How to create a voice for your brandI have long considered there to be a strong link between my fiction, poetry, and the marketing materials I write for mailingmanager.  The actual act of writing, editing and drafting are simply the mechanics of producing the text.  What is to be written, edited and drafted takes a great deal more reflection and planning.  A fiction writer will spend a detailed amount of time considering the the personality traits, habits, and the voice of a character.  When I began crafting marketing materials, it became obvious I had to pay as much attention to creating the brand voice.

It might seem like a grandiose statement, but I firmly believe that everything we produce has a narrative.  Everything we publish has a voice of its own.   It is down to us to make sure that our brand speaks with an appropriate, unique, and compelling voice.  The character of your brand, and the way it is received by your readers depend upon it.

The importance of being earnest (or not)

It wouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that an English major will argue that language is one of the important tools in the marketers pencil case.  But it is true.  Philosophically, I would spend hours arguing against the restrictions and censorship that surrounds language.  As a culture we have long spent time chasing code and giving language too much power.  As a marketer, I recognise these restrictions as necessary guidelines into constructing the brand’s voice.  In short the first thing I learned was to leave my ego at the door.

I tend to agree with Matthew Stibbe from Articulate Marketing’s assessment.  “The words you use on your website” and other marketing materials, “literally define how people perceive your business.  As such, Stibbe presents the case that your “tone of voice guidelines are as important as the logo and typeface you choose.”  With this in mind, the marketers own view of language, and the tones they choose to use are less important than the how the customer receives it.

Consider what damage could be done if a brand like Model Rail Magazine constructed articles in a similar tone to Metal Hammer.  How could a writer who writes articles promoting products called ‘Killswitch Engage’, ‘As I Lay Dying’ or ‘Napalm Death’ possibly use the same the same tone to sell model railways?  With great difficulty!

Creating the voice for you brand MUST begin with the intended audience.

Write for the customer

There is a little bit of psychology involved with creating your brand’s voice.  Don’t worry you don’t need to be Sigmund Freud or Derren Brown, and you don’t need a PhD in behaviourism.  You just need a working knowledge of your target audience.

It makes sense, if you were writing for a funeral home, that you wouldn’t have a rainbow coloured background and the music to Staying Alive playing over the website.  It also wouldn’t make sense to adopt a mocking or sarcastic tone.  If someone is accessing this website, then their emotions would be ranging from serious solemnity right through to heart-wrenching grief.  Nobody ends up on the page of a funeral home whilst looking to buy a surf-board, or a bucket and spade.

My example sounds obvious!  Because it is obvious.

Benchmark email writes an interesting article which concerns this very issue.  Astutely, they describe that “every person is different” but “you can define a common thread in your customers and come up with a sort of writing persona that speaks to who they are, en masse.”  Who is going to want your product?  How would they like to be spoken to?  These are the first two questions that would help me decide which tone I would like to adopt.

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Grammar told me to mind my language

It stands to reason that your grammar must be perfect.  Get your commas in the right place, undangle those participles, and avoid the over-use of gerunds and adverbs.  Without the exact structure and application of grammatical devices your marketing is likely to plunge into chaos, break the internet whilst your company dissolves in blushing embarrassment.

Give me a break!

Nobody is this perfect, and unless you are writing ultra-professional emails for lawyers and other hyper-literate industries, it matters less than the grammar-nazis of Facebook would have you believe.  A decent working knowledge is an advantage of course, but the let us be fair – a conversational tone doesn’t care if you have contracted “has” and “not”.

Some of the best (and by that I mean memorable) marketing campaigns have deliberately broken grammatical rules to create their voice.  For instance, consider this campaign by O2.

An example of grammarless marketing, giving the wrong definition of a Latin phrase for a campaign that uses a noun in place of an adjective.  It was a simple campaign, but it was unforgettable.  How much less memorable would it have been if the campaign asked you to “be more adventurous” for example?  Replacing the exciting adjective with the word “dog”, not only crafted a memorable catchphrase, but was integral to creating a brilliant character in O2’s cat.

Representing O2 was the voice of a cat, who wanted to be a dog.  Grammar wasn’t important in their printed materials, it isn’t necessary for a cat to be grammatically accurate anyway. But what O2 managed to do with slick-genius, is create an intelligent character that wants to play.  The cat wanted to be different, to stand out and have fun, yet still the cat communicated with eloquence.  O2’s genius employed a contemplative voice, and lightly seasoned with humour, to devastating effect.  Even I wanted to be more dog, much to my cat’s horror.

Language is like anything else.  Once you have a good grasp of the rules – break a few.

Why is this important to your brand’s voice?
Perhaps you are selling a mobile phone.  Perhaps you are selling clothes, shoes or food.  Are you selling to humans, or are you selling to job titles?

It is a valid questions.  If you are selling products to industrial specialists, such as Chefs, Web Developers or Accountants, then jargon is to be expected.  You are selling to a job title, and your voice would need to sound knowledgeable and professional.  An email rich with received pronunciation and micro-inch-perfect grammar is probably expected.  But what if you are selling to humans?

Playing with language is what we do as humans.  We created colloquialisms, change the meanings of words and update our languages.  Once you have considered your customer, it is their language that you need to be mindful of.  Restricting structures created by scholars somewhere between Shakespeare and Rowling, are less important than the language your customer understands.  As long as you know your customer, you will know how to speak to them.

Do a little research

I apologise to those that may feel this suggestion is like preaching to the choir, but so many people forget the basics.  Whatever your company does, for the most part you won’t be the only brand of its ilk.  You may not even be the one that leads the market.  Even if you are, it doesn’t hurt to see what is going on with your competitors.

There may be a trend within your industry that you wish to conform to, or break away from.  Reading the email marketing, social media and blogs of the competition will give you a grasp of what is being said in your industry.  Moreover, it will give you a grasp of “how” it is being said.

Styling the character voice

Before creating a style guide, it would be useful to test-drive your brand’s voice.   Spend some time writing as your brand.

It might take a little bit of time, but keep writing with your brand in mind.  Take note of any idiosyncratic words that you use and write down any stylistic choices that you make.  Do you use proper grammar?  Is your voice comfortable using humour?  When you are assured by the brand voice, and can adequately describe it, you are ready to create a style guide.

Style guides are useful if there is more than one content writer with in your company.  With examples and descriptions, it will be easy for your department to emulate the voice.

A Cautionary Tale

When creating your style guide, be careful of your descriptions.  Your descriptions of the brand voice should be specific.  Wishy-washy descriptors are more of a hindrance than a help when trying to create a document that could prove to be so important to your brand.   Dan Brotzel, in his article 11 values that create an effective tone of voice, plus six to avoid gives a good account of a few of these words. Words such as “Human” and “Creative” don’t have a singular definable meaning.   Brotzel’s analysis on words is worth reading, at least as far as the six words to avoid are concerned.  The values that create an effective tone of voice, especially since they have been clustered into four groups, is entirely reductive.

Be careful about trying to define your character voice with singular values such as “helpful”, and “positive” as suggested by Brotzel.  Firstly, who wants an email that is unhelpful?  And who is writing all these negative emails?  It is better to write a sentence describing your voice’s tonal values as opposed to stripping it of nuance and trying to define your voice in singular words.  As opposed to simply describing your voice as ‘direct’ or ‘straightforward’, perhaps it would be better to note that ‘the brands direct tone means we write in short sentences and simple language’.

Wrapping up

Creating a unique voice, whether you are a creative writer or a marketer isn’t the easiest task.  But, like any of your other marketing creations, the voice needs to be consistent across your brand.  Your email marketing voice must be recognisable as the same voice behind your social media and other materials you create.   Perhaps creating the unique brand voice you are looking for would be best done in a team.

If you are an experienced marketer, please feel free to comment here some advice for anyone looking to create a brand voice.  How would you go about creating your unique marketing voice?