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Brand Voice: Why Sounding Different Matters & How to Do It

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The...noise...is...non...stop. 

In 2017, experts estimated that Americans were exposed to anywhere between 4,000 and 10,000 brand messages per day. It’s hard to imagine the number isn’t even larger now. The thing is, we glaze over most of these messages as if they don’t exist, while others we do our best to consciously ignore. When all’s said and done, only a finite few grab the attention of our tired eyes and manage to sink their hooks into our guarded hearts.   

In other words, only a handful of the thousands and thousands of brand messages do their job. 

These are the ones that directly pertain to something we need or want (in part thanks to smart media plays) or the ones that are interesting enough to wake us from our daily doldrums and make us take notice. Messages that accomplish the latter of these are more than mere words. They’re emotional envoys, attention-seeking missiles, violin players that strike chords within us. These are the messages that come from an obvious, well-defined voice and a personality that stands out from the crowd—the kind of messages you only see from brands that dare to be different. We can feel the characters—in this case, the brand or brand mascot—behind these messages, delivering them with specific language in certain cadences, just like the characters in our favorite books, TV shows, and movies do.

It’s important to pay close attention to those characters too, because at the end of the day, people don’t want to hear from brands—people want to hear from people. Interesting people, that is. So if your brand is robotic or boring, you're all but dead. For a brand to live and thrive amongst the masses today, it must have a distinct voice, a special style, an attractive and interesting personality. 

Be uncommon or build your coffin. It doesn't take much for the cell phones to come out or for the thumbs to keep scrolling...and scrolling...and scrolling. Safe equals sorry. Different equals dollars.

Tone of Voice Definition

Before we jump into the process of developing a brand voice, let’s define what *tone of voice is.

Defining Tone

  • First, let’s look at tone. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it in a multitude of ways, but the one most relevant to our work is this: 
    • tone, noun
      • style or manner of expression in speaking or writing

Defining Voice

  • Now, let’s look at voice. Again, there are plenty of definitions for the word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but the one most appropriate for us is:
    • voice, noun
      • an instrument or medium of expression

As you can see from these definitions, tone is the how, and voice is the what. When put together, we see that tone of voice is simply the style, the manner, and the language an entity uses to express things through one of their primary forms of expression.

*Note that throughout this article, I’ve referred (and will continue referring) to voice, tone, and tone of voice interchangeably, because in this context I find it much easier to consider these things synonymous.

A Brand’s Voice Should Be Just Like A Person’s

Take a quick moment and think about your three closest friends. Think about the way they speak, the way they sound. What’s their tone like? Their cadence? Their delivery?

  • Does one of them TALK SUPER LOUD AS IF YOU CAN’T HEAR THEM EVEN THOUGH YOU CAN HEAR THEM JUST FINE?
  • Maybe one of them talks really fast and without pause and with no sense of rhythm as if the world is going to end tomorrow and it’s super important you hear their story about the girl from the bar last night and even though she wasn’t into him he swears she was into him because she accidentally made eye contact with him after she took a shot in the pool game she was playing with a guy who was most likely her boyfriend?
  • And there has to be one who talks like the word “like” is going out of style, like it’s hard to fathom that, like, it could ever, like, happen, but it’s, like, gonna happen.

Chances are, these are not the voices of your three best friends (at least I hope not, for your sake). But I’m sure each of your three best friends has their own unique tone of voice that sets them apart. The differences don’t need to be as pronounced as they are in the three examples I provided, either. They can be small, subtle distinctions. 

The point is, nearly each and every person we encounter has their own voice with their own tone, their own personal style. Through tone, we identify others, and through tone, others identify us. Through tone, we recognize the way other people feel in real-time. Through tone, we reveal our happiness, sadness, excitement, and disappointment. Many people can mask their emotions, but nobody can silence them.

Now consider brands. How many are there with fresh and imaginative, yet relatable voices—the type where you could see something written by the brand without a logo and have a good shot at guessing which brand it came from. Three? Four? Maybe five? Here are mine: Burger King, Nike, Dollar Shave Club, and GEICO. That’s it. They succeed because they’re entertaining, they’re unconventional, they’re creative. They’re frickin’ real, dammit. And they sound a lot like...people!   

Remember, a brand’s voice should be just like a person’s. Describing the voice of Dollar Shave Club should be no different than describing the voice of your grandmother (though it’s safe to assume you’ll be using a different set of adjectives and references to do so—unless your grandma is a straight-up savage). 

People are a lot like brands, and brands are a lot like people. The failure to realize and understand this explains why so many brands sound the same, so many sound vanilla, and so few stand out from the rest. 

Before diving into how you can begin finding your brand’s voice and tone, let’s look at why so many brand voices fail.

Why So Many Brand Voices Fail

In short, many brand voices fail because they don’t have a focused tone that sounds like it’s coming from a singular person. This leads to inconsistent tones in communications, diminishing perceptions of the brand, and eventually, a voice-less brand and business. 

This may be the result of any one—or any combination of a number—of the following:

  • An organizational lack of belief in, or understanding of, the power of branding
  • A reluctance to invest in branding
  • A past branding attempt that cost a good chunk of $$ but failed
  • A desire to please too many stakeholders 
  • A fear of letting the business become “too human”

Bottom line is, it’s not good. The longer your company is in business with a wishy-washy and uncertain tone of voice, the more clouded people’s perception of you will become, and the more eyes, ears, hearts, and wallets you’ll miss out on. And that’s all because people don’t buy products. They buy brands (and everything that comes with them—promises, stories, and in some cases, a whole lotta clout).

How to Develop Your Brand Voice

There’s no one “right” way to discover and bring your brand’s tone of voice to life, but there are a few steps you can take in the early stages of the process that’ll speed things up while ensuring accuracy and authenticity at the same time.  (If you don’t have the time or personnel, we’ll do it for you.)

Step 1: Figure Out What Your Brand Archetype Is

Branding—which is something that goes far beyond a logo and color palette—has always and will always be of vital importance to businesses. 

Among so many other things, branding your company gives it a personality. It determines your place in the world and how you’ll communicate with people—how you’ll make them feel and what you’ll make them think about. Without a clear and consistent brand presence, your company will never make a mark on the hearts and minds of consumers. 

Much of this personality, including your brand’s voice and tone, is often developed only after you’ve identified your brand’s archetype(s). Developed by Carl Jung, archetypes are best described as characters that are shared by the universal unconscious. In other words, archetypes are innately understood and identifiable by all humans, and each archetype shows up somewhere in the myths and stories of every culture—throughout all of time—though they appear and present themselves in ways that are unique to each culture. 

According to Jung, there are twelve of these primary mythic characters that all of us can relate to, thanks to the collective unconscious. Knowing which one best represents your business is the first step in finding and forming your brand’s voice.

Jung’s Twelve Archetypes

  • The Caregiver
  • The Creator
  • The Jester
  • The Explorer
  • The Everyday Guy/Girl
  • The Hero
  • The Innocent
  • The Lover
  • The Magician
  • The Rebel
  • The Ruler
  • The Sage

Archetypes are like a brand’s foundation. Everything that is the brand is so because of its archetype. The archetype precedes the brand's personality, its voice, its visual identity. And as humans, we gravitate toward the brands that are absolutely sure of their archetypes—the brands that do and say just about everything in accordance with what we would expect from their archetypes. In this sense, archetypes explain why we can’t help but respect and admire the hero that is Nike. Why we’re left jaw-dropped and awe-inspired by the magician that is Disney. And why the creator that is Apple leaves us giddy with excitement for the future. 

We’re so enamored with these brands because they so strongly represent and remind us of their archetypal characters with every line of copy, every commercial, and every new ad campaign. These are archetypes that all people are, knowingly or unknowingly, intimately familiar with, so it’s a no-brainer for businesses to brand themselves in a similar mold. Each of us has repeatedly dealt with these archetypes in story after story, regardless of upbringing and culture. It doesn’t matter if we grew up in Los Angeles, Mumbai, or Shanghai—each of our cultures deals with these archetypes to a significant degree. 

Exploring and discovering the appropriate archetype for your brand isn’t the end-all, be-all for finding and developing your brand voice. It is, however, a wise place to start. And that’s because, with your archetype in place, you can use it as a jumping off point from which all of your voice and tone elements emerge. 

Try it. It won’t take long for you to appreciate how helpful it is to have some boundaries set up by your archetype. It’ll be both your guiding inspiration and your disciplinarian, and your brand voice will be better for it.

Step 2: Find Celebrity Personalities You Want Your Brand to Emulate

This might seem like a weird thing to do, but it’s incredibly helpful to have some type of real-life inspiration for developing your brand’s voice and tone. 

Here’s how to do it:

Discover Celebrities with Similar Archetypes

After you’ve solidified your brand’s archetype, take some time to consider celebrities and other well-known personalities who share similar archetypal themes. Then, narrow your celebrity list down to the two or three who best mirror the brand and brand voice you’re looking to create.

Depending on your brand goals, your celebrities might be professionals in the same industry. For example, if your brand is the Jester archetype, you might find that three comedians best exemplify the tone of voice you’re looking for. 

With that being said, your celebrities very well could come from a diverse range of places. If your brand is the Creator archetype, for example, you might want to pull from a movie director, a tech founder, and a poet. 

The celebrities you choose to use as inspiration all hinge on your archetype and the exact tone you’re looking to create.

Start a “Dump” Document with Tweets, Quotes, and Audio Clips from Your Celebrities

With your three celebrities in mind, open up a Word or Google doc and begin pulling writing and language from your celebrities. This can be done rather easily by sifting through Twitter feeds, articles, quotes, and interviews. But in order for this to be effective, you have to be selective.

If one of your celebrity comparisons is Charlize Theron, for example, you’re not going to want to pull everything—or just anything—the American-South African actress has ever said. You want to make sure that what you’re putting into your “dump” document only reflects the tonal elements, key words, and language you want to use as inspiration for your brand. This requires some patience, but if you’ve identified the right celebrities for your brand, it shouldn’t be long before you come across a handful of examples that are perfect for the task at hand.

Rewrite Some of the Things You’ve Put Into Your “Dump” Doc Word for Word

With your celebrity comparisons in place and your “dump” doc filled up, get a feel for what it’s like to write and speak like them. This works best by simply choosing a few of the things in your document and copying them word for word

By doing this, you’ll be able to better understand the language, rhythm, and tone your celebrity comparisons use, and therefore you’ll have a more informed idea of how to bring those aspects to life in your brand’s voice. This exercise also gives you the opportunity to rapidly identify styles and elements of your celebrity comparisons that you wish to avoid. Maybe one of your celebrity comparisons loves using exclamation points, but that overly excited tone isn’t right for your brand. Or maybe one of your celebrities curses too much (or not enough). Or perhaps your celebrity has the confident tone you’re looking for, but they’re a bit too preachy for your liking. 

Finding places where your celebrities’ tones might not exactly match up to the brand tone of voice you’re looking for doesn’t mean you have the wrong celebrities. In fact, it just means you have a solid grasp on exactly what your brand should sound like. 

And speaking of that, now it’s time to put it all together and nail down your brand’s tone of voice.

Step 3: Get Into Character and Write in the Context of Your Brand

You’ve got your archetype, celebrity comparisons, and “dump” doc in place. Now, let’s start exploring your tone of voice in the context of your brand.

This is as simple as it seems. All you need is a pen and a notebook (or a computer, of course). Don't overcomplicate it by opening sixteen tabs on your browser with the sources and examples you used to discover your archetype and celebrity comparisons. If you've done steps one and two correctly, then you'll have consumed so much of what your brand is and embodies that you’ll already be in character. You won't need any additional inspiration during the actual act of writing. Chances are, you won't even have to refer to your "dump" doc.

It's equally important to remember that this is an exploration of your brand voice—not an execution. You can't execute your brand voice because you haven't quite figured out what it is yet. That's why you can't simply jump into writing what you intend to be real website copy or video scripts or social posts until you've spent a significant chunk of time sitting down, alone, with your brand bubbling inside your brain and your fingertips banging away at the keyboard.

Wide, Not Deep: Exploring Your Brand Voice in Writing

Ok, cool. Now that you’re breathing your brand and completely in character—with the understanding that these first two hours or so of writing are all about trying different things and seeing what works—get to writing. 

But don’t just write anything. Write things relative to your brand. Write ten examples of what the homepage masthead headline and subheadline might be for your website. Write four different thirty-second radio spots. Give a go at a manifesto or two. Whatever you do during this time, go wide, not deep. Now’s not the time to agonize over a video script for two hours (not yet at least). Now’s the time to get lots of variety and lots of examples of where your brand voice will come to life, because pretty soon you’re going to share your work with your team so you can collaboratively narrow down what feels right.

Step 4: Share and Survey Your Writing with Coworkers 

After you’ve written a bunch of example copy during your brand voice exploration, share it around with a few of your coworkers to see what resonates with them. 

Doesn’t matter if it’s in a Google doc, Word doc, or if you print it out, the important thing here is that you share the work. This way, other people who are familiar with the brand and business can gauge whether or not you’re hitting the mark. Better yet, if you are hitting the mark, then you can begin to work with your team to identify the specific examples that feel the most like your brand—the ones that best reflect your archetype, channel your celebrity comparisons, and appeal to your audiences.

Following this, you can go back to your writing examples and cut out the work that doesn’t fit. The stuff that just didn’t ring true to your brand. Then, refine these to make sure your brand voice is carrying over successfully from one place to another. For example, put your best masthead writing up against your best radio script and your best social post. Make sure all of them sound like they’re coming from the same voice. They may not all have the same language, rhythm, or inflection points, but they should each have similar tonal elements that string them all together (in the last section of this article I present a few examples of brands that do this well). 

When you have all of this in place, you’re well on your way to finalizing your polished brand voice. And by doing so, your brand is in a far better position to make a memorable impact on the people it interacts with.

Notable Brand Tone of Voice Examples

As I noted earlier in this article, there aren’t a ton of brands that have notable and unique voices. In reality, that’s perfectly fine. Not every brand is going to have (or need) a voice that stands out to the masses. Yet, with that being said, every brand should aspire to have a voice that stands out in their market. 

Beyond their sheer personality, what makes the following brands so memorable for me—and consumers at large—is their ability to maintain aspects of the same identifiable tone of voice across a number of different platforms and channels. 

Here are a few examples of those brands:

GEICO

GEICO, the Gecko-led insurance company with what seems like a brand-new commercial every day, has a distinct, human-like brand voice that combines wit with wisdom and tops it off with a splash of sass.

Of course, like any good brand, GEICO is strategic about the places where they double-down on the more playful aspects of their brand voice and places where they tone it down. But, just like any good brand, GEICO also makes sure to always use a tone that conveys the wit, wisdom, and sass they’ve become known for—no matter the channel, platform, or medium. It might be subtle in some instances, but it’s still recognizable. And that’s the important thing.

Nike

Sometimes it only needs three words, sometimes it needs a few more, but either way, Nike is a brand that knows how to inspire. 

Its voice exudes courage and determination. It conjures up feelings every human—athlete or non-athlete—has experienced in their life. Winning, defeat, resurgence. In every tweet, in every ad, and at every single touchpoint, Nike’s brand voice is recognizable. The brand knows exactly what it is and what it means to its vast, vast, vast consumer audience.

Dollar Shave Club

Delightfully impish and entirely relatable to their target audience, Dollar Shave Club may very well be the modern-day darling of brand voice examples. It’s the type of brand that keeps you wanting more because of how refreshingly fun and cheeky their tone of voice is. 

Consuming and interacting with content from Dollar Shave Club is more like communicating with your goofball best friend than it is with a razor blade brand. And that, in many respects, is the greatest compliment a brand can get.

Creating Your Brand Voice

Contrary to what some other pieces of literature may try to convince you of, creating your brand voice is no small feat. It takes time, research, patience, practice, and above all, a willingness to get uncomfortable and push your brand to be different.

At Digital Surgeons, we help brands craft their voices and their entire brand DNAs on a regular basis. So if you’re getting ready to embark on the branding or rebranding journey and need any help, feel free to give us a shout.

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