How to Develop a Brand Voice You Can Live With

If you read a piece of your company’s content out loud at a conference – with no introduction, and no attribution ‒ would the audience recognize it as yours?

That’s the ultimate test of a brand “voice.”

The conference challenge might be a bit unrealistic, but it’s still a worthy goal. Everything you publish should have a consistent voice.

Why? Because consistency supports trust.

Trust is everything in marketing. It’s particularly important in content marketing.

If you doubt that a consistent voice matters, consider this: If your best friend started talking like a corporate attorney, for no reason, randomly, and then at other times talked like a teenager, for no reason, randomly … would you not start wondering about them?

Would you still trust them? Enough to have them look after your house or your children? Enough to let them drive?

Brand voice versus your brand’s “look”

This idea of consistency doesn’t just exist in the editorial world. It has a parallel in design. Usually the question for designers is, “If someone had just one page of your eBook/company report/web page – and the page had no logo – could that person recognize it as your company’s simply by the design?”

Would the typeface, colors, and the layout be distinctive enough for them to recognize you?

Graphic designers often seem to have an easier time answering “yes” to that question than editorial people do answering “yes” to the conference reading question. Perhaps that’s because it’s easier to have a recognizable brand “look” than a recognizable brand “voice”?

It could be. More of us are visual learners than auditory learners. So we’re more attuned to how things look than how they sound. Or it might be that it’s just easier to recognize (and differentiate) a particular shade of blue than it is to recognize, say, a professional, upbeat tone with a sly sense of humor.

But maybe designers just have these things nailed down better. Maybe a lot of us editorial people are just coming into our brand voices randomly … kinda by trial and error. Almost by mistake.

This doesn’t have to be.

So, how do you get things to sound consistent? There are several levels to the solution:

  • Defining your company’s style and usage rules
  • Defining your company’s personality
  • Defining your company’s beliefs and worldview

Does that all sound a bit … squishy? A little too psychological?

Maybe it is, but don’t dismiss it just for that. Here’s how to dial in on your brand’s voice at each of those levels.

“Wherefore thy style primer?”… or, “Use a style book”

We editorial folk can borrow a key trick from our designer friends. It’s called a style book.

Sometimes also called “a branding guidelines book” or a “style manual,” this is a rulebook on how to use your company’s logo and all the other little design usage practices and preferences your company requires. A good guide, followed closely, lends a visual consistency to everything a brand publishes, whether the content is from the team in Los Angeles or Tokyo.

I became very familiar with a couple of these handy books back when I worked at ad agencies. They were usually printed binders, and included everything from gauzy brand descriptions to specific Pantone color codes. Some clients were more rigid about following them than others.

You, as an editorial person, can have your own version of a style book.

It could be as brief as a few pages, or heavy enough to use as a doorstop. If you want your teams to actually read it, I’d recommend making it no more than 20 pages.

Here are the sort of things a style book typically specifies and clarifies:

  • Which editorial rule of law do you follow? The Chicago Manual of Style, or The Associated Press Style Book?
  • Which industry terms are acceptable? How are they spelled? Hyphenated?
  • Can writers start a sentence with an “and”? Is it okay to have one-sentence paragraphs? Fragments?
  • Is it okay to use slang? Tell jokes? Trash people or ideas … or even disagree with them?

Don’t discount these issues as niggling details (though no editor would ever consider these things niggling). A good style book is the first step to a much more consistent voice.

Even if you can only find the time to put out a five-page style book, you’ll still be ahead of the game. And you’ll have a spiffy draft to work from as your content operation scales up.

Your company’s personality

If you’ve read about developing a brand voice before, you’ll be familiar with this exercise: Pick three words that describe your company’s brand voice.

It’s a good and necessary exercise, but it’s only a start. Here’s another good one: If your company was at a dinner party, what sort of personality would it be?

But both of these exercises can generate some blank stares around the conference table.

Know why?

Because it’s tough to define a brand (or any brand attribute) in a vacuum.

Want to make it easier? Then you need to understand positioning.

For those of you who slept through Marketing 101, positioning is, well, how you “position” your company in the marketplace. It’s how you compare and contrast yourself with other brands in your industry or niche.

The all-time best book ever about this is Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout. The examples might seem “old” to some, but the ideas are 100% current. If you have a chance, read it. It’s short.

If you don’t have time to read a full-length book, here’s how to apply this positioning idea. Instead of just starting with the “which three words best describe our brand voice?” question, first do a warm-up exercise. Pick three words to describe the brand voice for each of the following:

  • Geico
  • Beyonce
  • Verizon

Those are three seriously well-developed brands that almost everybody knows, so they tend to be a good starting point. They’ll warm up your brand-voice-defining muscles.

Next, define the personalities of your competitors. Discuss at least the three major businesses, and possibly a few more.

Finally, define your own brand’s three words. This table from Erika Heald on how she would define three attributes (it expanded into four attributes) should help:

Then write 2-3 paragraphs that describe how your content should sound. This is much easier to define after you’ve thought about how your competitors talk. It should also nudge you toward being different and distinctive … which is an excellent positioning exercise in and of itself.

You may also want to include examples. A few good models can bring a sense of concreteness and clarity to what might otherwise feel vague.

So… ahem… for example:

Our competitor A would write like this:

“Multiple pre-eminent vendors offer location data largely based on the social media activity of their audiences. This geo-tagging which is usually embedded in photographs and other user-generated content uploaded to social networks, combined with keyword and hashtag searches, permit tracking social activity within a “tile” or radius, or sometimes along a vector, of interest.”

We want to sound like this:

“We can track where your audience is based on what they’re doing on social media. By tagging photos and tracking which hashtags or search terms they’re using, we can notify you when one of your customers is near your store, or on their way to one of your events.”

Choosing these examples is a great opportunity to review your own company’s content, and to get many people’s input on what they want your brand’s voice to sound like. Just don’t go too crazy. You don’t need pages and pages of these examples. Even 3-5 paragraphs, pulled from a couple of sources, will do.

Your company’s beliefs and worldview

This sounds silly … until you really look into it.

Here’s the simplest way to approach this aspect of brand voice: Does your company believe the glass is half empty, or half full?

More specifically, does your content almost subconsciously assume that if things can go wrong, they will? … Or does your company believe that experimentation is free and should be encouraged – “don’t worry about failure, it’s healthy!”?

This worldview is so fundamental that it can – and often does ‒ align with your company’s purpose.

For instance, a security company will probably hold the worldview that the world is a little dangerous, risky, and untrustworthy. They might not be so heavy-handed as to say: “The world is a dangerous place.” But they might have a sense of humor about it, like Allstate Insurance has:


You may need to think a bit about this for a few days to really see it. You might also want to go review how your customers talk and think. The more you can align your messaging with what’s going on in their heads, the more successful that messaging will be.

Just don’t get too long-winded in your definition of this “worldview.” When you finally define it, you may spend several hours to produce just a couple of sentences. That’s good, actually – the shorter and more concise it is, the better.

If you’re in a large company that’s already done a lot of brand work, you may only have to look at its tagline. That’s often a pithy, memorable version of your company’s worldview.

If this all seems a little weird, try thinking of this as your company’s “mindset.” That might be a better way to describe this for some of you.

Whatever you call it, do try to define it, or at least give some examples of it. Otherwise, it could cost you.

Pieces of content that are misaligned with a company’s worldview often go nowhere.

I believe that a good chunk of the content that’s going unused at a lot of B2B firms (or at any company) is going to waste because it isn’t aligned with the right “mindset.” You can have a piece of content that sounds perfectly fine, meets all the keyword and length requirements, but just never quite … fits.

Often, in editorial meetings, you’ll see a symptom of this misalignment when a senior person says something like, “I just don’t like it.”

If everything else about a piece of content seems to be okay, but it’s falling flat, check to see if it’s aligned with this “worldview” or “mindset” factor. Many pieces of abandoned content have this problem.

Conclusion

Don’t make this into an isolated exercise. Once you’ve got a document that defines your brand’s voice, use it. And if you’ve got two documents – one that’s a style guide, and another that goes more into the “squishy” worldview/mindset work we discussed here – then all the better.

Send these documents to every content creator you’ve got. Agencies and freelancers. Consultants and influencers. Even (and especially) to staff who might contribute content now and again.

You might even decide to get a little playful and create a quiz to make sure everyone actually read your brand voice document/s. And understood them. And will apply them to the next piece of content they submit.

So everyone speaks with one company voice.

Back to you

Got any suggestions of your own for how to define a brand voice? Share them in the comments.

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