Voices

How to Craft a Killer Brand Voice and Mission Statement for Your Content Marketing

By Joe Lazauskas February 15th, 2016

There are two parts of content strategy that I truly love: creating a mission statement for your content marketing operation, and crafting a brand voice.

Creating a mission statement is one of the most difficult yet enjoyable stages of the content marketing journey. A great mission statement not only speaks to your content plan and goals, but also captures who you are as a brand and publisher. It’s the rallying cry that makes you excited to come to work every day, pushing you to do more—and do better—than your competitors.

But you can’t write a mission statement without nailing your brand voice. Like the word “irony,” brand voice is something people love to talk about but don’t really understand. It’s far more than a set of adjectives (clever, smart, millennial) and can’t be captured in a mock tweet. It goes far deeper than that, which makes sense: Your brand voice is at the heart of every piece of content you create.

As far as crafting a brand voice, I’m a big fan of an exercise that content strategist Melissa Lafsky Wall advocated in a piece last year on The Content Strategist. Her advice is so brilliant that instead of summarizing her ideas and butchering them in the process, I’ll just share her recommendation in full:

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 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.

A clear sense of identity is what categorizes the best brand publishers. GE is the smart, inquisitive, clever science nerd who blows your mind. Red Bull is the death-defying rock star you want to hang out with. HubSpot is the inbound marketing genius who wants to help you get that promotion. Moz is the wizard of SEO with secrets that will fundamentally change your business. In different ways, they’re all a kind of person who will accumulate a posse of interested admirers at that dinner party.

Of course, this exercise of anthropomorphization is just that—an exercise. Brands can’t have a voice or a mission; the people who communicate on their behalf do. When I spoke with the people behind the content powerhouses at HubSpot, Moz, and GE, that much was clear. You can hear the mission in the brand voice.

Here’s what Tomas Kellner, the senior managing editor of GE Reports, told me when I interviewed him last year:

“Here we are. We’re 130 years old. We were founded by Thomas Edison, and guess what? We are still working on really hard problems that the entire planet has to be dealing with, whether it’s the future of energy or whether it’s the future of electricity or whether it’s new propulsion for planes that will get you from New York to Tokyo in four hours.”

Or what Joe Chernov told me when he was the VP of content at HubSpot1:

“HubSpot is not only a company, but it’s also the catalyst of a movement. And as a community has coalesced around that movement, it’s our job to nurture and foster it.”

Or take the words of Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz:

“[Content is] part of our DNA. We believe in sharing and being transparent in putting out there the things that we’ve learned. … We want to try and help marketers first. That’s our underlying goal. We really don’t think about content marketing as being part of our funnel. It’s part of our mission.”

With each of them, you hear a passion for something greater than just revenue. You hear their mission, something that shines through with the content that each company creates. And that serves as a great reminder: While the business goals of your content marketing efforts are important—be it generating leads, sales, brand awareness, industry education, or, more likely, some combination of initiatives—you always need to stay focused on the audience you serve.

For example, this is our mission statement for The Content Strategist:

If the marketing blogosphere were a college, there would currently be about 10,000 professors angling for tenure—and all of them would be teaching some version of inbound 101 or remedial content. Picture a dusty hall full of creaky desks, a syllabus full of old listicles and questionable stats, and the teacher droning on and on while students pass notes in the form of Pitbull GIFs.

Then picture the Kool-Aid man bursting through the wall screaming, “OHHH YEAHHHHHHHHH!”

That’s us. We’re the Kool-Aid man of marketing pubs.

What’s that mean? Well, first and foremost we want to give you information you can’t find anywhere else on the Internet, and we want to do it every single day. Forget telling you that certain things work—we want to tell you why they work, how they work, and what’s going to work next. We’re going to continuously talk to the smartest people in our industry, and we’re going to tell you what we find out. Media is changing marketing (and vice versa), and understanding what it all means and how to take advantage means thinking beyond the tropes of the past.

We also aim to have fun because this is fun! The late, great David Carr put it best when he said, “Creating media content is a diverting activity that rarely resembles actual work.” And if you’re reading The Content Strategist, it likely means your job involves telling stories in some way or another.

There’s no reason that marketing content has to be dry or boring—after all, a good story is a good story, no matter what it’s about. Just because we’re writing about content marketing doesn’t mean we can’t use NBA metaphors or make fun of our own buzzwords. There’s no reason a story about ROI or legal approvals can’t have a few jokes in it. Marketers are humans too.

At Contently, we talk a lot about “building a better media world,” which sounds like something out of Silicon Valley, but it’s true. We believe in helping people tell amazing stories instead of polluting the web with mediocrity, and in the power of ditching intrusive advertising in favor of great media experiences. The Internet is what we make it, and we want to make it awesome.

Notice how focused we are on our readers; that’s not a front. We do have clear business goals for The Content Strategist—building brand awareness, fortifying our reputation as a content marketing thought leader, educating clients and potential clients, and driving email subscribers, leads, sales, and opportunities—but our primary focus and editorial mission remains helping our readers become better, smarter content marketers. And we’ve found putting our readers first is the best way to drive all of those results.

Our mission statement reflects our commitment to editorial purity, and if you talk to successful brand publishers, they’ll tell you that commitment is key. In the words of Chernov: “[O]wning your audience comes with huge responsibilities—namely the need to ‘protect’ that audience from marketing’s shadow. … If we fell victim to the temptation to strip-mine that audience with overt promotions, we’d destroy the asset many people have worked so hard to build.”

As you identify your brand voice and craft your mission statement, keep all of that in mind. You have to put your readers first and give them what they’re not getting elsewhere. Your mission statement will be your guiding light, the document that keeps you in check, inspires you, and protects your content from marketing’s shadow. It’s crucial. I don’t know where we’d be without it.

This post is an excerpt from “The Ultimate Content Strategist Playbook No. 3: Staffing and Launching Your Content Marketing Program.” Read the full version by filling out the form below.

  1. Chernov is now the VP of marketing at InsightsSquared.
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