Back in October, the Invanity content team attended the fabled Brighton SEO, a search marketing conference assembling the greatest digital brains in the UK.
Closing out two jam-packed days of SEO chatter, networking, freebies and a dodgy back-alley chippy, I found myself discussing an unexpected subject: client brand voices.
In our eyes, we’d just struck gold. We’d got what we came for—an eye-opening look into how so many people get brand voices wrong—and we had one person to thank: Bethany Joy and her talk, ‘The Nine Immutable Laws of Brand Voice‘.
Sitting in M25 traffic, Invanity founder, Jack Kennedy, and I agreed that this was an issue throughout the industry. If Bethany’s nine immutable laws were actually held up by the Magna Carta, many firms would be in a spot of bother.
Either way, we knew we had to ensure we were different. So, as any half-decent marketer should, we went back to the whiteboard. In this article, we’ll take a look at what we did, and what we learned in the process – the good, the bad and the ugly.
‘Professional’. ‘Experienced’. ‘Human-first’. Brand voices are littered with these inoffensive, blasé and tasteless adjectives that say nothing about the company, or how they should sound.
But the challenge isn’t simply replacing these descriptors, but finding alternatives that are meaningful and real – rather than just verbal spaff. Yes, you may have every intention of appearing ‘professional’, ‘experienced’ and ‘human-first’ to your audience – but doesn’t every brand? Who in their right mind would object to their business being that? Cut out these meaningless terms and replace them with more actionable choices like “quietly earnest” and “white-glove/high society”.
Look at EVERY adjective. Could this be used to describe any business, no matter the industry or target demographic? If yes: get rid.
The valiant failing of many brand voices is that they don’t serve their purpose: actually teaching writers how to talk to their audience. There just isn’t enough substance or direction to guide the writer. Picture the guidelines from a receiver’s perspective; being glazed over and met with a chorus of “How the hell do I use this sh*t?”.
You should want to provide as much detail for the writer as possible, less about the so-called “tone” and more focused on the clients’ offering, ambitions and history. Some guidelines even talk about being direct and cutting the fluff, while the guidelines themselves do quite the opposite. They ramble. And this is the great irony of so many guidelines: they aren’t even written in the brand’s voice.
Put yourself in the shoes of a fresh-faced junior writer. Would your brand voice guidelines make it easier or harder for them to do their job?
Brand voice is derived from what your business is actually like, not what you believe or want it to be. Most guidelines are written based on what companies want to be: market leaders with grandiose solutions, rather than regional businesses with humble, family-owned origins.
Marketers become penned in by this belief that voice work has to brighten the (fairly dim) sparkle of more corporate businesses. It doesn’t. These companies have been doing business successfully as a commercial, everyman brand for nearly 30 years. They didn’t need a chirpy, gimmick-loaded voice to bring them into the 21st century. The personality has already been established, and is known to those who are familiar with the business.
It may not be particularly exciting – but that’s not the role of brand voice work. Its purpose isn’t to rewrite history or change set-in-stone cultures. An audience will see right through false advertising in the end. In this instance, it would be like your old man wearing a Nike Tech Fleece or Yeezys.
Think about who you really are as a brand. Not what you’re wishing for. Keep it sincere, realistic and open. If it’s a stretch too far (even slightly), it’s worth reworking.
Brand voice is at its best when it’s shared and understood across all internal teams and parties, not just marketing. Developing an “organisational” tone means learning to control the way your businesses communicate and show identity or personality. You simply can’t do that if your marketing department speaks one way, and your sales department another.
Don’t gatekeep your brand voice. This isn’t just a tickbox measure, or a vanity exercise. These assets hold massive potential. Treating them as an afterthought leads to miscommunications internally and an inconsistent, unprofessional appearance to your external audience.
Share your brand voices across the team. Ensure that every person can access and understand how the brand should interact.
Brand voices need to be moving continually. A business grows and evolves year-by-year, month-by-month – and your voice should grow alongside it. Would a burgeoning startup have the same voice three years later after quadrupling its headcount and generating £600K+ in revenue? Of course not.
If a brand’s voice hasn’t been adjusted in well over a year their lingo won’t be up-to-date with their successes, growth and culture, let alone the trends in their industry. That’s not to say that you should undertake an annual voice revamp, just make an extra note to pay attention. Brand voices aren’t static, they’re a living representation of the client and need to be amended as significant changes happen. Keep it refreshed and alive.
Brand voice isn’t a one-and-done. You need to blow the dust off it every once in a while. If your people are naturally changing the way they talk about your business (due to service changes, new releases, expansion etc.) you need to evolve in-line with that.
The proof is in the pudding: you can spend countless hours working on a brand voice, and it can still be fundamentally bad – no matter how cohesive or flamboyant you make it.
One last takeaway (I promise). Your voice is developed for your brand. It can be easy to pull from the huge amount of ranking BV articles on the web, but don’t take everything as gospel. Yes, Mailchimp’s brand voice guidelines are great, but they won’t work for BP. Think about what your brand actually is: the services, people, assets, ambitions and culture that make it uniquely yours.
If you’re interested in learning more about brand voice and its impact, make sure to check out Bethany Joy’s channels. She’s in my opinion, the best at what she does by a country mile.