- What are the defining characteristics of your brand voice?
- What is your brand’s backstory?
- If your brand wrote a letter to its customers congratulating them for a life event, would it sound like a friend, an older relative, a teacher, or an inspirational guru?
- Your brand wants to be relatable — but is its voice also funny? Or down-to-earth?
When you write a creative brief, or a job post searching for freelance writers, you shouldn’t be thinking about any of these questions for the first time. You should already know. And so should everyone else at the company.
Before you commission a blog, digital advertising assets or any other type of marketing content, you should have a reference document available to all writers — present and future — that shares what the brand’s tone and style is. It is a brand tone guide, AKA brand voice guide, AKA brand tone framework; and it’s a key element of your company’s identity design.
Agencies charge in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a “brand bible” that includes the visual brand elements as well as tone and voice guidelines — but they may not know your brand as well as you know yourself. So, it’s wise for the in-house marketing team to take the lead in creating this essential piece of reference material. You may bring on consultants or an agency partner with expertise in brand identity. But, especially since this is often a living document that evolves after early agencies and consultants have gone their own way, it’s best to let company executives and the marketing or communications departments have ultimate ownership of it.
Here are four important considerations when creating a brand voice guide — and examples of brands that have really nailed their presentation, from Skype to Zendesk.
1. Make sure your mission and core values are reflected.
Ideally, you’ve already defined your reason to be, as well as what you stand for, and what you want to put out into the world. You should map out your vision and mission at the early stages of branding and identity design — probably when you’ve finalized and approved the company boilerplate.
As you prepare to ramp up the amount of content you put out into the world, the tone and even the specific words of that content should still be aligned with your core values and mission. If your product is for medical professionals, you don’t want your social media team communicating at the 8th grade level — even if that’s the average comprehension level of people on the Internet. Your strategy can get a lot more nuanced than just deciding whether complex sentences are okay, though: If your core values are inclusion and diversity, you may be thinking about whether to create a guideline for using pronouns.
A great example: Zendesk
This cloud-based customer service provider knows: A brand’s values aren’t controlled by the marketers and creatives. The customer service agents are the ones who need to execute and fulfill them in a way that satisfies customers, every single day. And Zendesk provides customer service for a wide range of companies, supporting everything from power tool sales teams to ride-share apps. When Jane Doe Customer wants support because her driver no-showed and charged her, she doesn’t want to see an ad. She wants immediate service, and that service will influence her to continue using the product in future or not.
Therefore, Zendesk’s mission to be honest, empathetic and fair — to be a good corporate citizen and empower their clients to better serve customers — is at the core of its messaging. The customer experience is the priority. And in a complicated and technical world, the brand’s philosophy — right up at the top — is “Keep it beautifully simple.” The rest of the brand voice guide explains how to keep it simple in every type of communication, from explainer videos to chat-based customer service.
2. Figure out how your customers would describe you, and create your voice to match.
This is the inverse of creating customer personas or avatars. It also can be complementary to that exercise, or even a direct parallel. If you’ve gone through the customer persona exercise, you may have a handful of customer personas created, complete with their household budgets, entertainment preferences, hypothetical hobbies and their needs from your product sector. Let’s reverse-engineer this. How would each of those target customers describe your product?
A great example: Skype
The pioneer of video chat software knows that its customer base is really, really broad and pretty much includes everyone who ever video-called a friend or colleague prior to FaceTime becoming the iPhone default. (By the way, Skype does not want you to associate it with the tech-centric acronym VOIP, preferring to describe its offering as “free, lovely, clear calls.”) In keeping with its globally accessible, easy-to-use product, Skype’s brand guide shows several types of customer, from a SMB owner who uses it to keep telecom bills down, to a grandpa who uses it to communicate with his granddaughter who works on another continent.
3. Leverage tone and voice to connect with users and customers.
An annoying, widespread habit of marketers and creative is to create work that’s for the enjoyment of other marketers and creatives. Zany ad spots featuring characters that look nothing like any target customer… social media campaigns framed around influencers pretending to use a product that they admittedly have no need for in real life. No matter how many times real customers comment that this is off-putting, a lot of consumer brands — especially those in retail — still are performing for a community of peers, not for the customers.
But when companies need to engage online with users in a way that captures and converts them, and is measurable, they generally get much more down-to-earth and relatable with the words they use. You see this everywhere from personal finance digital magazines to Salesforce’s educational blog content for SMB subscribers.
A great example: 18F
The United States Government’s digital service agency starts with the basics when training people on brand tone and voice. It begins by defining the difference between tone and voice. It encourages each writer to go through exercises to establish their own voice, but for the purposes of choosing tone, it provides a matrix of different situations/intended readership, and provides a tone sample that fits. Its top-level brand voice document is more of an intro and jump-off to the in-depth content guide. At the bottom of this document, it also suggests several external resources for study, so that writers understand the context and existing documentation upon which 18F’s voice and tone rules are based.
4. Brand voice is for much more than marketing materials.
When thinking about a brand voice guide or tone framework, one assumes that the communications and marketing teams will be the primary folks using the information. But that’s probably not accurate. Above, we talked about Zendesk, and how it trains customer service agents on the tone and content strategy they’ll use to support all sorts of different companies.
Customer support is a huge category of content strategy that must evolve side by side with a company’s offerings. And what about HR? Job postings are place where a company shows its values and priorities in writing… and is judged for better or for worse. Finally, what about the basic how-to documentation that explains how to best use your product? All of this falls under content, and is important to the holistic health of a company.
A great example: Waze
For most people, Waze is a navigation app that can sometimes help avoid traffic jams. For marketers, Waze is the company that spends big bucks to get celebrity navigators like Morgan Freeman, Stephen Colbert and most recently, DJ Khaled — a PR stunt that hasn’t yet lost its luster, perhaps because celebs come and go off the app before they have a chance to get boring.
For brands, Waze is quickly becoming a mobile advertising channel that can alert drivers to a physical storefront’s presence or deliver marketing messages to a captive and focused audience. Content strategists take note of how Waze maintains a consistent tone and personality through its navigational narrations, its product UX content and its ad partner guidelines — always guiding the way with a smile.
Read more on ClearVoice about why a consistent voice is so helpful in creating public awareness of your brand. And please let our Customer Success team know if you need help creating a brand voice guideline, or whether you’ve got it finalized and ready to share with your ClearVoice writing team.