Brand Voice Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means, But You Still Need One

Something editorial types love to say is, “It’s all about the voice!” It’s a phrase bandied around a lot, often with little context or explanation. And when it comes to branded content, we tend to incorporate it into every content marketing deck or strategy meeting—often without really diving into what “brand voice” means.

The truth is, voice is far more than a buzzword. From a writing standpoint, it’s what differentiates E.L. James from D.H. Lawrence (along with an overall knowledge of words in the English language). From a branded content standpoint, a brand voice is core tenet for creating every piece of digital content, be it a blog post, tweet, newsletter, or infographic. Brands that communicate successfully are successful brands. And in order to communicate successfully, you have to distinguish and define your voice.

So, what exactly is a “brand voice,” and how do you come up with one? I teach a class on content marketing, and I show my students how to answer these questions using a simple exercise.

Say you’re going to a dinner party full of people you don’t know. Whether you admit it or not, you’ll want each of the other people at the party to leave with a certain viewpoint or opinion about you at the end of the night. So you act a certain way, choose certain words and conversation topics over others, make certain jokes, and generally work to be the most charming, or funny, or book smart, or emotionally sensitive, etc. version of yourself, depending on which of these traits are the most important for you to convey.

With brands, it’s really not all that different. The fundamentals of brand voice comes down to a personality—prioritizing a set of traits that comprise an identity, and then communicating in a way that expresses and prioritizes those traits. Which means that, in order to create a successful voice, a brand is required to take on some of the personality of, well, an actual person (the Supreme Court would be so pleased).

The logical question now is, “So what personality traits does my brand embody?” The answer can only come from one source: your brand itself. No one else can identify your brand’s values and point of view other than the individuals who comprise it. The most successful brands stand for an idea (Apple, GE, IBM), and that idea is a good place to start when it comes to distilling your brand values into a key concept or identity.

You may be thinking that what I’m describing resembles a common branding exercise, in which teams boil their brand down to four or five words or colors or images, etc. But identifying the voice involves a bit more anthropomorphization than that (and yes, that’s a word—I looked it up).

Another way to think of it is this: If your brand was the person at the dinner party, who would they be? The gadget freak who snagged an iPhone 6 a week before they went on sale? The honest and kind friend you’d consult while getting dressed for a date? The mad scientist determined to find a way to make fuel out of pencil shavings?

These examples may sound hyperbolic, but they get at values that lead people to prioritize certain skills and behaviors over others. Brands are no different.

Plenty of brands with strong voices are using this technique. Kevan Lee, who works as the director of content at Buffer, a brand known for its consistent and powerful voice, said, “Basing the company on values from the beginning has been key to defining the voice and tone for our brand. Voice and tone must come from somewhere—a set of values, a meeting or discussion, etc. For us, having clearly defined what matters most to us, we’ve got a great foundation for developing and finding our voice.”

Brand voice isn’t just a clever piece of jargon. At the risk of sounding hokey, it’s the soul of your brand, articulated onto and within your content. What that soul is, and what it has to say, is up to you—but if it doesn’t say something, you’ll never separate your brand and your content from the noisey, crowded digital dinner party.

Melissa Lafsky Wall (@Lafsky) is the founder of Brick Wall Media.

Image by Ersin Ergin

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