategy questions, but worth considering. A content strategist can advise on the best ways to not only build up the tools for brand voice, but manage the systems around the content, too.

What are the next steps in your brand?

Can’t get started with your brand? Need a copywriter or content strategist to untangle and wrangle your digital content? Then speak to Digital360, experts in Melbourne on digital strategy, including digital marketing, copywriting and content.

Contact a Melbourne digital specialist to talk about your business's branding needs.