10 Brand Voice Lessons Every Marketer Should Master

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Over three decades ago I made a presentation and wrote a book about brand voice that captured the attention of the advertising and marketing communities.

I discovered that the vast majority of corporate and brand communications failed to achieve the most essential tasks of communications.  They lacked clarity. There were conflicting messages. They didn’t even pay lip service to integrated themes and messages in their communications.

To understand brand voice, a term I am proud to have coined, I searched for companies with distinctive, dynamic and passionate brand voices and analyzed how these voices evolved. The best include:

Ralph Lauren – who projects a fantasy world – sprung full-blown from one man’s imagination – the voice is old money, classic, authentic, well-bred

Tiffany, its blue box promising accessible elegance, exclusive without being elitist, glamorous without being intimidating. One can’t go wrong if your gift arrives in that celebrated blue box.

Even Crazy Eddie, the onetime largest consumer electronic chain in New York, whose frantic commercials literally screamed how they were unbeatable – “Our prices are insane!” His voice extended the store’s positioning as the ‘ultimate discount buying experience.’

The most effective brand voices are generated by singular and powerful visions that are passed down to employees and nurtured in environments that encourage innovation and excellence in communication.

Twenty years later, when I made a speech about voice at a design conference in Moscow, we had moved from vinyl to mp3s and from advertising voice to digital voice. The digital revolution had in those 20 years raised the din of information exponentially, radically altering the messaging environment by its speed, novelty, distraction and noise. Every marketer had to re-calibrate their brand voice to find the right pitch, the right tone and the ideal volume to ensure being heard. This dynamic forced organizations to:

  • move from one-way communications to a dialogue
  • incorporate personalization, flexibility and simplicity
  • react with instant responses to rumor, speculation, criticism on the internet
  • convert brand communications to expanding digital platforms
  • build social responsibility into your brand voice
  • with globalization of the internet, pay attention to translating English for multi-national markets

My epiphany was that brand voice works as brand glue, shaping and crystallizing the strategies behind your identity. A fully developed brand voice drives all communications to project a personality, reflect messaging and reinforce customer interactions, all tied together by a distinctive visual voice.  It’s the “red thread” that runs through every brand touch-point, beyond traditional advertising and new media to reputation and crisis management.

10 Brand Voice Lessons

The following are 10 important lessons on how to build brand voice are worth considering.

One, a clear, precise statement defining your identity lays the foundation for creating a rich and sustainable voice that will focus your company’s communications.

Two, defining a short, overarching purpose — your reason for being in business, the calling your company answers in the market and society, the problems you are striving to solve— will replace cumbersome, generic, predictable mission and vision statements.

Employees will actively support brands with a meaningful purpose and relatable values they can embrace and share. In the words of General Stanley McCrystal, “purpose affirms trust, trust affirms purpose, and together they forge individuals into a working team.”

What follows are several statements of purpose statements we have developed for our clients.

challenging students to own their future
College Board

elevate the debate
Urban Institute

breaking the rules
Cornell University College of Engineering

Three, leveraging the intellectual power of the organization — not using market research asking customers what they want to create on your brand platform: positioning, messaging, architecture and narrative. We call this the inside out approach.

Shake things up by getting storytellers, investigative reporters, artists and poets to participate in your brainstorming sessions.

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people, so they can tell us what to do.” Steve Jobs “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Alan Kay (Xerox scientist and inventor of the computer mouse)

Four, authenticity is a critical ingredient of voice. Being seen as a corporation with a conscience is paramount. People want organizations to live up to higher values and own up to their mistakes

For example, CVS’ decision to stop selling tobacco products sent a clear, purposeful message – “We’re committed to bettering health care.”  Even without the $2 billion in sales from tobacco products, CVS maintained profitable growth due to strong performance in its pharmacy services.

After an incident in one of its Philadelphia stores, Starbucks closed 8,000 company-owned stores in the US on the afternoon of May 29th to conduct racial-bias education geared toward preventing discrimination in their stores.  The training was provided to nearly 175,000 ‘partners’ (how they define their employees) and becomes part of the on-boarding process for new partners.

Beware the examples, of the recent failures of Wells Fargo, Equifax, Volkswagen and United Airlines to handle the crises with transparency, and immediately remediate problems, caused irreparable damage to their reputations.

Five, every business must expect the unexpected. We live in an age where anyone can inflict lasting damage on your brand, within seconds. Businesses must have an organizational voice program with digital experts trained and empowered to quickly and effectively respond.

When an iPhone bought at Best Buy broke, and the consumer started tweeting that the in-store staff had not done him justice, instead of offering a replacement iPhone he was given a Blackberry. A customer service representative saw the customer’s tweet, swooped in, quickly responded and arranged for a replacement iPhone to be delivered the next day. The company empowered their teams to take action on their own allowing Best Buy employees to directly respond via twitter.

Six, your audiences are no longer passive. Organizations must put programs in place to support meaningful conversations.

Seven, sharpen your master narrative to incorporate stories that create emotional connections, which are frequently more effective than rational arguments.

“Logic will get you from a to b. Imagination will take you anywhere.” – Albert Einstein

Eight, to truly connect with your audiences, you must humanize, personalize and bring clarity to your voice. Clarity will turn out to be the ultimate sophistication.

Nine, virtually all of the organizations with a distinctive voice program that I studied, have a dynamic, visionary and involved leader who is unwilling to compromise the core values of the brand, and who creates a culture that encourages employees to live the brand’s voice.

Courageous and compassionate leaders recognize the most powerful instrument for them to communicate is to live the brand. They are always on view. They strive to reinforce their purpose, positioning and messages that drive the culture.

Keith Reinhard, the hall of fame advertising executive, sent short memos to the thousands of DDB employees around the world every Wednesday for decades. Here’s an example from his book, Any Wednesday:

Tempo – an adverting agency, when it is performing as it should, is a lot like an orchestra. It consists of a federation of unique talents, each capable of virtuoso solo performances, but who nonetheless choose to blend their efforts into a more magnificent sound than any of them could produce alone. The spirit of performance is guided by the selection of tempo. In an agency, it is the responsibility of management to choose the right tempo and convey it to those who make the “music.”

Ten, just as we are coming to grips with how to extend our voices on websites, mobile phones, tablets, smart home devices, watches and bots, AI has moved us into what one expert called a voice-centered world where virtual assistants will become the preferred communication platform. People will use them to get information, goods and services, revolutionizing how consumers interact with the marketplace.

Today we all have to focus on migrating our distinctive voice to these platforms, keeping the essence of your organization or brand will require an entirely new way of dealing with consumer interactions. The future poses many challenges but brand voice backed by brand purpose shall prevail.

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