There are a handful of voices you know all too well—close friends, family members or significant others. Their idiosyncrasies, tone, vocabulary and speech patterns make them instantly recognizable to you. If you close your eyes, you can probably hear those voices in your head right now.
Of course, what should be isn’t always reality. With numerous social media channels, traditional advertising, emails and sales literature, it’s unsurprising that many brands end up with a motley collection of voices strewn across these touchpoints. Thus, your audience receives an experience more akin to walking through a busy airport than sitting down to an intimate one-on-one conversation. This is exactly why documenting brand voice is important.
Without a documented brand voice, you’re not presenting a cohesive image of your brand. Instead, you’re imparting incongruity to your audience. At best, it signals a lack of organization, and at worst, it indicates a brand lacking a developed vision or philosophy.
We’re here to show you how to keep things consistent with this guide to documenting your brand voice. But before we jump into the process itself, let’s delve further into why this matters to you and your audience.
Why should you document your brand voice?
Consistency is key to a developed brand voice. As we just mentioned, you want your audience to have a clear image of your brand. To do that, you must present them with cohesive messaging.
Now, at first blush, it’s easy to write it off as something only your content writers should have to worry about. However, your brand voice comes into play more often, and in more places, than you think.
Yes, it’s obviously relevant when creating your owned content and social media posts. Even then, it’s likely that freelance writers, who might not be as familiar with the brand, are supplementing your content team. You also have to consider your social media manager(s) who will be responding to comments and messages on behalf of the brand. You might also have a paid media team working on social media ads and people working on email newsletters or drip campaigns.
That presents a lot of opportunities for discrepancies. In order to alleviate those errors, you should document your brand voice in detail. Here’s how it helps you on a practical level:
Now that you know why documenting your voice is important, let’s talk about how to do it.
Revisit your values and beliefs
Inherently, most people understand what you mean if you say, “brand voice.” However, a brand’s voice doesn’t appear fully-formed out of the ether. It starts at the very basic core of the organization—its values and beliefs.
They are—practically and philosophically—the foundations of your brand’s voice. There are some brands like Patagonia where this is very obvious. It has long focused on environmentalism and green practices and incorporates that philosophy into its brand voice. But we’re not all Patagonia.
If only, right?
Perhaps your business was founded a long time ago or you just haven’t reflected on the founding beliefs lately. It’s worth your time to go back and do this. Ask yourself, what are the values that our founder/CEO/president constantly points to? How do we do business? What do we do for our customers? And finally, it’s prudent to consider if your brand’s values, or a mission statement, are actually documented somewhere.
Documentation is key here. All facets of your brand, including communication, should reinforce these ideas. For example, Skype illustrates (literally) this well in their brand guidelines:
Firefox does this well, too.
Prioritizing these beliefs also aids the perception of your brand by keeping things honest. People know when you’re trying too hard to be something you’re not. And they don’t appreciate it. A report by Sprout Social actually showed that honesty is what consumers want most in a brand.
If you’re honest with your approach and commit to going through these brand exercises, it will lead to cohesive messaging across all of your channels.
Review your existing content
After reviewing your brand’s core values and beliefs, it’s helpful to audit your existing content.
The goal here is to examine anything and everything that someone could potentially come into contact with concerning your brand. Admittedly, this is no small task, but it can be very revealing. Gather samples of everything from blog posts, social media posts, videos, website copy, eBooks, newsletters, email campaigns, sales one-sheets, etc.
Throw out any examples that seem generic—like they could have come from any number of your competitors—and any that immediately feel off. Eventually, you want to collect a handful of examples that embody your values and sound unique to your brand.
If you have a blog, it can also be helpful to look at the best and worst performing pieces of content. Analyze the voice and tone of your top-performing pieces and see if there are similarities between them. If there are, you’re now clear on what your audience responds to, which can be valuable in solidifying your brand voice.
Outline your voice
With that preliminary work done, you can now begin to outline your brand voice. An easy way to get started is to create a brand persona or spokes persona. You’ve probably created buyer personas at some point, and the general concept is the same for a brand persona.
Imagine your brand as a real person. What’s your personality like? How does your personality make you different from your competitors? How do you see the world? What are your defining traits? What do you like? What do you hate? Answering these questions will help you put together a profile, which will provide insight into how your brand voice should sound.
Next, describe your brand in five words or less—in many cases three will do. Use what you’ve learned from your core values, existing content and your persona to decide on appropriate adjectives. You might also include related attributes or feelings to each word for greater clarity.
Asana, a project management and work tracking app, describes itself as empowering, purposeful, quirky and approachable. The Asana brand voice guidelines go beyond just listing the adjectives, though. They explain why each attribute is relevant to the brand, a useful way to make sure you stick to your brand voice.
Document the specifics of your voice and style
Now that your voice is outlined, you need to make it possible for anyone to write with it. First, decide on a recognized writing style as the basis for your content. This makes the majority of mundane writing decisions much easier. It also provides a basic level of uniformity in your content. Popular styles include AP style, Chicago style and MLA style. Personally, we suggest using AP style.
Next, layout any jargon, colloquialisms, slogans or taglines that your brand uses. Collect this branded language and describe how they should be used, including the situations in which they’re appropriate.
You should also clearly illustrate how your brand voice is to be integrated into your content. What words and phrasing are considered, “empowering,” “purposeful,” “quirky” or “approachable”? If your brand is “funny,” how does that manifest? Do you rely on sarcasm and snark or puns and wordplay?
The Content Marketing Institute advocates a brand voice chart as a “reference tool to ensure your content (text and visuals) is consistently using the same voice.”
CMI’s chart includes something that many brands use to demonstrate the subtleties of their voices, a do-and-don’t or this-not-that list. Skype once again provides an excellent example:
Providing these specific examples allows writers, especially those new to the brand, to avoid pitfalls they might have otherwise fallen into unknowingly.
Finally, there are many words, phrases and terms out there that no one can seem to agree on. For these “I’ve heard it both ways” situations, create a list of your preferred stylings. MailChimp, an email marketing automation platform, does this with its word list. A few examples from it:
- email (never hyphenate, never capitalize unless it begins a sentence)
- internet (never capitalize unless it begins a sentence)
- e-commerce (the industry)
- login (noun, adjective), log in (verb)
Creating these resources will save you time and energy by eliminating back-and-forth discussions about edits and language choice.
Revise your brand voice as necessary
Brands evolve over time. They move into new markets, court new demographics and develop new products and services. As brands themselves change, so must their voices. After you document your brand voice, think of it more as a living document than something set in stone.
Set a regular schedule to get your main content creators together to review your brand voice. This could be done quarterly, semi-annually or annually—whatever works for your organization. Just don’t let this document collect dust.
Raise your voice
We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: If it’s not documented, it’s nothing. You might have a general idea of what your brand should sound like, but documenting your brand voice solidifies it. The documentation process turns something from concept to reality. Any team member—internal or external—will be able to easily and effectively create content that truly represents your brand.
Brand voice is just one of the many aspects of a successful content marketing program. Find other helpful hints in our eBook, the Brand Publishing Roadmap!