As a smart-mouthed teen, how often did you hear your parents say, “Watch your tone with me!”
How about, “It’s not what you said. It’s how you said it.”
Tone helps us perceive the mood, pace and intention of a voice — and voice is important because it is the essence of who you are. Together, tone and voice can make or break your brand.
Why is it so crucial to identify, incorporate and maintain a strong brand voice? People want to know that you are secure in yourself and know who you are because they are overwhelmed with alternative options just one click away.
If you don’t know who you are, they sure as hell won’t know, either.
In the digital-minded world in which we live, consumers are savvier than ever before — they no longer easily fall for click-bait, are wary of sales-y type speak and know exactly when to “skip” pre-roll videos. That’s why the way your brand talks with its audience is important if you want to stay alive, and vital if you want to thrive.
Undoubtedly, authenticity reigns supreme in today’s fight for consumer attention and retention. But how is that achieved? Sometimes, it’s displaying your pure love for and belief in the products you create or services you render. Other times, it’s fessing up if you eff up. And always, it’s staying true to your brand voice in every message that comes from your brand. Whether it’s an outward-facing email campaign, internal presentation or viral video, an authentic, consistent voice is key to winning the hearts and wallets of consumers.
This rings especially true if you’re seeking millennial audiences, a group with an annual buying power of more than $200 billion. This mobile, digital-native demographic is the most difficult one for brands to connect with — a challenge that should be faced by humanizing your brand and speaking as a REAL person.
In people, politics and — yes — your brand, inconsistency breeds distrust. The stance you take, the words you use and the way you say them impacts the way your audience perceives you and even gives them cues on how they should feel.
As humans, we are drawn to people who are confident, passionate and authentic. Why would a brand be any different? In his book “United We Brand,” Mike Moser reminds brands that they are “a person, not a company.” Your organization should not only have characteristics and identifiable traits like a human, it should interact as one, too. Aligning your company goals with your intended audience should result in a voice that has a style and personality that is yours to own.
OK, so it makes sense on a conceptual level, but how does a brand apply these rules tactically? Here are some tips to help clear your throat and find your brand voice:
1.) Know Your Audience
Your brand voice is about you, but it’s also about what you exist to do — and typically, that’s to provide a product or service that people care about. You can’t do that if you ignore your customers. It doesn’t matter how awesome your products or services are if you don’t know how to tell people about them in a way that connects with them.
Put simply: You need to know what will make your audience give a damn.
What are their likes and dislikes? To what do they best respond? Exhaustive formative research on your intended audience should not be skipped when strategizing content, and certainly not when developing your brand voice.
Looking for help with research or consumer panels? We know a guy.
2.) Determine Your Tone
“Brand tone is important not only because it conveys to the consumer the overall character of your brand, but also because it distinguishes you from your peers.”
Where you are conveying your message is part of the picture, too. Are you on LinkedIn or YouTube? Outdoor board or Twitter? Here’s the kicker: Your tone can change between platforms, but that doesn’t mean your voice does. Likewise, your tone may evolve more rapidly based on ever-changing customer experiences and expectations.
That said, never sacrifice your voice for likes/clicks/follows — just because you can make that one joke, doesn’t mean you should.
A great place to start is to pick three key words that define your brand’s personality. Don’t just go for the obvious — break down what makes you, you. From there, continue picking keywords and descriptors until you’ve filled out enough categories to start sounding like an actual person with thoughts and feelings.
- Is your brand outspoken or reserved about current events? If your brand were human, would it prefer mint chocolate chip or peanut butter ice cream?
- Do you have a distinct gender?
- Are you quirky or dependable?
- Are you independent or collaborative?
- What’s your vibe? Should you even use words like “vibe”?
3.) Define Nitty-Gritty Grammar Rules
This doesn’t necessarily mean creating a stiff, corporate standard, but there are small nuances that need to be considered. For example, how do you refer to yourself in email blasts? Are you a “we”? Are you an “I”? Do you try to avoid contractions, or is a more conversational tone appropriate for you? Establishing guidelines for how you talk about your brand and speak from it can help maintain consistency.
Note that it’s OK to use different pronouns on various media platforms. For example, your brand might share a picture on Facebook saying, “Our weekend plans are shaping up!”; simultaneously, you might be running a TV campaign that says, “When it comes to weekend plans, nobody does it better than Brand XYZ!” Remember: Maintain consistent pronoun usage within a platform, and a consistent voice all the way around.
4.) Define Which Nitty-Gritty Grammar Rules are Stupid
With the above paragraphs in mind, don’t overthink it. Following rules to a “T” cannot replace common sense, good writing and a keen understanding of your audience. Strict grammar rules ain’t always the best way to go. Most writers would agree that readability far surpasses the importance of preposition usage and dominates the Oxford comma argument.
Here are some rules to consider breaking when your brand speaks:
- Never end a sentence on a preposition.
- When criticized for frequently ending sentences with prepositions, Winston Churchill is attributed with replying, “That is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.” Brilliant man.
- Skip cringe-inducing or clearly avoidable instances of ending with a preposition, but don’t sacrifice readability and risk alienating your audience.
- Avoid contractions.
- Depending on your brand and your voice, this may be one of the first rules you throw out the window. Do not you think it is a bit dense to read copy in which contractions are not allowed — will not you reconsider?
- Never start a sentence with a conjunction.
- Your fourth-grade teacher probably taught you that beginning a sentence with a conjunction is a grammatical no-no. But there are exceptions.
- Often, casually using conjunctions in the front of a sentence offers message emphasis, cleverness — oh, and did we mention readability?
5.) Talk Like a Human
Word choice is integral to brand voice for a variety of reasons. The digital landscape calls for simplistic, easily digestible language. In terms of tone, short words are simple and direct, while longer ones suggest sophistication and nuance.
As the American Marketing Association reminds us, there is a way to speak authoritatively without going over your audience’s heads or making them roll their eyes out of annoyance. If we go out of our way to sound smart, we risk making our audience feel, well, not so smart. And that doesn’t do anything for brand growth and success.
On top of being understood by your consumers, using everyday language versus disjointed and choppy search terms lends to search engine results page (SERP) success. Research supports that as users become more digitally literate and wary of online trickery, authenticity matters now more than ever. “Natural language queries” will become even more popular with the rise of voice search — so keep your content keyword-specific, but don’t disregard your audience. Stick to writing for them instead of robots.
6.) Get Your Writers on the Same Page…
… or marketing department, or content team, or client account — wherever it applies for your brand. Meet with the team and make sure that everyone has a copy of the brand and voice guidelines. As a learning tool, walk through a sample post for various platforms, and bust out your red pen. Mark up, strike through and circle what does and doesn’t work for your brand, and more importantly, explain why. Tuck your examples into your brand guidelines folder, and encourage team members to reference it as all messaging and content is created.
Think about it: One human doesn’t produce all the messaging, content, videos, Instagram captions, website copy, blog posts, Facebook ads, keynote presentations, emails, etc., and one person shouldn’t have the secret sauce that makes it all work. It takes time and effort to get everyone on the same page, but the alternative is a one-way ticket to inconsistency.
The key in all of this? Don’t fake it. Don’t fabricate a voice that is already taken. The “me-too” effort is a waste of metaphorical breath for your voice — find what makes you unique, and raise that flag high.