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Do You Know Your Brand Voice?

brand voice

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What is your brand voice?

Brand voice encompasses not only the words you choose, but their order, rhythm and pace. A tone of voice is not what you say, but how you say it. Rather confusingly, when seen in the world of business and marketing, the phrase ‘tone of voice’ refers to written – rather than spoken – words. A company’s tone of voice will inform all of its written copy, including its website, social media messages, emails and packaging.

The art of marketing is the art of brand building. If you are not a brand you are a commodity. Then price is everything and the low cost producer is the only winner.
Philip Kotler, Professor at the Kellogg School of Management

Where to begin: your values

A tone of voice is an expression of a company’s values and way of thinking. It cannot be plucked from thin air, created on a whim or entirely based on a trend you think is cool. Rather, it must grow out of who you already are as a company. Not who you might be tomorrow, but what you look and sound like today. Think about how that applies to your brand voice.

Pinning down your values acts as a kind of background work – before you can think about how you write, you must decide on what you write.

This must start with the obvious yet easily forgotten question: “What is it you want to tell the world?” It is only once you define the core purpose of your communication that you can start to build your tone of voice.

In order to identify your values, here are a few questions to ask yourself. If possible, get other people in your company to join in and then see what everyone’s answers have in common. (Turning this into a collaborative process may also help with getting buy-in from different departments, as discussed in my final chapter on implementation.)

Why was the company set up in the first place?

Get back to the initial spark of excitement behind the company’s creation. Beyond earning an income, what was the drive behind it all?

Car-sharing service Zipcar asks its website visitors to ‘Imagine a world with one million fewer cars in the world’. The reason for the company’s existence is clear – to unclog the roads and thereby help look after the natural environment. This mission to encourage greener living, then, propels the rest of its copy and approach to language. For instance, its call for people to join its members club doesn’t focus on added luxury or convenience, but instead asks, “Want to make a real impact?”

Women’s lifestyle brand Libertine is another example of a brand that asserts a clear mission to its work. The founders wanted to ‘redefine the women’s media landscape by celebrating inner life over outer appearance’. Libertine, thus, addresses an area previously neglected by the media – inner beauty. The brand states its core values as, ‘character, curiosity, wit and good manners.’ In turn, these values shape its copy; for example, Libertine’s curiosity means that it asks a lot of questions, its good manners means that it avoids overly blunt sentences and commands such as ‘do this’ and ‘watch that’.

brand voice

I asked founder Debbi Evans about Libertine’s approach to writing:

How did you go about shaping your tone of voice?

I think it’s a bit easier to define a tone of voice, i.e., your brand voice, when you’re a publication, as a lot of it will come from the editor, and you’ve got sub editors to help you keep it consistent. A lot of it did evolve naturally as in the very early days we were still trying to work out exactly who we wanted to be, and several of our core values and interests were a bit contradictory. (I am thinking, in particular, of trying to embrace the finer things in life while being tech nerds here. The former is about luxury – traditionally a very closed and elitist subject – the latter is all about open source, collaboration, cooperation – could we embrace one without negating the other?) I think in the end if your interest and enthusiasm for both comes across as equally genuine then you’re OK.

Do you have any particular rules or approaches when it comes to writing?

Do a rushed first draft to get everything onto the page – try not to self edit (this is really hard!) Then go back and rework, slowly, and read your writing out loud. There’s nothing more effective for getting an idea of your tone and flow than when you’re reading it out to someone; corrections are much easier.

Was it difficult to pin down your core values?

We almost started with our core values before anything else – a few years of research had taught me that consistency with those was key to being authentic from a consumer perspective. We looked at women we thought were awesome – Joan Didion, Angela Carter, Ada Lovelace – and tried to imagine what characteristics might be common to all of them: Wit, character, curiosity and good manners. I know the latter is a socially loaded term but it’s OK to be a bit provocative.

Is there a line or piece of copy that you are especially proud of?

“Celebrating inner life over outer appearance'” felt effective when we first used it. Women’s magazine are so loaded with clichés it was important to get something that felt completely different to that.

Are there any tones of brand voices that you particularly like?

The winner is still the Economist. Monocle also deserves a nod – they’ve developed such a strong brand they’ve even got a (very funny) lorem ipsum, made by an admiring designer.

What basic human value does your company bring the world?

Sometimes the motivation behind a company’s work is more abstract. Rather than answering a particular social or material need, it appeals to something more spiritual. O2 positioned itself in this way on introducing its Freedom Price Plan. Showing a man running through an open field in its TV advert, the mobile phone brand forged a link between unlimited calls and the ability to live a free and unbounded life.

How is the way you work different?

Each company has its own ways of doing things, such as the way it organises its processes or how it looks after its staff. These things will reveal its priorities and values in business. J.Crew and Anthropologie are two brands that, arguably, do similar work – selling mid-range clothing across a chain of high street stores. Yet each has its own unique approach. J.Crew positions itself as a team of stylists and fashion curators, filling its blog with research into the design and production of garments. Its copy is meticulously constructed and full of detail.

 In contrast, Anthropologie focuses less on fashion and, instead, positions its clothing as one thing among a whole world of colourful curiosities. Dipping into travel, food and music, its blog suggests a broad spectrum of interests. In this way, Anthropologie’s copy forgets the fashion-specific terminology in favour of more universal language pertaining to emotion, such as ‘romance’, ‘explore’ and ‘delight’.

The sale of beauty products tends to feature very specific types of language, depending on the values of the brand. Take Lush and L’Oréal, for example; both sell skincare products. Yet while Lush is concerned with being eco-friendly, L’Oréal alludes to notions of science and advancement.

Compare their descriptions of moisturiser:

In these little pots is every last ounce of our experience and expertise, along with a world of high quality, natural ingredients. Lush

Proven science, cutting-edge innovations captured in luxurious textures for a sumptuous skin care experience. L’Oréal

This article is an excerpt from the article Finding Your Brand’s Tone of Voice appearing at Brainlabs Digital.

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