Chapter 4: What details should you include in your brand voice

What you’ll learn: In this chapter, we’ll deconstruct your brand avatar to see exactly how it works and how its personality can affect even seemingly small writing decisions.

Since we have such a nice rhythm of weirdness going, let’s make this chapter the weirdest one yet. You’ve learned that brands can speak, become a reverse engineer, and used your brainstorm lightning to give life to your Frankenstein-esque avatar, now it’s time to bust out your scalpel and strap on your gloves.

Think back to biology class. What was the worst (or maybe best) assignment? Dissections. Maybe you dissected a rat, frog, pig, or some random cadaver your teacher had at home. I’m sure it was super gross, but at least you learned how the creature worked. You were able to examine how it was interconnected into one cohesive organism.

If you want your brand voice to be just as cohesive, then you need to dissect your avatar to really understand them. Fortunately for us, this dissection is bloodless and purely mental. The only tools you need are your brain, a pen, notebook, and maybe gloves if you don’t want ink smudges on your hand.

Dissecting Your Brand Avatar’s Personality

"I profess to learn and to teach anatomy not from books but from dissections, not from the tenets of Philosophers but from the fabric of Nature."
- William Harvey

The first step in your dissection is defining the intricacies of your avatar’s personality. For example, is your avatar hyper and super-caffeinated like a preschool teacher? What are their interests? How would others describe their personality? By writing down different qualities related to your avatar, you’ll gain a better understanding of it and see how its personality traits work together as a whole.

Let’s take this a step further. Imagine that your brand avatar is a living person right in front of you. What would they look like? Try sketching a picture of them. Maybe they’re a relaxed skateboarder, a businessman, or an educator with leather elbow patches. Following through on this seemingly silly step will make them more real in your mind. Making it easier to describe them and paint a picture in your customers’ minds.

Finally, think of how your brand avatar would communicate. Would they give a speech in front of a lot of people? Or would they rather have a one-on-one discussion? Maybe they focus their communication on a select group, instead of the entire public. Whatever the case may be, write it down and define it, because this will help us to dissect your brand avatar.

What’s Their Motivation

"A champion needs a motivation above and beyond winning."
- Pat Riley

Understanding your avatar’s personality is step one. Step two goes deep into their motivation. Why are they doing what they do? For example, why do they want to work as an educator? What would they say the purpose of their work is? Do they want to better themselves, do research in an academic environment, or help their students to learn and make good decisions? See if these reasons line up with your reasons for starting your business. Remember that your avatar’s motivation should be as noble or more noble than your own.

Ventriloquist Time

Think about a ventriloquist’s dummy for a second. I know it’s creepy, but bear with me. The ventriloquist uses their own voice and personality when they’re on stage and speaking as themselves, but what happens when they speak as the dummy? Their voice, tone, and communication style all change. The ventriloquist is the one coming up with the words, but the dummy’s character filters and changes those words to match its personality.

Similarly your brand avatar has a unique voice. When it speaks for you, it uses your words but adapts them to its own tone and communication style. They’re still your ideas, but your brand avatar is giving your customers a message they can identify with, which is great for your brand identity.

Ready to try it? First, open your company’s home page and get into your brand avatar’s head. Read through the content and look for the key message. Next, imagine that your brand avatar is having a conversation with a client. Your avatar shares the points from your home page with them. How will they communicate them? Will some be simplified, changed, or eliminated? What tone will it be? This will show you what your brand voice sounds like in a marketing context.

Now do the exercise again, but this time use a really boring piece of content, like a user manual, technical brochure, or proposal. Let your brand avatar take the lead in explaining it. Do they simplify the content? Do they make it more exciting? Maybe they pepper it with real-world examples or user stories. Take note of all of these changes no matter how small. Does the brand voice better reflect your company’s values? Or is it a bit too extreme? This exercise will help you calibrate your brand voice to the right intensity, so that it can be consistent across all of your content.

Third, if you want to, and if you haven’t done it already, take a contract and do the same thing. Obviously there will be a lot of legal speech, but your brand voice can still give contracts flavor, make them different, more exciting, and entertaining to read. Reinforcing your brand voice through this piece of legal writing makes your company seem trustworthy and likeable. Instead of scaring customers, you’re reassuring them that from marketing to legal you’ll always treat them the same way. Use this exercise as the final step in calibrating your brand voice.

After all of these steps, have you seen any patterns in how your brand avatar communicates? What qualities have you perceived and how can you duplicate them? Write your answers down and keep them on hand. Later we’ll get down to the nitty-gritty of your brand voice and these observations will help.

The Inner Workings of a Brand Avatar

Back to our froggy friend. We know that part of dissection is seeing how biological systems work together. Your brand avatar doesn’t have any literal biology to look at, but its voice is still made up of elements that work together to create its personality. Let’s look at the different elements that all brand voices share. This will give you a granular view of your brand avatar’s personality.

You may think that it’s near impossible to define a brand voice or communication style. You might even think that only one person can really capture a brand’s voice. These concerns have stopped lots of brands from creating their own voice.

The truth is that a brand voice is made up of quite a few small details that are easy to repeat. Just a few pages of guidelines can teach any writer how to emulate the right style. The hard part is knowing what details are worth including.

Let’s look at the details that every brand should figure out.

Addressing others: This has to do with how your brand voice talks to customers. For example, a law firm, bank, or university would want to show a high level of respect to clients. While a consumer electronics brand can get away with a more intimate tone.

Depending on your brand, you could address customers directly (“you”), make up a name for your customers (“YouTubers”), or keep it general as if talking to a group (“customers” and passive sentences). This decision sets the tone for your brand voice (personal vs. distant) and will affect every piece of content that you write. So, make sure to base it on actual research and not just guesses.

Register: This is all about how formal your brand’s speech will be. Basically, will you choose a tuxedo or a tuxedo t-shirt? Will your words be high-brow, low-brow, or somewhere in between? Grey Goose Vodka uses a much different register than Budweiser and the difference is palpable (high register word, because I know y’all are classy).

The register that you choose will depend on your target market, industry, and core values. Determining the right register will help you to choose which word to use and which words to avoid. You could even create a list of high register words to avoid and their simpler alternatives.

Favorite words: We all have favorite words and phrases. People might even make fun of us for using a word too often. Your brand voice should be no different.

Some brands are very picky about the words they use. For example, Starbucks doesn’t use the term “French Press” instead it calls it a “Press Pot.” They’re the only ones who use this term and it makes them stand out. In the same way, your company can develop its own unique vocabulary to describes processes, products, and services.

Your brand should also have favorite adjectives, nouns, and verbs that are evocative of its core values. Adjectives like “bold,” “daring,” and “brash” might work for a fashion brand, whereas “reliable,” “constant,” and “economical” could describe a car manufacturer. Selecting words to emphasize will create a more consistent message, which can have a strong impact on your reader.

Writing style: Your brand’s writing style should be easily and instantly recognizable. Just imagine comparing Dr. Seuss and Ernest Hemingway. Could you distinguish Green Eggs and Ham from The Sun Also Rises? Easy! Dr. Seuss would have the rhymes and Ernest Hemingway would have the short sentences and alcoholism. They were both great writers, but still intrinsically different. In the same way, your brand voice should have a writing style (sentence structure, paragraph lengths, questions, comparisons, etc.) that is unique and true to it.

Tone: Tone is where a lot of brands focus their attention when marketing. Tone defines whether you’ll be perceived as light-hearted or serious. It defines whether you’ll be viewed as friendly or trustworthy. It will also determine how your company presents concepts, challenges, and benefits to customers, so choose carefully.

Topics: Your brand avatar and audience should have at least a few shared interests. These are common threads that can be worked into your content. These topics may be brought up on your about us page, social media, or even as examples in your sales material. Picking a few favorites topics gives you a quick pool of ideas when you’re deep in a writing project.

Punctuation: This might seem super insignificant, but it still reflects your brand. For example, using a lot of ellipsis in between your sentences would show that your brand is a rambler. Using that third comma in lists (A.K.A. the Oxford comma, A.K.A. the serial comma, A.K.A. the Notorious B.I.G.) might show that your communication is more formal, correct, or technical. Using a bunch of parentheses, like me, shows that you want to give people a full-picture of the information, or that you’re a little bit all over the place. These decisions can reinforce the characteristics of your brand avatar. And, even if they don’t, you still need to settle on one punctuation style. Otherwise, inconsistent punctuation could be perceived as typos.

Why these decisions matter

In a 2013 study conducted by the Boston Consulting Group, customers identified authenticity as one of the top qualities that would attract them to a brand.
Source: Vision Critical

These decisions can’t be made haphazardly based on your likes. They need to be balanced to create a specific result. The result should be a brand voice that’s genuine, appropriate, and meaningful for you and your consumers.

Imagine for example, that a marketing exec for Bud Light saw a really cool Grey Goose Vodka ad and decided that they wanted to adopt a suave, high-class, international spy brand voice. They do it simply because they like that voice. How will their market react? Will they be interested in tux-clad men at a dinner party in the Alps? I doubt it. They’d probably be more interested in a backyard grill out.

Don’t make the mistake of going with what you like. Put in the actual work to create a brand voice that will resonate with your buyer personas.

Just like a well-written character in a book can make us laugh, cry, or feel angry, a well-thought-out brand voice can have an emotional effect on customers. Forging an emotional bond is a better way to market. It can’t be easily broken by a competitor’s lower price.

For the Love of God, Be Consistent

Let’s look at an example of bad writing. I tried to pick one that most readers will be familiar with, and let’s all hope I don’t get sued by Disney. Here goes:

Darth Vader looked at Emperor Palpatine and said, “They did mess up that whole capturing Princess Leia thing, but I’ll let it slide. It looked like they were having a rough day, you know what I mean?”

What’s wrong with this picture? We’ve all come to know Darth Vader as a fairly remorseless character who doesn’t go easy on anyone. This dialogue is totally out of character and shatters our understanding of him, and not in a good way. This type of inconsistency in a character is the cardinal sin in writing (note: I’m not talking about a surprise change in a character used as a plot device, I’m talking about sloppiness). It makes your readers wonder if you have any idea what you’re doing.

Let’s think of this same point within the context of your brand voice. Just like Darth Vader, your brand voice is a character that consumers have come to know. They expect it to act a certain way and they like the way it acts. They trust your brand and have a certain feeling of safety. Now, imagine that your brand voice moves them to buy your product in your sales and marketing, and then when it’s customer service’s turn to communicate there’s a jarring character change. The trust you built is gone and that consumer will go around to their friends saying, “Yeah, they seem great at first, but they’re nothing like that.” What a waste of a great brand voice. Be consistent.

The problem is that there are so many opportunities for inconsistency to creep in. The executive, marketing, and sales staff aren’t the only ones who need to communicate with the customer. This responsibility runs through the entire organization. How can you achieve consistency with so many cooks in the kitchen?

In the next chapter, we’ll discuss how you can protect your brand voice. The key to this is a document called a style guide. Stay tuned for more.

More Thrills in Enzo Episode 4

Enzo feels stuck on his new brand avatar. He doesn’t really know what the avatar’s voice will sound like or how that will affect his firm’s content. So, he tries reading through some of his existing content and imagining how his brand avatar would communicate it differently.

From this exercise he learns that his brand voice:

  • Keeps a serious and direct tone in most situations
  • Simplifies concepts to help clients understand the complexities of accounting
  • Keeps jargon to a minimum
  • Uses very correct and formal punctuation to show their attention to detail
  • Focuses on the right way of doing the work and explains the process thoroughly
  • Uses stories to make difficult concepts easier to follow

Not bad for a short exercise. Enzo has a much better idea of how his brand voice will help him to refine existing content and develop better content in the future. He still has a problem. Enzo’s firm has lots of employees that contribute to creating content and writing emails. How will he get them all on the same page?