Chapter 2: Choosing a Brand Voice

Choosing a brand voice

What you’ll learn

In this chapter, you’ll learn to identify your brand’s core values, define your ideal customers, and stand out from the competition. Every great brand is built on this knowledge and doing these exercises will help you achieve that greatness.

“Due to years of being advertised at, people have evolved their metaphorical walls to block out messaging that doesn’t resonate with them on a personal level,” said Richard Pomes, Partner at RapJab marketing agency in New Orleans. “So brands too have to evolve–not to trick people into buying something, but to convey a thought, idea, message or story to an audience that is ready to listen.”

“We believe that people want to connect with other people–not companies,” added Pomes. “Your brand’s personality and voice are what allow your business to make a personal connection with your audience. Just like humans have beliefs, goals, values, and flaws, so too should organizations. People want to see the humanity behind a business.”
Source: Forbes

What is a brand voice?

Most people are confused about brand voices. They think that your brand voice is your entire marketing presence. Everything customers see and experience. This is actually a brand identity. This identity includes your name, logo, colors, tagline, fonts, and more. It’s an all-reaching guideline for how you want your brand to be perceived.

A brand voice is much simpler. It’s the way your brand communicates using words.

Most small and mid-sized companies don’t have a unique voice because they think a brand identity is more valuable, or because they don’t understand why they should have a brand voice. Don’t fall into that trap.

Large companies like Google and Apple understand the value of having a unique voice. This unique voice isn’t just for their advertisements. It affects how they communicate with consumers at every level of their business. They know that to be easily identified, they need to communicate in a way that’s unique to them.

Why does this matter to you?

Lots of businesses do just fine focusing on brand identity or creating great products. But, if there’s a way to make everything you’re doing more effective, why wouldn’t you do it?

Additionally, a brand voice contributes to brand loyalty. An affordable, well-designed product may sell a customer once, but a brand voice creates the emotional attachment that keeps them coming back for more.

A brand voice is a supplement to what you’re already doing right. It’s a performance enhancer that’s 100% legal and proven to benefit businesses. It takes everything you’re already doing, website, email, ads, etc., and pushes them a step further. This allows your content to enhance your brand identity.

What you need to know

People don’t create brand voices for one simple reason, they don’t know enough about their brand.

Ask the average marketer what their brand’s core values are and prepare to here a list of jargon about integrity and quality. They’ve never thought about their brand past the superficial and mundane. You need to change that.

To successfully create a brand voice, you must at least know:

  1. What your brand’s core values are (beyond the standard answers)
  2. Who your ideal customers are and their traits
  3. How your competition markets themselves

The average business owner is missing these three key pieces of information. Or, they haven’t thought about them enough to clearly define their answer. Extraordinary business owners make all of their major decisions based on this information. That’s why they succeed.

If you want to jump start this process, consider holding a brand sprint. It’s a quick way to determine the important characteristics of your brand. If you need help holding your own brand sprint, then drop me a line and I’ll facilitate it for you.

If you opt-out of the brand sprint process, you’ll still do just fine. We’ll spend the rest of this chapter helping you gather this information using research and a few guesses.

Your brand’s values

“64% of people cite shared values as the main reason they have a relationship with a brand.”
Source: Bop Design

Simon Sinek famously says, “People don’t care about what you do, they care about why you do it.” What does this mean? Your motivation is just as important to consumers as the quality of your product. Customers increasingly base their decisions on a brand’s motivation and ethics. It’s how they decide whether or not to be your friend.

A car manufacturer may brag about their engine’s amazing design. But, what does a human customer have in common with an engine? Not much. They can’t relate to it on an emotional level.

Talk about your motivation for building the engine, such as a desire for performance that doesn’t drain your wallet, and you’ve got a connection. They now understand your brand and what it wants. If they agree with your motivation, then you’ve gained a customer.

When your words strike a chord with customers, it makes them want to work with your company. They could even view your company as a friend. This kind of loyalty isn’t bought, instead it’s based on the trust fostered by consistent, genuine communication.

The Golden Circle

Let’s answer three questions from Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, but we’ll do it backwards (it will be easier this way). Take out a notebook or sheet of paper and take the time to write out your answers. If you see it for yourself in writing, it will give you a much better understanding of your business.

  1. What does your company do? The answer to this question has to do with your products/services. What are they? Who uses them? Why do they use them? Really try to nail these answers in just a few sentences.
  2. How do you do it? Write out the steps in your process and compare them with what your competitors are doing. Where do you surpass them and where are you falling behind? Is there any way to improve what you’re doing?
  3. Why are you doing it? What’s your motivation? This goes back to your brand’s core values. What is the base emotion or desire that your entire business is built on? This question is the most important one when it comes to creating a brand voice. If you still struggle with this question, then imagine a 4 year old listening to you and asking “why?’ over and over again. Ask why 4-5 times until you can’t simplify your explanation anymore.

Answering these questions will lay the foundation for your brand voice. It can identify opportunities for improving and growing your business. But, most importantly it will help your business to be seen as totally genuine.

Your Ideal Customers...or Buyer Personas

“48% of Americans expect brands to know them and help them discover new products or services that fit their needs.”
Source: Bop Design

When your best friend calls, how do you answer the phone? You might put on a fake accent or claim to be a burger king, or say I’m busy hurry up. But, when your grandma calls would you do any of those things? Probably not.

The way that we communicate depends on who we’re speaking to. It changes our tone, topics of choice, and even the volume we speak at. We do this because we know that each person needs to be treated differently and treating them differently is essential to maintaining a relationship with them.

As a business you need to adapt how you you communicate to your audience. You may think it’s better to achieve mass appeal, but marketer Sally Hogshead warns beware vanilla, embrace pistachio. There’s so much vanilla-flavored ice cream that it’s nearly impossible to stand out, but when you’re pistachio you’ll have a following of die-hard pistachio fans.

To choose the right flavor for your audience, you need to know who’s in it first. I’ve yet to find a better way to do this than HubSpot’s buyer persona process. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Create a script with questions to ask current and past customers. You can download a script with the questions that have helped me most here.
     
  2. Schedule appointments with different prospects, current customers, and past customers who have stopped using your company. You should talk with between 8 and 15 people during this step. Interviewing past customers might seem counter-intuitive, but it will likely be the biggest source of insights.
     
  3. As you complete each interview take notes of the answers to your questions. Make sure to capture every detail no matter how small.
     
  4. Compare your notes, find similarities, and put your interviews into buckets. For example, you may notice that your business caters to companies that own small buildings, as well as homeowners. These would be two separate buckets.
     
  5. Take your buckets and use them to build buyer personas. Distill what you’ve learned from the interviews with your own instincts and put it into this template.
     
  6. Try to create 2-3 solid buyer personas from this process and share them with your team. See if they have anything to add or any objections to the personas.
     
  7. Bonus step: Take the persona docs back to your best customers and see what they have to say about them.

The buyer persona process allows you to do something very important. It helps you to focus on doing more of what has been working, build on your brand’s good qualities, and gain deeper loyalty from your current market.

With this information in hand, you don’t have to try to make everyone happy only to end up making no one happy. Now you can pick the right flavor for your market, whether it’s pistachio, chunky monkey, or anything else you like.

Don’t Innovate Yourself Out of the Running

Brands voices are most powerful when they’re innovative, or at the very least a break from the norm. This fact might make you want to create the wildest brand voice that you can, because you want the biggest effect. Don’t.

The problem with innovation is that there’s resistance from the market. It’s not that they don’t like or appreciate something new, in fact they’re constantly searching for it. What they don’t like is something so extreme that they can’t understand the vision behind it.

So, if you’re in luxury yacht manufacturing, then you’re better off not trying to be Zeek the zany yacht builder. It would be very different, but your client base just won’t get it. You crossed the line miles ago, and now your customers can’t connect your brand voice with anything.

To avoid this dilemma, try answering these questions:

  • Does my target market demand that brands remain strictly professional?
  • How far can I push my brand voice before it’s considered inappropriate for my industry?
  • What changes in my voice can I make to stand out from the competition, without stepping on toes?

At the moment, these questions might be hard for you to answer, but keep them in mind. In later chapters, I’ll discuss specific innovations that you can apply. These examples will make it much easier for you.

Checking in on the Jones’

You know your motivation, your target market, and how far you can innovate. But, you still need to consider how your brand voice will look when compared to the competition. Will it even stand out?

In sales, there’s a technique called anchoring. It’s a favorite of Lori Greiner and anyone else who runs infomercials. The idea is that the first price that you tell someone is anchored in their mind as a starting point. Based on that price they’ll decide whether other prices are good or bad.

In infomercials, they’ll tell you that a product has a retail value of $110, but with this special offer you can get it for just $19.99. By anchoring that first price in your mind, they can more easily convince you that $19.99 really is a good deal.

Something similar happens with your competition. Your market has anchors set in their minds about what to expect from a company. Even though we don’t know which specific anchors they have, we can still get a general idea of what the competition is doing, so as to look like the better option.

To figure out these anchor points, we’ll do a short exercise. First, figure out who your top two competitors are and go to their websites. Then open up your website and sales docs. Next put yourself in the shoes of a new customer who’s comparing your company against its top two competitors. Then, fill out this table:

Your Company Competitor 1 Competitor 2
What process do you use to provide your service/product?
Describe your final product/service.
How is each company structured?
Who are your clients?
How does each company communicate?

What anchor points do users have in their minds? Does your brand stand out as a better deal than the competition? This research is absolutely essential, because without it your brand voice might be completely ineffective.

Just imagine that you put in all the hours to create and implement your new brand voice, and then find out that it looks bad compared to the competition. What a waste! But, by checking in on your competitors you can surpass them and always look like the better choice.

Number Crunching

You have your impressions on your company, competition, customers, and market, but it’s time to do some due diligence. Perceptions can be skewed and the more skewed they are, the less likely you are to realize it. So, we need to compare your findings with a reliable data source.

The simplest way to do this is by creating a survey. The survey will verify how people feel about your brand, what they’d like to see from it, and how they feel about your competition. Once you’ve created the survey, share it with your own customers, competitors’ customers, and anyone else with knowledge of the industry.

Micro Guide: Designing an Effective Survey

In this sidebar, we’ll answer basic questions on designing your brand voice survey. Treat it as an FAQ as you design yours.

How many people should I survey?
This depends entirely on your business size. If you’re a small business that operates in one city, then you can get away with a sample size as small as 10 people. Mid-sized companies that market to a larger geographic region or that are primarily online should go for a sample size of 50-100. Large companies and multi-nationals should try to get a sample size of at least 100 people per market segment to get the full picture.

How long should my survey be?
I’d recommend that you include anywhere from the 10-25 questions. Remember that longer surveys should include more easy questions, so that they can still be completed quickly.

What types of questions should I ask?

  1. Don’t ask questions like, “do you prefer brands that are professional or playful?” These questions won’t get you an accurate response because the average consumer won’t be able to imagine the difference. Instead, show two different pieces of copy, each written in a different style, and ask your interviewee which one they prefer and why. People can have very different concepts of what “playful” means, so it’s easiest to use actual examples so that everyone’s on the same page.
     
  2. Allow them to describe you and your competitors. These questions can be as simple as asking, “what qualities does this brand demonstrate?” Give them a list of qualities and have them check any that apply. This will confirm if the way you perceive your brand and the competition is the way that consumers perceive them. You should also always include a comment field so that they can express their own thoughts.
     
  3. Find out what their ideal experience is. Let them write about the best experience they’ve had with a company in your industry. Also, ask them to describe how they would like their relationship with your company to go. This will give you extra ideas on how to beef up your brand.

Should I offer an incentive?
Yes, definitely. You want as many people to take the survey as possible, so build in a good reason for them to do it. Otherwise, the only ones who will do it will be die-hard fans of your brand and the results will be severely skewed. So, offer a small cash reward, a free gift, or a discount on your products (Noodle’s and Company gives out free appetizers). Doing this will only make consumers like you more.

Putting It All Together

Now that you’ve done your due diligence, you want to compare it with your previous research. To do this, create a two-column table. In the left-hand column, write in what you’ve found regarding your brand voice. Then in the right-hand column, write in the matching survey results. Does everything line up? Were your assumptions right? If not, is it because your communication doesn’t accurately represent your company? Or is it because you’re really not living up to consumers’ expectations?

If you like, you can add a third column to track your results. Whenever things line up, write “OK,” and when they don’t, explain why you think they deviate and how you plan to fix it. Once all this is done, it’s now time to choose your brand voice.

The Brand Voice for You

“45% of a brand’s image can be attributed to what it says and how it says it.” 
Source: Bop Design

I can’t say which brand voice is right for you because there are too many factors involved. The research you’ve done so far, though, will help you understand what’s true about your brand, how your brand fits into your industry, and what consumers expect from your brand. This gives you a good starting point for choosing the right brand voice.

Also, keep in mind that a good brand voice always meets three requirements. Your brand voice should:

  • Make you stand out from the competition
  • Resonate with your target market
  • Reflect your company’s core values

If you keep these three points in mind when choosing a brand voice, you’ll be able to select one that’s effective. One that your company will make good use of, not just in advertising or marketing, but in every communication that it has.

Now that you know what brand voice to go after, how will you create it? In the next chapter, we’ll answer this question. And, we won’t actually be creating a brand voice from scratch. Instead we’ll be using a special process called reverse engineering your brand voice.

Remember you can do great things with a brand voice, but they can be hard to create. If at any point you feel lost, consult a professional.

Attack of the Enzo

Once Enzo realized that he needed to make changes to his business, he didn’t sit around with his arms’ crossed. He got to work.

He started by thinking back to why he even started this business and everything he had hoped to achieve. Most accounting firms were stuffy, kept knowledge to themselves, and weren’t adaptable to the needs of small businesses. He had dreamed of an accounting firm that understood that lots of people have a traditional job, freelance work, and product sales. He wanted to make good accounting accessible to people that didn’t fall into the traditional buckets. He writes all of this down.

Next Enzo takes a look at his top competitors. In most cases, they offer standard tax preparation and payroll services. They all use formal communication, just like you’d expect from an accounting firm. The only thing that really makes them stand out is their client list and logo.

Finally, Enzo learns more about his best and worst customers. He asks them about their challenges with accounting, their needs, and what they like and don’t like from accounting firms. He turns all of this into a buyer persona to help him imagine how potential clients will react to his marketing.

Now Enzo knows what makes him unique, what his competitors are doing, and what his clients want and need. What’s next? How will he put it all together? We’ll find out in chapter 3.

I Made This for You

To make the brand voice process easier, download this template. It describes the entire brand voice creation process step-by-step and provides you with the prompts and resources you need to succeed.