Your company is growing. Your marketing team isn’t just you anymore, and you’re finding that different writing styles lead to your company projecting different voices and tones at different times.
- Your social media posts sound laid back and fun.
- Your release notes waffle between silly and overly technical.
- Your support team seems (justifiably) on edge and annoyed sometimes.
- Your executive team can usually be counted on to be cheerful and upbeat.
This inconsistency comes across as sloppy, unprofessional, and disorganized. You want to project a seamless, unified voice, not just across the marketing team but across the whole company.
How on earth do you accomplish that with dozens of people communicating externally during any given week?
The answer, of course, is documentation. But, if you create a dry, lifeless style guide document, it’s going to be ignored (or skimmed, and then ignored). Worse, if you create brand voice guidelines that don’t come across as genuine or authentic, they’ll seem forced or fake, and people will naturally resist what doesn’t seem to fit.
In this post, we’re going to create a brand voice guide for your company voice that’s authentic, relatable, and makes an impact on your co-workers so that it’s memorable. Those three pieces — authentic, relatable, and memorable — are critical to being an effective brand voice guide your team members, content creators, freelancers, and other stakeholders adopt.
That way, even if Justin from the DevOps team promptly deletes it (even though he could have archived it), he’ll remember the key points the next time he’s drafting an email explaining why your customers can’t access their accounts.
First, let’s place your nascent brand voice guide into your company’s overall branding strategy so we can get a sense of how it all works together. Then we’ll define exactly what ground your branding guide needs to cover before we jump into the “how-to” portion…
What is Your Company’s Brand?
Your company’s brand is the entirety of how someone experiences your company. It’s not just your name, logo, or colors, which is sometimes what we associate with branding. It’s everything they experience.
“You can’t have a conversation about brand today that doesn’t start with the overall experience.”
– Emily Heyward, Obsessed
Brand strategy is a subsection of the overall marketing strategy that can be divided into three general brand identity components:
- Purpose – This is the big “reason your company exists.” It’s the core values and passion that’s driving your company forward. This is often summarized as the mission statement.
- Positioning – This is how your company and product are unique from other available solutions in the same market space.
- Personality – If the company were a person, what character traits would it have?
A brand’s voice and tone fall squarely under the “personality” umbrella.
And, that voice is arguably one of the most important factors in your company’s branding because it is what your audience of customers and prospects is engaging with most often — every tweet, every customer service email, every company announcement, every newsletter, every blog post, every last piece of content marketing and messaging, is communicating your brand’s personality.
Very few companies invest time and thought into determining their voice and tone, and that’s unfortunate because it’s a major factor determining their brand experience. They’re leaving it to chance and allowing it to be inconsistent.
Brand Voice Examples from Famous Brands
In addition to going through the exercises above, it can be helpful to see how some strong brands you’re already familiar with are projecting a consistent tone in their marketing and use that as inspiration as you’re documenting your brand tone.
Of course, your tone and voice will be a different tone and voice, it’s not something you can copy, but inspiration always helps get the creative juices flowing…
Powerful, Inspiring, Grit, Determination, Ambitious, Controversial
Quirky, Weird, Bold, Random, Memorable
Bouncy, Peppy, Upbeat, Energetic, Youthful, Vibrant
Sassy, Controversial, Funny, Direct, Confident, Braggadocious
— Wendy’s (@Wendys) January 4, 2017
Exercises for Finding Your Company’s Unique Brand Voice
Unfortunately, there isn’t a step-by-step formula, or secret template marketers can follow to find the perfect company voice. There are, however, some fantastic exercises (outlined below) that will be very helpful as you embark on the search for your unique brand voice.
You may find that it is helpful to set aside a few hours to go through 2-3 of these in-depth with your team. You may want to go through all of them. You may find you want to go through them together as a whole company (if you’re a small business). You may want to go through 1-2 of them with each team and see if any similarities exist between departments. There isn’t a wrong way to approach this. It’s an exploration, a discovery, a search. A quest, even.
There aren’t wrong answers, only closer to, or further from, what feels most genuine and authentic.
Exercise 1: Frame Your Tone of Voice Exercise
Download and print out one copy of this branding and tone exercise for each team member to complete. As they point out, the ensuing discussion is almost more important than the exercise itself, so be sure to set aside enough time for that.
Exercise 2: If You Met Your Company at a Party, How Would You Describe It?
Personification can help you connect human characteristics and personality traits to an otherwise inhuman and abstract concept (your company).
Imagine you bump into something at a party; you turn around, and, what’s this, it’s <your company name>. “Oh, hey!” you say, “Didn’t see you there, <your company name> !”
How does the conversation play out from there? How does your company act and interact in a dinner party setting? Is it the life of the party and the center of attention? Or, is it quiet and slightly aloof but interesting, mysterious, and charismatic?
Just like with people, there aren’t any right or wrong ways of being and acting. Let this thought experiment play out for a bit, and see where it takes you.
Exercise 3: Place Your Brand on a Spectrum
Print out this brand spectrum chart exercise and have a few of your co-workers place your company on it:
It can be helpful to see if there is consensus on how your brand is perceived internally. If you can have existing customers complete this exercise, it might be interesting to see how your company is perceived externally as well.
Exercise 4: We Are This, We Aren’t This
Sometimes it can help to think in terms of contrasts, opposites, and even negatives. Try making a long list of what does and does not define your brand.
Are you quirky? Are you not funny? Are you innovative? Are you not serious?
As with most of the exercises listed here, it’s helpful if you push yourself and keep going even after you feel like you’ve exhausted the possibilities. It’s also helpful to consult a list of personality characteristics and traits if you feel yourself getting stuck, but don’t lean on it too heavily. As much as possible, you want your inspiration to bubble up from what you know and see happening within your company day-to-day.
How to Translate Your Company’s Personality into a Writing Style
Once you’ve gone through enough exercises that your company’s personality, voice, and tone have crystallized into something tangible, it’s time to start translating that into concrete parameters that your team can use to create consistent writing.
Translate Your Brand Personality into Pithy Rules
A helpful exercise to begin to gel these guidelines is to complete this sentence over and over:
Our brand’s writing should be:
[Adjective] [One sentence description.]
Our brand’s writing should be:
Bold. Our brand doesn’t fear controversy.
Brainy. We’re smart, we know our industry, and we aren’t afraid to show it.
Helpful. We bend over backward to explain things when needed.
With repetition, some useful guidelines should emerge. Collect the ones that feel most on point and continue to refine them into concise style and content guidelines.
Adapt Voice and Tone to Different Audiences and Situations
It’s best to keep the initial version of your brand voice documentation simple and streamlined. However, if you know there are particular problem areas prone to voice problems, it’s a good idea to address those specific areas now.
Now take those general writing guidelines and consider how they should be adapted to specific scenarios such as:
- Responding to complaints
- Writing for new customers
- Writing for existing customers
- Advertising copy
- “How to” content
- Offsite content strategy
- LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. posts
You may need to create additional guidelines as you consider your writing through different lenses and situations. Or, it may not be necessary to create custom guidelines at this point.
This is something you can always add to your document later if the need arises.
Either way, it’s best to think of this style guide as a living, evolving document that adapts to the needs of your organization as it grows and changes, so it will, and should be, revisited later anyway.
Don’t address areas that don’t need it and create a complex, sprawling document needlessly.
This is more food for thought than suggesting that you should cover everything listed here.
The nice thing about best practices is that they’re usually crystal clear. And nothing is more clear and digestible than a simple list of “do”s and “do not”s. For example:
– Explain any technical jargon and/or add explanatory hyperlinks on technical words
– Use funny, light-hearted gifs during support interactions
– Use slang or trendy words. We may get it, but based on the demographic data we’ve collected, we know our customers will not.
– Retweet influencers who swear or involve themselves in political controversy
Tips for Success
And now let’s lay out some final tips for making your company’s branding guide more effective and successful…
- Keep it simple. The more complex it is, the more difficult it will be to comprehend, and more importantly, recall. Err on the side of brevity. A three-page document is probably better than a 6-page document.
- Use plenty of “do” and “do not” examples. Avoid using real-life examples, so no one feels attacked, but hypothetical examples of things that could happen in the future are fine.
- Make it fun and light-hearted. Use your sense of humor. This is an internal document, so have fun with it. Don’t make it stuffy or scary or dry or rigid. Think of this as the ultimate expression of your company’s voice and a golden opportunity to lead by example.
- Make it as visually appealing as possible. Make it bright and eye-catching. Have your graphic design department spice up the document as much as possible. If this isn’t possible for whatever reason, take a crack at yourself. If nothing else, insert some high-quality custom photography and use bright colors wherever possible.