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Finding Your Brand Voice (Without Losing Your Mind)

If your brand doesn’t have a solidified voice and tone, your customers are probably confused. Joel Klettke sheds light on how to standardize your brand guidelines and choose the right voice and tone for every occasion.

How can you find the right tone and voice for your targeted personas? It’s a question that has caused more than its fair share of hair-pulling, so we’re going to tackle it right here and now.

First, I’ll highlight a few of the mistakes and biases even savvy brands succumb to so that you can identify and avoid them. From there, I’ll delve into smarter ways of going about the process and share tools and ideas you can use to not only find the right tone and voice for your customers, but test the content you’ve already created.

Sound intriguing? Then let’s not waste time.

A Quick Refresher

When we talk about “Voice,” we’re talking overall verbal personality of your brand. Regardless of the tone used, your brand’s voice needs to be consistent, authentic and credible, even across audiences.

Tone is not the same as voice. It can change depending on the audience you’re addressing.

“Tone is an adjective brought to life.”  – Joanna Wiebe, Copy Hackers

Tone is the implicit qualities of “Romantic,” “Nerdy,” “Goofy” or even “Surly” verbally expressed as appropriate for the situation and audience. Quoting Joanna further, tone should “enact the value your visitors desire.” What your customers expect and want to receive, that’s what tone should convey – whether trustworthiness, entertainment or guidance.

4 Major Reasons Brands Fail at Tone & Voice

greetings

1. We’ve Been Rewarded for the Wrong Things

In this piece, Amy Harrison makes a brilliant point: For most of us, our only exposure to writing “training” comes from the papers and essays we write at school and the corporate memos we pen at work. Trouble is, these avenues tend to reward very specific formatting and re-hashes of facts.

In other words, we’re used to being graded on a scale that doesn’t reflect real-world, two-way communication. The takeaway: Brand communication is a conversation, not a monologue. The rules you were forced to abide by can be bent and often no longer apply.

2. Documentation is Boring… and Crucial

Only a few strange people get their kicks from sitting down and writing up branding and style guides.

But as soon as you enter a scenario where more than one person has a say, you’re bound to get multiple interpretations of what’s on brand/appropriate and what isn’t. After all, there are a million ways to be “friendly,” so without documentation to point to, people will write according to their whims.

Inconsistency is the most notorious serial killer of voice. Your customers no longer know what to expect when they interact with you and have nothing to latch on to; your brand is unpredictable and schizophrenic.

3. Dissonance Creates Distrust & Destroys Credibility

Have you ever seen a traditionally conservative brand suddenly try to come off as “hip”? Or maybe you’ve seen a hilarious commercial, only to hit the brand’s website and be treated to stock photography and more corporate-speak than a board meeting. It’s painful – like hearing your Dad start throwing around “YOLO.”

This happens because someone recommended the brand needed to “change their image” without:

A) Taking stock of how the brand was already perceived, and

B) Enforcing that change across every communication channel.

A consistent voice needs to permeate every level of your communication (i.e. website, brochure, commercials, etc.)  and tie into the rest of your “brand experience” (visuals, product packaging, social media accounts and so on) or you risk creating a dissonance between how you present yourself and what you actually are.

4. When “Clever” Trumps “Effective”

It’s easy to fall in love with ideas that seem cute or clever – even when they don’t make any sense for your brand. We tend to hold our ideas close and block out rational arguments against them. Though it sounds obvious, focus on a voice that works, then find ways to be clever with it.

Knowing the dangers, here’s how you get past them:

Finding the Right Voice & Tone

Start With a Test to Find Your Adjective(s)

adjectives

You might want to be perceived a particular way – but what matters more is how you’re actually perceived by customers. This is something you can easily test – just ask new customers (as briefly as possible) what few words they’d use to describe your brand.

You might do this in a follow-up e-mail and present them with a select few options – just be careful not to bias the poll. You can also work off of existing knowledge – for example, if you know your brand already feels “funny,” you can dig deeper into this vertical (goofy, sharp, quick-witted) instead of presenting totally new ones (friendly, dependable, professional, etc.) – hat-tip to Joanna again on that one.

This discovery work will help you narrow down and identify your current “adjective” (remember our definition of tone above?), giving you a place to launch from.

Do a Little Introspection

Looking inward is a good way to discover ideas and limitations for voice and tone.

  1. What do you stand for? Your values will shape your messaging (the content of what you’re trying to convey with voice and tone), which in turn will shape the way you try to send that message. If you’re trying to compete on service, your tone needs to line up with that offering.
  2. How do you communicate internally? This question is hugely important for credibility and authenticity. It’s not about your corporate memos – but how do you and those around you engage one another on a day to day basis? The most convincing voice will be a natural extension of the way your team already communicates. Use this to test your content: if the face you show to the world is way different than the people you are behind the desks, your brand may be coming off fake.
  3. What are you trying to accomplish with the writing? Define the goal of the asset you’re writing for. There’s a marked difference in how we speak when educating vs. closing a sale or when we’re trying to entertain an audience.

Now that you have a sense of your brand’s “self,” we can look at how to apply that to communication with your audience.

Catering Your Tone: Create Customer Personality Snapshots

customer personality

Amy Harrison highlights this method for developing the right tone, and I think it’s a good one – but I’ve supplemented it with some smart ideas from Six Revisions. In your customer snapshot, you want to capture the following about your customer persona:

1.What are their demographics? (Age, location, and so on)

2. What is their role? (e.g. CFO, engineer, busy mom, trendsetting teen, etc.)

3. What key personality traits will influence the conversation? (e.g. no-nonsense, nervous, excitable)

4. What are they looking for from you? (e.g. reassurance, proof, comfort, guidance)

With that established, a little eavesdropping goes a long way:

5. How do your customers talk to one another? If you want to build affinity with your customers, you need to speak their language. Do your customers speak to each other in formal terms, or are they more relaxed? What makes their ears perk up – and what might leave them rolling their eyes?

And one last very important question:

6. If this were a face-to-face interaction, how would you talk to them? In face-to-face interactions, we tend to already know how we would present ourselves – and it’s about more than just word choice. We can gauge when humor is appropriate, when to break down complex topics, when to get straight to the point and when to do a bit of tugging at the ol’ heartstrings. We learn the right words to use to evoke a desired emotion. We discover when to use long, explanatory sentences – and when to excite listeners with short, punchy phrases that drum up adrenaline.

By reflecting carefully on these interactions, you can start to build out tones that meet the customer where they’re at in a way appropriate to the relationship and situation:

Here’s a few snapshot examples:

Who is the customer? Demographics Personality Traits What are they looking for? How do they talk to each other? How would I talk to them face to face?
First-Time Investor 25 – 30; urban & sub-urban Nervous, cautious, excited, opportunistic Guidance, reassurance, trustworthiness, to feel in control Relaxed (but not informal), instructional, sharing successes Jargon-free, break down complex concepts, friendly & upbeat, use convincing facts and numbers, avoid rambling
High-End Jewelry Shopper 35 – 60+; urban Unrushed, affluent Status, exclusivity, reassurance, ego-stroke Casual language, admiration, ego-boosting, one-upmanship Heavy on descriptors (appearance important), focus on “feeling,” longer and unrushed sentences
ESL Student of Online English Class 30 – 50; international Shy, uncertain, determined Guidance, simplicity, patience, understanding (Assuming in English): Careful, clear language, friendly but cautious Simple language with repetition, focus on encouragement and positive reinforcement

Set Some Helpful Boundaries

You’ve defined your goals. You’ve got your “adjectives.” You’ve got a snapshot of the customer you want to reach. And… you’re not done yet!

As Ailsa Partridge notes in this awesome piece, adjectives are great, but they’re also really subjective. You’ve got to rope in those wild stallions with some clear guidelines.

An easy way to do this is with “X, but not Y” statements, for example:

  • Friendly, but not informal
  • Loud, but not obnoxious
  • Young, but not immature
  • Fun, but not irreverent
  • Simple, but not dumbed down

These statements combined help to paint a better picture of what is appropriate for the brand and are invaluable tools for writers.

You can flesh these out further with “Does Mean” and “Doesn’t Mean” statements, for example:

Tone: Energetic
Does mean:
Upbeat: Convey passion and excitement with selective use of action-orientated adjectives. Does reading this make you feel enthusiastic about the offering/reading further?

Informal: Don’t drown the moment in jargon; don’t make the customer have to think or pull out a dictionary.

Doesn’t mean:
Excitable: Don’t overuse exclamation marks or capital letters trying to make a point.

Exaggerated: Don’t use hyperbolic, hard-to-believe statements

These kinds of specifications give writers parameters for expressing your message without going overboard or off-course; they are critical for ensuring consistency across pieces and writers.

A Few Parting Words

The above should help you narrow down your voice/tone and put you in the right frame of mind for crafting content in line with your personas.

If you think you’ve nailed it, A/B test it wherever appropriate – but don’t test different tones within the same piece (i.e. interject a highly casual moment in an otherwise stiff-collared piece).

Be careful about mimicking the successful voice and tone of a competitor. What you’re essentially saying is that your company and offering are just like theirs – not really a way to differentiate.

Be cautious with jargon, humor, cursing and colloquialisms – not every brand needs to be funny, irreverent or “hip,” and every one of these can be a conversation-ruiner when used with the wrong situation.

As a last resource, if you need some specific examples of how to structure tone, check out the Copy Hackers piece I shared earlier.

Go forth and speak clearly!

  • Amy Harrison

    Thanks for linking to the AmyTV episode in this Joel! ;-)

    • Joel K

      No problem, Amy! It’s a great resource (video is hilarious, too!) and I know people will appreciate it as a reference point.

  • Krystian

    Fantastic read. A good inspiration, for what I was looking for.

    • Joel K

      Cheers, Krystian!

  • ronellsmith

    Much of what we see online is the result of monkey see, monkey do. “They did it. Why should we reinvent the wheel in attempting to get our message out?” MailChimp’s Kate Kiefer has written extensively about the need for having a consistent voice and tone. I could not agree more. Without caring enough about the voice your brand shares with the larger community, you court irrelevance.

    Great stuff, JK.

    RS

    • Joel K

      As always, appreciate your insights, Ronnell :)
      Mailhimp are a bit of a beacon for this stuff.

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  • http://www.feldmancreative.com/ Barry Feldman

    Really good stuff Joel and really helpful for something I’m working on.

    Don’t agree with you though on “tone is not the same as voice.” Or maybe I do.

    Your voice has a tone. Yeah, you can change it, but you are who you are. A more complex conversation for brand than individuals, I guess. I guess tone is one of the things that describes your voice. I think that’s the gist of Joanna’s great article.

    Nice tips from Six Revisions too. Appreciate the way you do your homework and roundup “best of” stuff.

    • Joel K

      I’d say tone changes contextually; a voice is characterized by that context into a tone. I’ve got the exact same voice all the time, but I can change it dependent on a situation (when I’m angry, happy, pensive, etc.) -

      My tone and my voice are not one and the same, though. My voice is independent of my tone – my tone is just the character of my voice applied to a context.
      Cheers, and sorry I missed this for so long!

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