Channeling the Voice of the Brand

One of the most satisfying moments of my previous career as a magazine editor was when a writer read over the final version of her story and said to me, “Wow, you didn’t change a thing!” She was delighted that her story was published verbatim. In reality, however, I had made dozens of edits to the story, some fairly substantial. I kept this knowledge to myself, however. Why burst her bubble?

I’ve also had the opposite response to my editing. One time, a talented young writer bitterly complained to me, “you turned this from a ‘me’ article into a ‘magazine’ article.” I responded that yes, that is exactly what I did, because the important voice was not hers in this particular case, but that of the magazine – the brand. Years later, after I’d left that job and this same writer was promoted to my role, she told me over lunch, “I get it now.” 

If you’ve ever had to write marketing content for your brand, whether an email, a blog post, or a white paper, both of these stories are likely to sound familiar. You know how hard it can be to convey the thoughts and ideas of your internal subject matter experts while maintaining a clear reflection of your brand. It helps me to think of this process as channeling the brand’s voice, making it, through the process of writing, my own if only for a few hours. 

“Channeling” isn’t an ideal description of what’s going on, however. It sounds mystical, but it is anything but. It’s a mental muscle that gets stronger with regular use.  

Every brand needs a voice

“Voice” is something marketers talk about but have a difficult time defining. But we all understand it intuitively. Think of Progressive’s Flo, or AT&T Lily. They are each central to their respective brand’s image, but also its voice: Both are friendly, helpful, approachable. And each might be considered “the adult in the room.” But they’re also unique to their brands. Flo and her team are comically excited about their jobs, and more than a little goofy, making a dull task– buying insurance – more fun. Lily is more straightforward. She is the voice of reason in an industry – mobile phone service – that is often perceived as untrustworthy. 

I can always tell when a brand hasn’t put a lot of thought or effort into crafting a voice – and I’m sure you can as well. For one thing, it’s confusing. The more you read, hear or view about the brand, the less you understand. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what they actually do for their customers! They may be pouring out content on a daily basis, but they’re losing rather than gaining interest, prospects, and customers.

If your brand’s voice is inconsistent or if it’s failing to convey the emotional impact you want it to make, it’s time to take a step back and think strategically. At Unreal Digital Group, we help brands define their voice by collaborating on a core brand messaging document, often known as a message house. A message house is a hierarchical framework – starting with overall corporate messaging, then across lines of business, and finally down to individual products or services – that tell the brand’s story from multiple perspectives. These perspectives include the intended audience (their operating environment, pain points and the solutions the brand provides), as well as the brand’s own unique point of view. Think of the latter as a “stake in the ground,” differentiating your brand’s approach from those of your competitors. 

When I’m writing for a brand, a message house is an invaluable tool. While I may quote it verbatim only rarely if at all, it provides me with a vocabulary, tone, and syntax that informs every asset I create. It provides consistency without locking me into cliches or repetition. In a word, it imbues my writing with the brand’s voice. 

Channeling the Voice of the Brand

How to channel your brand’s voice

Whether you’re working with a message house or just winging it, channeling your brand’s voice can be like Method acting – where a movie or stage actor “becomes” their role, even between takes or scenes. Tom Hanks gained – and then lost during filming – 55 pounds for his role in Cast Away. Leonardo di Caprio ate raw bison and slept in animal carcasses for The Revenant. Nicolas Cage ate a real cockroach for Vampire’s Kiss.

Gross! Don’t do any of those things. Instead, consider these four simple rules: 

  1. Listen. When you engage with internal stakeholders or subject matter experts, listening to how they communicate is as important as hearing what they have to say. Are they lighthearted? Deadly serious? Technical? Helpful? Try to build elements of this voice into any content you create.
  2. Keep your customer top of mind. Consider your brand from your target customer’s point of view. What problem are you coming to them to solve? How do you want them to perceive your brand? What emotions do you want them to associate with it? 
  3. Don’t take feedback personally. This is a tough one for writers, in my experience – myself included. But as I told my magazine colleague, it’s not about you, it’s about the brand. If you receive negative feedback from stakeholders, take a breath. Walk the dog. Pet your cat. And then make the changes necessary to support the brand’s voice.
  4. Be your brand’s ultimate advocate. This is the exception to #3: Be careful not to let stakeholders introduce dissonance into the brand’s voice. This can require some diplomatic pushback, but they’ll thank you in the long run.

Voice may be a subtle component of a brand, but it’s a critical one. As human beings, we make deep associations between personality and voice that remain in our subconscious. Those mental and emotional associations are extremely valuable for marketers. What do you do to channel the voice of your brand? Tell us in the comments!