What is brand voice and why is it important?
Voice isn’t just for fiction writers. Consumers today hold brands to a higher standard than ever, expecting even e-commerce interactions to be genuine, authentic and engaging. Just thinking of the sheer quantity of awful, awful corporate content all over the web makes me start to feel twitchy. When brands communicate in an overly sanitized, robotic way, it not only fails to resonate with people, but also can actively repel them!
In their excellent book Content Rules, Ann Handley and C.C. Chapman write, “Typically, bland has been the tone of choice for companies across the board.” This is quite a hurdle for corporations that have grown accustomed to content creation processes that involve several levels of review by stakeholders with varying interests.
Product developers want specs to be talked up, the marketing team inserts its (often jargon-laden) messaging, leadership might have its own agenda to plug, and then legal review and editors work hard to mitigate any and all foreseeable risk. The resulting content product is bound to end up technical, company-centric, and devoid of personality in an attempt to avoid alienating any particular customer.
The good news? This problem is so widespread in business content that the bar is set pretty low. At this point, consumers can be easily wowed and delighted by a company that takes time to craft a human, relatable voice for its brand.
And actually taking time to define your brand voice is necessary. You really can’t dive into your content strategy or your content marketing strategy if you haven’t figured out who you are as a brand and how you want to convey that to the marketplace.
As Handley and Chapman explain, “A unique, human-sounding corporate voice is critical if you want to engage, stimulate, or excite your audience—especially now, when your content is increasingly an essential mechanism through which to define, enhance, and clarify who you are. Your tone of voice, in other words, is your greatest ally: it’s the basis for the relationship you hope to create with your customers, along with your products, service, and culture—all the other things that go into a brand.”
So what does a well-crafted brand voice look like?
How some of my favorite brands are getting this right
The brand voice of women’s apparel line Madewell sounds like a cool, casual, stylish young woman you’d want to befriend. A no-brainer, since that’s precisely who their target audience is.
“2am packing is the worst”
This email subject line accompanied a mid-December 2014 campaign timed to align with holiday vacation planning. The email body calls out possible vacation scenarios and recommended products. Instead of something dry and generic like “Shop vacation outfits,” they use the more emotive and colorful “Hot cocoa by the fireplace? Shop cozy getaways.” and “Out of the office? Into your suitcase.” Madewell sounds like a clever, quirky gal you’d like to go to happy hour with.
“Because we’re tired of winter”
This subject line was attached to an early February 2015 email, shown below, promoting new items for spring and tapping into the winter fatigue many are feeling this time of year. They’re talking directly to me, as a chick who is into clothes and ready for spring, like now.
The brand voice is consistently casual, youthful, and relatable. And it works on me. There is literally a 100 percent open rate and probably a 75 percent click-through rate on Madewell emails from my inbox.
The lesson: Write to your audience the way humans speak to each other.
Plenty has been written about the persona of business card printing company MOO, but I recently had my first interaction with MOO and finally experienced their brand voice firsthand.
They’ve taken something as mundane as an automated order confirmation for business cards and created a delightful e-commerce interaction by infusing their content with fun and personality. I came away with an impression of MOO as a friendly, playful brand that doesn’t take itself too seriously but is serious about providing great customer service.
Even a conservative financial services company could inject some of this casual lightheartedness into content interactions, and that’s just one industry that could benefit from some humanization.
The lesson: Be playful with your brand content.
Web hosting company Dreamhost crafts colorful and customer-centered content for their website. Below are some examples of their friendly, personable brand voice pulled from dreamhost.com.
But Dreamhost’s monthly newsletter takes their distinctive voice to another level entirely. The newsletter is jointly penned by Brett Dunst, Dreamhost VP of Brand and Community, and CEO Simon Anderson. It’s unfailingly funny and regularly veers into downright wackiness, and this is why I love it. It’s risky and weird, but in a blind reading, I could pin the brand on this content every time—it’s original.
The element of surprise is also enticing. I never know what Brett will come up with next. As Stephen P. Anderson writes in Seductive Interaction Design, “If everyone else is doing something one way, you’ll get noticed if you go against the grain. How can you get people’s attention by deviating from expected patterns set by other sites or experiences external to your site?”
The lesson: Take risks, and try something unexpected to differentiate your brand’s personality.
The gist? Be real.
Don’t hide your humanity under a bushel! The consistent theme here is that these brands sound like actual people. Not faceless corporate entities.
We all know that businesses are made up of real humans. It’s so refreshing when the content they push at us reflects their humanity, and makes us feel like they care about us on a real and personal level.
So on behalf of consumers the world over who are deleting your blah emails unread and bouncing from your monotonous web pages in frustration, I implore you: get busy overhauling your brand’s voice to infuse it with authenticity and personality.