Honing Your Brand Voice on Social

When Morgan Freeman narrates a Visa commercial, he lends humanity to the brand’s message. But he can only talk at viewers, not with them. Traditionally, brand voice was something agencies could control in a top-down fashion, then, the Internet happened. Today, brands must manage their messages across a complex network of media, each with its own unique attributes and best practices.

Alice Crowder, Ovation Brands’ marketing director, said digital is now a “conversation, not a monologue.”

Customers on social media bring different expectations to these conversations, putting the onus on the brand to take the good with the bad when developing a unique voice. Crowder recalls a loyal customer of Old Country Buffet who challenged the company on Facebook over whether the restaurant had changed its recipe for Sugar-Free Ranger Cookies, the customer’s favorite dessert. Old Country Buffet uses the CEO as a spokesperson in its TV advertising, but the brand’s social media requires a softer touch. They acknowledged the change by reaching out directly to the customer.

“Early on, we made the error of being overly ‘salesy’ with certain updates, posting things like ‘Look at how awesome our meatloaf is,'” Crowder said. “But customers let us know that pitching our passion points was not the highest use of the platform.”

Of course, some brands embrace a direct sales approach and find a way to make it work online. Orabrush creative director Joel Ackerman recently told Digiday, “Brands should acknowledge the fact that they’re brands. People know that you’re a brand. There’s nothing wrong with your product or talking about it.”

Once upon a time, the customer’s values were none of the brand’s business. Advertisers concerned themselves with broadcasting one-way pitches that prominently featured their products’ features and benefits. The challenge was hooking an audience with creative advertising that people gladly invited into their lives. Dr Pepper musicals of the 1970s exemplify this classic approach. Today, the mass media challenge remains intact, but now, agencies and their clients face the additional task of developing a daily dialogue with a brand’s most engaged customers.

Charlie Quirk, associate director of planning and strategy at Possible in Seattle, said, “Make no mistake, brands are participating on these platforms and communities to sell their wares. But if a brand is able to align itself with the values and interests of its target audience, then that precipitates both conversation as well as influence.”

Orabrush, for instance, famously uses the humor about bad breath—something its product fixes—to create shareable sensations on YouTube. Yet not every brand has humor at its disposal, nor should it.

According to Annie Heckenberger, VP and community trailblazer at Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners, “The key here is ‘woo,’ not ‘whoa.’ If it feels gross, or pitchy, it probably is. Focus on the relationship and the transaction will come.”

Digital media is still an ocean with strong consumer-driven currents, so maintaining a strong voice with customers sometimes requires their involvement. YouTube recently released a Brand Channel Leaderboard that factors in multiple signals of audience passion and popularity, surfacing channels that have the most engaged fan bases. Currently, GoPro is atop the leaderboard, backed by consumer-generated media that drives the popularity of GoPro videos.

YouTube is now the go-to place to display and rerun commercials, but sophisticated brands can also use it to develop their voices when interacting with customers. It will be interesting to see how buttoned-up brands like Nike fare on the leaderboard, since today’s empowered customers want to impact a brand’s voice.

While the shift to a collaborative approach has opened up possibilities for smart, reactive digital marketing campaigns, it continues to present problems for the traditional guardians of brand voice.

“The way we think about it, a brand’s voice shouldn’t really change from place to place. Some of the strongest brands are complex and express a range of tone and emotions the same way people do,” said Zach Gallagher, director of interactive strategy at Wieden+Kennedy Portland.

W+K has worked with Nike since the agency’s inception in 1982.

“We take a great deal of responsibility and pride in how the brands we work with express themselves, and we wouldn’t want to crowdsource that,” Gallagher added. “We’ve found that the best way to be part of the cultural conversation is to lead it.”

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