Brand Voice: How to Not Sound Like Everyone Else
Ashley is a content writer and brand developer. After graduating with a degree in print-journalism, Ashley’s storytelling skills took her from the bizarre world of on-camera acting to the practice courts of NBA basketball players to the virtual meetings of inbound marketers. Today she specializes in building memorable brand voices online, with a focus on the travel & tourism, e-commerce and tech industries.
It’s not what you said; it’s how you said it.
Language is a funny thing: Shift some words around, change your tone, use this metaphor instead of that and you’ve got an entirely different interpretive experience.
This is the experience of “voice” – and it’s something many businesses struggle with. Ideally, you want your brand voice to become so recognizable that your best customers would know it in a blind-test.
Brand Voice: How To Be Unique
An easy way to understand this is to imagine yourself receiving emails from five distinct people in your life: Your boss, your mother, your father, your significant other and your babysitter.
Now, would you expect any of these emails to sound exactly the same? Absolutely not. Beyond the role they each play in your individual life, they all have their own unique ways of communicating.
Your boss will talk about different subject matters than your babysitter (i.e. TPS reports v. the new Playstation). Your mom will phrase her sentences differently than your dad (i.e. longer pros abundantly highlighted with exclamation points v. shorter prose peppered with literary vernacular).
Your significant other might have a dry sense of humor while your babysitter routinely drops pop culture references you understand about 50 percent of the time (hey, that jacket’s so on-fleek).
Tone, style, subject matter, word choice – all of these elements make up the illusive brand voice. Though it should seem obvious where we're going, I’ll just come out and say it: Having a memorable brand voice helps you stand out in ways very little else can.
While most marketing techniques will work to some degree, whether the company in question has a strong brand voice or not, the growth potential will be capped. The reason being?
There are probably a bunch of other people selling exactly what you’re offering! Consider this: You and your competition have both diligently engaged in content marketing strategies over the past year. And you’re both beginning to see some returns on your efforts (i.e. more organic search traffic for desired key terms).
A prospect is getting ready to move from The Awareness Stage of The Buyer’s Journey to the Consideration Stage. Put simply, they are still looking for more information before making a purchase decision. They’ve scanned a couple of articles on both you and your competitor’s sites. Who are they going to choose to continue educating themselves with?
Your competitor? Whose Website content consists of a bunch of boring home improvement articles that are about as fun as watching paint dry? Or your company – who publishes home improvement articles from the perspective of Tim “The Toolman” Taylor? Note: I’m not advocating copying the voices of 90s sitcom characters; just an example.
The bottom line:
Companies with authentic, memorable brand voices will always beat out the ones who are simply regurgitating the status quo.
And the reason for this goes to the heart of inbound marketing – it’s about building relationships. Relationships with (drumroll please) real people.
And the way to do that is to shift from asking “How can we stand out from the competition?” to “How can we be more ourselves and forget about the competition entirely?”
As previously mentioned, differentiation begins with creating a Unique Value Proposition (UVP). From there, it’s ALL about brand voice. You may be wondering – But wait! What about design? Can’t we stand out with a sleek Website?
Maybe. In some industries, the majority of companies are still stuck in the 90s when it comes to Web design. Even if the answer to the above question is ‘yes,’ the next question becomes: But, for how long?
No longer is it difficult to get a “modern Website.” Thanks to the prevalence of Wordpress themes, easily accessible tutorials and a variety of template services, any company could easily create a professionally looking site (albeit, lacking customization) for themselves in 2016. And, as the competition continues to upgrade, the defining factor will continue to be what you say and how you say it.
So, how do you do it? How do you create an authentic brand voice?
For the rest of this article, I’ll seek to outline the basics. Though, keep in mind, this is NOT a formula. Because formulas are just that – formulaic. This is a guide to help you begin thinking in terms of voice:
Step 1: Start With YOU
A lot of marketers will tell you to begin your content marketing efforts by thinking about your customers; asking yourself questions like: What do my target customers need? What keeps them up at night? What are their most common questions?
While these aren’t bad questions to ask, they’re almost worthless if you have several competitors who are also answering them in their marketing materials. Which is why I hold a different perspective – begin by getting clear on why you’re in business, how you go about doing what you do and the things that get you most excited about life.
It’s true; your software clients don’t want to hear you talk about how your cat rummaged through your closet, put on some booties and preceded to perform stand-up in front of your bathroom mirror last Friday night (OK, maybe they’d actually pay money to hear that story). But you know what? They might appreciate the anecdote if it somehow tied into a useful lesson that answers a particular quandary they’ve been trying to solve.
You and your staff can simultaneously be human and professional. And it’s that personal element that is going to endear “the right” customers to your business.
Here are some questions to begin asking yourself as a company:
- What is your process for working with customers from start to finish? And is it effective or could it be improved upon? If so, how?
- What are you motivated by in life (i.e. family, freedom, exploration, Thai food)? Be honest.
- What’s one thing most people would be surprised to learn about you?
- If you were exiled to a desert island, and could only take five things, what would those be and why?
- What aspect of your industry do you find most interesting?
- What would you like your company to be most known for?
- How did you get into this line of work in the first place?
- What were your first jobs – ever?
These are just a few of the questions I'd ask if helping articulate your brand voice. Greatest perceived challenges, percolating ideas (that have not been spoken) and memorable customer experiences should also be covered.
Consider creating a survey of similar questions to circulate amongst principles, before gathering to reveal your answers. Besides learning some interesting factoids about your co-workers, you’ll also begin noticing patterns and discrepancies. Your goal is to address any major discrepancies (personal experience and hobbies discluded) and to start unifying any patterns noticed.
This is where professional input can be helpful. Much like a fish doesn’t realize it’s swimming in water – it just does it naturally – you might not initially recognize your inherent strengths as a company. Once you’ve identified your patterns, you’re ready to begin articulating them into brand attributes, brand promises and core messaging.
When you’re ready, put the list aside and proceed to the next step:
Step 2: Know Your Customers
Now, you’re ready to create what’s often called a Buyer’s Persona. Which is simply a written document containing the psychographics, demographics, common goals and questions asked by your ideal customers.
Most businesses will be speaking to two to four distinct personas. Essentially, you’re creating a character (or characters) that will inform all of your product development, brand identity and content marketing decisions moving forward. As you can imagine, Buyer’s Personas can range from one-page checklists to full-on binders.
Some companies even go so far as to match photos, names, and storylines to their Personas. I tend to find this overkill, but in some cases, more extensive profiling may be helpful for new hires, staff far removed from customer interactions and those lacking imagination. Here’s how to get started:
Never assume you understand your prospects! Even if you’ve been in business 20 years, please don’t make the mistake of thinking you can avoid the research phase.
It’s understandable; part of being human is evaluating interactions from our own unique perspectives. But this just does NOT work when you’re trying to get to the core of why someone is communicating in a certain way.
The depth of your research will likely depend on your budget. Here are some methods to consider:
1. Conduct Focus Groups
The primary advantage to focus groups? You can learn a lot about your prospects in a very short amount of time. You’ll also have the opportunity to ask extensive follow-up questions to responses that may have left you “scratching your head” with a simple survey.
The downside is definitely cost; professionally run groups can easily run upwards of $10,000. That’s not to say you couldn’t create an informal group in-house for quite less. Another consideration should be the specialty level of your ideal clients. For example, a data governance consultancy trying to learn more about enterprise-level CFOs is unlikely to provide an incentive large enough for such high-earning individuals to sit through a 3-hour focus group. Which brings up the next option:
2. Hold Industry Events
The best way to garner feedback from “difficult to reach” prospects? Create an event they would pay you to attend. Whether it’s a large conference featuring relevant experts OR a small meet-up providing networking opportunities, creating professionally valuable experiences for your prospects is a win-win.
Not only will they appreciate your setting-up the experience, but they will also be more than happy to discuss their wants, needs and frustrations in greater detail.
3. Conduct Customer Interviews
Another way to gain credible feedback is to interview current and past customers. Again, think about the questions that need to be answered to complete your Buyer’s Persona. Work industry, job role, primary concerns, personal goals, watering holes, personal demographics, shopping preferences and methods of research should all be covered.
Since these persons will be gifting you with their time, offering an incentive should be considered (i.e. Amazon gift cards, discounted services and company swag). Finally, never forget the most powerful question in your toolbox – why?
4. Conduct Digital Surveys
Free online programs, like Google Forms and Survey Monkey, make it easier than ever to create professional digital surveys. If you already maintain an active email relationship with prospects, this should be simple.
Even if you don’t, creating an incentive-based survey, along with a friendly explanation stating you want to begin creating content around things that actually matter to prospects, is a respectable move. Beyond offering drawings for cash prizes (a common move), you may want to create something of value that can be sent to every participant in the mail.
Put simply, people LOVE getting surprises in the mail. I recently gave my email address to Convincify – a company that does conversion rate optimization – in exchange for receiving a free, pocket-sized A/B testing booklet in the mail. The smartly designed tool came with a lovely handwritten note that had me smitten. Could you create something similar to send in the mail? A caveat with surveys: Limit questions to 10 or less, and aim for a mix of qualitative and quantitative questions.
5. Engage In Online Lurking
Industry forums, LinkedIn groups and the comment sections of targeted blogs are invaluable resources when it comes to learning more about your Buyer Personas. And the best part? Trolling them is absolutely free!
Heck, you can even ask a question that may start a lively discussion. Employ any or all of these methods and you’ll begin to piece together a comprehensive picture of your ideal customers. Remember: More information isn’t always better unless it’s accessible and easy to understand. Translating your findings to infographics, tables or digestible booklets will ensure the information will be referred to often by staff.
Step 3: Create Brand Voice Guidelines
By this point, you’ve probably got several different documents with important information floating around. It’s time to begin distilling your key findings into one master document – your Brand Voice Guidelines.
As you revisit your company and customer findings, begin looking for patterns. Is there any overlap between what matters most to prospects and what you want to be known for? Is there any overlap in personal interests, communication styles, and/or problems referenced?
Again, look for the aspects of your company – that are already in place (or will be soon) – that will delight your customers. From this data, begin organizing the following elements into your Guidelines.
Unique Value Proposition (UVP): The succinctly summarized core message or brand promise you want to be associated with.
Supporting Messages: Three to four additional messages you want to be known for (note: This can be a mix of company values and client priorities found through your research).
Brand Attributes: A list of adjectives that describe the overall feeling of your brand as if it were a person.
Tone & Vocabulary: A descriptive paragraph describing acceptable vocabulary, cadence and tone guidelines.
Copy Examples: An “all-purpose” paragraph of copy, speaking to your core message in the voice of your brand AND a compelling company story (similar to an About Us, but more personal).
Topics & Subjects: A list of appropriate content topics – professional and personal – that would delight your target audience.
Features & Benefits: A succinct summary describing and separating the features from benefits of your individual offerings.
Mini Buyer Personas: By this point, you should have a ton of data on your target audience. But, for this document, stick to summarizing the key points for easy reference.
Once you’ve finished, distribute the document to all employees responsible for communicating with customers and creating content within your organization. We started this article with the question of – how NOT to sound like everyone else. The answer is to understand the voice of your brand and continually refine it through:
- Consistent usage across company lines.
- Ongoing dialogue with your target audience.
- Ignoring the competition and communicating in your own style.
Though it may be tempting to copy the delivery of your competitors, it will only hurt you in the end. The reason being? You won’t be able to keep up; it’s not sustainable.
Take the time to build a strong foundation, with clearly articulated messaging and sense of self, and marketing will get a whole lot easier! Ultimately, building a brand voice is an organic process of getting to know yourself as a company, the interests of your prospects and learning how to merge them together in a way that makes sense.