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Finding Your Brand Voice

By brand voice, we mean the tone and character in which a brand communicates—the qualities that convey its distinct and, ideally, engaging personality. Many brand teams, when tasked with defining the voice/tone/character of their brand, find themselves defining one that is essentially flawless, above reproach and universally unobjectionable—the kind of character that seems like it will reflect well on the brand and make everyone on the management team comfortable. This generally results in a statement like:

X-Brand is your optimistic and helpful best friend, confident, thoughtful, fun-loving, encouraging, informative and always there for you.

Unfortunately, this description defines a secondary character that no actor would aspire to play, no audience would find compelling or realistic—a character whose voice people will easily ignore in the scrum of brand communications. You might as well say your brand is “nice”.

If you are struggling to identify and articulate a voice for your brand, here are three story-based approaches that can help point you toward a voice that is compelling, emotionally engaging and true to people’s experience of your brand when it is at its best.

  1. Think of your brand voice as if it belongs to a character
  2. What makes a character engaging? For the voice of your brand to be interesting and engaging, it has to meet the same standards any character would be judged against. Most people won’t pay enough attention to your brand to hear what it is saying if its voice sounds like all the other voices they’ve been avoiding or ignoring for years in mainstream marketing communications. So, what does your brand voice need? The same thing every engaging character needs—a flaw, vulnerability, quirk, or struggle to make it interesting. Think of any character you like from any story in any form—book, theater, TV show, movie, musical. It’s not the perfection of the character that makes them interesting. On the contrary, it is the problem they are wrestling with that makes them engaging. Of course, we are not used to thinking of our brands as flawed, so it may help to focus on a specific character…

  3. Ask yourself if there’s any character who reminds you of your brand
  4. If you can summon a clear picture in your mind of who your brand is and what that character sounds like, you will have a big leg up on both generating and assessing brand communications. For example, saying that a brand speaks and sounds like Abraham Lincoln would inspire a wildly different set of creative executions than saying that it speaks and sounds like Cardi B. Saying that the brand’s personality and outlook are like those of Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean would drive far different results than saying they are like those of Elsa from Frozen. The point is, if you can identify a personality model, you’ll have access to an excellent source of inspiration and a basis for discussion and decision making about the kinds of things your brand would say and how it would say them. If it is difficult to settle on a character that really suits your brand, try something simpler…

  5. Start with one word that authentically describes a central quality of your brand
  6. Figuring out your brand voice doesn’t have to be hard. Start by trying to think of a single word that most people would use when describing your brand. It doesn’t have to be the only word. I know your brand is more complex than a single descriptor. But try to find one that most people would agree captures something important about your brand. Is your brand smart? Innovative? Expert? Sexy? Wholesome? The key thing here is that you choose a word you think the vast bulk of your audience would agree is true about your brand.

    Got a word? Great. That word is not your brand voice. On its own, a single word like that—even if everyone agrees it’s true—is going to be too flat to stay interesting over time. But you can use that word to get to your brand voice. Begin by making a list of principle characters who you might also describe with that word. When I say principle characters, I mean the protagonist from any movie, TV show, book, or graphic novel, or even a real person like an historical or public figure.

    Let’s take smart, for example. Who is a smart character—one for whom smartness is a defining quality? Well, there are a ton of characters that might be described that way. Albert Einstein was smart. Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series is smart. Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory is smart. Tony Stark from Iron Man is smart. Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec is smart.

    Once you have a list, take a look at the names and see if any of the characters feels like they’re smart in the same way your brand is smart. The characters I’ve listed were all smart, but they were smart in distinctly different ways. Einstein was smart in a profound but playfully rebellious, disheveled way. Hermione is smart in a righteous, know-it-all way. Sheldon Cooper is smart in an obsessive-compulsive, logical but childish kind of way. Tony Stark is smart in an arrogant, devil-may-care way. Leslie Knope is smart in a naively uncompromising and idealistic way.

And that is the point of thinking of the descriptor in terms of a main character. If the character is interesting and engaging, it’s because they are smart in a way that is entertainingly flawed and problematic.

Flawed and problematic? What?

Brand teams generally are not comfortable thinking about their brands as flawed and problematic. Most brands see themselves as a source of easy, friction-free solutions. But smooth and friction free does not create an engaging brand character or an interesting brand voice. It does the opposite. Focusing on a familiar personality as a model for your brand can help you overcome this tendency. In our experience, starting with a specific character in mind, and then working out the ways in which your brand is similar to that character or different from it, will make it much easier to name the traits and qualities of your brand voice.

Identifying a personality model in the form of an existing character is just one way of finding your brand’s voice, but having that shared clarity about who your brand is can make a huge difference in expressing its unique story and capturing the attention of your audience.

“Character gets to the heart of what good storytelling is all about. They’ve helped Wendy’s focus on what makes us unique, different and special and that’s helped us to get people’s attention, keep their interest and keep the business growing. We compete with much larger brands, but by being overt about how we want to attack those differences, we’ve been able to have a lot of tension and conflict in the story that we are telling. That allows us to keep the story fresh and to fuel it. The more we do that the more positive attention we get as a brand and the more the brand continues to grow, which, in turn, builds our confidence in our storytelling and keeps the courage level high.”

—Kurt  Kane, President U.S. & Chief Commercial Officer, Wendy’s Corporation

“I’ve been through Character’s story framework process four times in my career, and it has always added extraordinary value. It was a central piece of Walmart’s rebranding effort in 2006, as we sought a new articulation of our brand narrative and our purpose. It’s an equally powerful tool for us now, as Walmart defines its place in a rapidly transforming retail environment. And we are currently using it to do the same for Sam’s Club.”

—Tony Rogers, Chief Marketing Officer, Walmart

“Since articulating our story framework, Gallo has had its best year. We’re up 10% and we’re outpacing the category. From a creative standpoint it’s been great because we’re all in alignment. Now that we have the articulation of our story, our social media, our partnerships, our programs, our packaging—it all makes sense.”

—Stephanie Gallo, Chief Marketing Officer, E&J Gallo Winery