It's something you've been told to do for years, as far back as your high school English classes: Define your voice. Voice is sometimes talked about as some ineffable je ne sais quoi. It's something that's felt more than defined.
But in reality, voice—the elements of personality that make a brand or person so distinctly themselves—can and should be defined. In fact, according to the Nielsen Norman Group, voice can have a huge impact on how much consumers trust or care about a brand. And that matters, because customers are far more likely to spend money with a reliable brand than an unreliable one.
What is brand voice?
Brand voice specifically refers to the content your business publishes online, in print, and anywhere else. It's made up of the words you use and how you choose to use them—in other words, it's the voice with which your business speaks.
Not sure what your brand's personality is or should be? Here are five tips to help you define and sustain your brand's voice.
1. Spend time putting words to your brand voice
While this step might look simple on the surface, it's something a lot of companies overlook. If you want your brand's voice to be consistent and scalable for growth, you have to clearly document it.
Begin with a voice tool as a starting point, or simply play through a few improv-style scenarios, feeling out how you and other stakeholders would expect the brand to respond in a given situation. As you launch new products, would your brand message contain more excitement or confidence? When customers write in for support, is it more important for your staff to be appeasing or authoritative? Which main values or interests do you want your messaging to regularly drive home?
Carefully document the responses, then identify any patterns or trends. Narrow down your list to a core set of descriptors (between three and five). From there, you can construct statements highlighting what your brand identity is and isn't. By establishing and documenting the foundation of your company's voice, you have a point of reference for any future communication or branding.
MailChimp's voice and tone guidelines are a great point of reference for how to do this. The description is fairly brief, but each word gets a lot of work done.
2. Create consistency in every bit of content and copy
A truly effective voice requires consistency across all messaging. No piece of copy, content or communication should stray from that core persona, or you risk hurting how consistent your brand is perceived. And given that consistency can provide a 23% revenue increase over brands that lack it, inconsistency is one mistake you really can't afford to make.
Take Cards Against Humanity. Every piece of writing in its games and on its website bursts with snarky sarcasm. The company has even set up training to ensure that support staff can meet customer needs without losing the signature sass that has come to define the brand's voice.
If you want to follow this model, share the brand guidelines you established in the point above so all staff members know what is and isn't allowed. Set up QA processes to make sure that everything aligns, from your social voice to your customer support voice. Specific tone can differ to suit different situations, but the central voice that defines your brand should remain constant across all communications and posts.
3. Raise your brand's voice through proper channels
Everyone has that one extended relative—a grandma or a great aunt—who uses Facebook in a way that's just a little bit off. And that's exactly what you want to avoid. Because in a lot of ways, where you share your message matters almost as much as what you're sharing.
The reason for this is twofold: First, it makes good financial sense to put brand resources and time where they will have the most impact. Second, and maybe more importantly, the platforms you use can impact how your brand's voice is perceived. A teen-focused brand posting primarily on LinkedIn will confuse a lot of people; the platform lends itself to more formal business voices. Forcing a casual, slangy brand into that mold could be a recipe for failure.
Influencer marketing and advertising deserve attention here, too. If your strategy involves partnering with influencers or celebrities to sell a product—and there are plenty of good reasons to go this route—pay careful attention to how and where they share their messages. You can't demand that an influencer change their persona to advertise your product without defeating the point of influencer marketing. Instead, spend some time listening to and watching the people you want to partner with to find someone who naturally matches your brand's voice.
For a great example, look to underwear brand TomboyX. The brand works hard to speak to the LGBTQ+ community in a voice that feels human, confident and aware. TomboyX found an ideal voice pairing in Cameron Esposito, with an influencer-esque ad that plays during Esposito's podcast, QUEERY. The ad, which involves Esposito giving a positive review of her own experience with the brand's product, sounds genuine and real, perfectly harmonizing with TomboyX's voice.
4. Walk the talk
As we've discussed, content and copy are huge parts of brand voice definition—but that's not where consistency ends. For a voice to feel honest and genuine, it has to be backed up by other brand elements, including visuals and products.
A lot of beauty and fashion brands have pivoted to include more "natural" messaging in recent years. "Organic," "pure," "unretouched" and similar terms have gone beyond slogans and now feel baked into brand personas. But, how many brands succeed when it comes to backing up those words with concrete action, both in terms of visual advertising and product offerings? Not many.
That's part of what made American Eagle's recent #AerieREAL campaign so refreshing: The brand translated its voice and values into its ad campaign photography. For many consumers, this was the first fashion campaign they'd seen that included models with disabilities—real bodies wearing the product they were advertising.
If you really want to sell your brand voice, you have to back it up. Otherwise, even the strongest voice will start to ring hollow.
5. Don't be afraid to—consciously—grow and adapt
Finally, adjust your voice as your brand grows.
That's not a call to revamp everything at the drop of a hat—constant rebranding won't do much to help encourage company recognition or loyalty. But an occasional and purposeful shift to respond to a growing market or changing attitude can and should be encouraged.
A particularly relevant example of voice evolution is Soylent. It started out as a niche, DIY-focused product with a voice that spoke primarily to busy engineers and developers who cared more about the function than the form of what they were eating. The creator himself said that even the brand name was designed for "encouraging further discussion and thought," solidifying the brand's methodical, analytical voice.
However, as the product picked up new followers and expanded into new markets, that voice changed. It holds on to some of its original directness but now brings friendlier reassurance to the table. What once read as intentional austerity now feels more palatable.
Since the change, Soylent has seen more commercial success, moving into markets on Amazon and college campuses. It's unlikely that it would have seen that level of success without some voice adjustment to better speak to its newer, larger audience.
There's no denying that it can feel daunting to establish your brand's voice in a world that already seems saturated with a lot of noise. But, it's not all about volume. Use the tips above to build a voice that resonates with your audience, and reap the benefits of better brand recognition and a better bottom line.