Strong brands have a few things in common: they are unique, they are meaningful, and they are memorable. An effective brand voice plays a role in all of these things.
Your brand voice is what sets your message apart from the competition. It’s what audiences connect with on a human level. And it’s what makes your brand recognizable wherever it’s heard.
But what is brand voice, exactly? And how do you define a brand voice that will get your business heard above the din of the modern media landscape?
Below, we’ll take a look at the answers to these questions and more.
- What is Brand Voice?
- What’s the Difference Between Brand Voice and Tone?
- Why Does Brand Voice Matter?
- 5 Steps to Define a Strong Brand Voice
- Strong Brand Voice Examples
- The Takeaway
Better understanding brand voice is the first step towards putting this important tool to work for the growth of your business.
What is Brand Voice?
Its voice differentiates your brand from the competition by making it unique and memorable. It also connects your brand to audiences by making it humanized and relatable.
Every time your brand speaks or writes—be it through website copywriting, advertising scripts, or marketing collateral—its voice should be instantly recognizable. Your customers should be able to identify your brand voice as easily as recognizing a friend on the phone after just a few words.
Authentic brands have voices that resonate. They make us chuckle or nod unconsciously in agreement. They tell pithy and revealing anecdotes that come together in a compelling brand story.
Even the best stories fall short when not in the hands of an approachable and relatable storyteller, though. That’s why brand voice is so important.
What’s the Difference Between Brand Voice and Tone?
So, is brand voice the same as tone? Well, no. Like your brand personality, your brand voice should be consistent and unchanging, regardless of where audiences experience your brand.
Tone, on the other hand, is the inflection within a piece of messaging that conveys emotion. Tone is dependent on context, where brand voice is constant and unwavering.
A social media post about a fun, last-minute sale will have a much different tone than a website page describing company culture. Where the former might be urgent and playful, the latter would likely be earnest and proud.
Tone differs from message to message depending on the emotion you hope to elicit in the given circumstance. Brand voice, on the other hand should be consistent across channels and touchpoints, and unchanging over time, from the moment of your brand launch until you decide to rebrand with a different brand voice.
Why Does Brand Voice Matter?
As we’ve seen, brand voice matters for two important reasons. First, it helps separate your brand—and your business—from a crowded field of competitors.
From social media to online marketing to TV advertising and beyond, we are inundated by a noisy cacophony of voices these days. Those that rise to the top are bold, differentiated, unique.
The second reason brand voice matters is that it connects your brand to its audiences on a profound and lasting level.
Brand voice is the most effective way to humanize your brand. And humanizing your brand is one of the best ways to earn customer trust and build brand loyalty.
We’re more likely to engage with brands when they speak to us on a human, authentic level. We’re more likely to recognize brands when their voices are consistent and reliable.
One final point about the importance of brand voice: it matters just as much for B2B brands as it does for B2C brands.
Just because you sell to businesses doesn’t mean you aren’t speaking to people. It’s critical for your B2B brand to sound human if you hope to connect with the people who make the important decision of whether or not to buy from you.
5 Steps to Define a Strong Brand Voice
An authentic brand voice isn’t something that’s just tacked on at the end of the branding process. Your voice should be a natural by-product of brand research and strategy.
So, how do you define a strong brand voice that will set your business apart? The following five steps are designed to help you do just that—find the voice that will ensure your brand is heard, loud and clear.
1. Understand Your Audience
The first step in discovering your brand voice is understanding who you’re talking to.
Authentic brands don’t appeal to everyone, after all. Rather, they maximize the impact of their messaging first by understanding their ideal customer through in-depth customer research.
If you don’t have the resources to do the customer interviews and surveys involved in a comprehensive rebrand, building out nuanced customer personas for your primary, secondary, and even tertiary target audience segments, is a great way to better understand those you’re talking to.
A functional customer persona should answer questions like:
- What is your ideal customer’s gender?
- How old are they?
- What industry do they work in?
- What are their motivations and goals?
- What are their needs and challenges?
Starting with this foundational information, a good customer persona also includes a short narrative that paints the picture of a single archetypal customer. This is who your brand voice should be addressing—the friend on the other end of the telephone.
2. Understand Your Competition
In order to stand out from a crowded field of competing voices, it’s important to know what those voices sound like, as well.
Your customers aren’t just hearing your brand voice, after all. They’re hearing all the voices of your competitors, trying to steal their attention away. It’s only by understanding those voices that your brand can you hope to rise above them.
One of the best ways to get a comprehensive understanding of the voices that populate your brand’s competitive landscape is with a competitive brand audit focused on verbal brand identity:
- Identify 5 to 10 of your top competitors
- Gather samples of their messaging and communication from channels including websites, marketing materials, social media, etc.
- Compare verbal identity assets like brand names, taglines, top-level messaging, brand compass messaging, positioning messaging, etc.
- Assess the strengths of individual brands, identify industry trends, identify opportunities for differentiation.
Better understanding the voices that exist across your competitive landscape will give you a better sense of what is appropriate for your industry.
It helps you know which tropes and industry jargon you should avoid. And it allows you to pinpoint valuable opportunities to differentiate your brand voice from those of your competitors.
3. Understand Your Brand
Just as important as understanding your audience and competition, of course, is understanding your brand itself.
The most authentic brand voices are those born from brand strategy. This means taking the time to understand the messaging and tenets at the core of your brand before you set out to craft its voice. These include things like your:
- Brand Compass (Purpose, Vision, Mission, Values)
- Brand Personality
- Brand Archetype
- Brand Promise
- Competitive Advantage
- Big Idea
If your brand framework doesn’t include all of the above elements, that’s okay. The idea is to review and understand as many of these types of strategic pillars as possible, so that your voice is informed by an understanding of brand strategy.
By knowing who they are, authentic brands speak with a voice that’s impossible to ignore. They clearly convey what a brand stands for, how it’s different than the competition, and why customers should trust it to meet their needs.
4. Create a Brand Voice Chart
Armed with an understanding of your brand strategy, you can create an effective tool that both defines and documents your brand voice: the brand voice chart.
The first step in creating a brand voice chart is to choose three attributes that best describe your brand voice. These should be informed by your brand personality but are not necessarily the same attributes that define your brand personality.
The brand voice chart documents the three attributes that best define your brand voice, a short description of each attribute, and some dos and don’ts associated with each attribute.
A well-defined brand voice chart is a handy tool for any new copywriters tasked with writing messaging in your brand voice.
It’s also useful for existing writers on your staff, who should refer back to the brand voice chart periodically to make sure they’re faithfully bringing the brand voice to life.
5. Create Brand Voice Guidelines
Finally, as with other areas of branding, one of the most important qualities of an effective brand voice is consistency.
Consistent voices are more likely to be recognizable. We learn through repetition, so when you repeatedly expose your audiences to a brand experience with a consistent voice, you’re more likely to boost brand awareness.
Consistent voices are also familiar and reliable. Familiarity leads to customer trust, and trust leads to customer loyalty.
The only way to guarantee a consistent brand voice is to ensure that everyone who is tasked with creating that voice has the guidelines and guardrails they need to reliably recreate the voice at every touchpoint. Enter brand voice guidelines.
Brand voice guidelines should be part of a larger brand guidelines document that clearly outlines all the dos and don’ts involved in executing your brand.
In addition to the brand voice chart above, brand voice guidelines should include your brand compass, brand personality, and brand positioning.
They should also include plenty of examples that illustrate how to write in your brand voice and what types of choices fall outside of your defined style.
Brand voice guidelines are a valuable resources for anyone tasked with brand management, where ensuring the consistency of brand voice is a top priority.
Strong Brand Voice Examples
The world’s most successful brands have voices that seem effortlessly unique. These are the types of brands whose messaging is identifiable even without an accompanying logo.
Let’s take a closer look at three such brands for real-world use cases of unforgettable brand voice.
No one does branding as impressively as Apple. The company’s signature clean, minimalist brand design has spawned legion fans and as many imitators. It’s a style that extends seamlessly to the company’s brand voice as well.
From its website to its social media channels to its TV ads, Apple’s messaging is always pithy and concise. Like its products, the brand’s advertising and marketing copy feels personally designed with thoughtful precision. There are never any elements that aren’t absolutely necessary.
Beyond its pithy style, the Apple voice is also designed to appeal to the artists and iconoclasts within its target audience.
From its early “1984” commercial to its “Think Different” campaign to its “Mac vs. PC” campaign, Apple has always spoken to the individual in us all, in a way that few other brands have been able to do.
Ben Pieratt says that great brand names have a “special wrongness” to them, and few brands embody this quite as perfectly as Slack.
A synonym for laziness might not seem like a natural choice for a tool that would go on to revolutionize workplace communication, but Slack found a way to make it work.
The Slack brand voice, by extension, is easy and personal, but above all, helpful. Similar to Apple, Slack uses short, declarative sentences that deliver the maximum amount of information in the fewest number of words.
Its tone is fun and engaging, like a friendly HR rep introducing you to a new company. And Slack is skilled at using questions to engage users and maximize their productivity.
Some of the best brand voices are those that take risks by being unapologetically in your face.
Harley-Davidson isn’t afraid to push the boundaries a bit when it comes to brand voice in the effort to capture the individualistic, rebellious spirit that their products have come to symbolize.
Not unlike its target audience, Harley-Davidson’s voice is rugged, patriotic, and masculine. It pokes fun at those who aren’t in the Harley tribe, not-so-subtly implying that they’re slaves to routine and decorum.
The Harley-Davidson brand voice celebrates the freedom of the open road and the one-of-a-kind characters who heed its call.
The fact is, you simply can’t have a strong brand without a well-defined brand voice. Its voice sets your brand apart from the competition and connects it to customers on a deep and human level.
The strongest brands speak with authentic voices that seem effortless and engaging. Discovering your authentic brand voice is the first step towards boosting brand awareness, fostering customer trust, and building the brand equity that leads to measurable business growth.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May 2015 and has been updated with additional insights.