How to Differentiate Your Brand Voice: Some Essential Tips
When it comes to authentic branding, whatever else you do, I highly recommend NOT referring to your brand’s “value proposition” as a “quality solution.”
A well-worn marketing cliché, it seems that everything in marketing— every product, every service, every attempt at brand identification — seems to offer a solution. Want to know how to dilute your brand? Call it a solution.
And of course it’s often paired up with what is fast becoming one of my least favorite adjectives: “Quality.” I used to like the word–until it got overly paired with “solutions” to produce the almost perfectly vapid collocation: “Quality solution.” It’s hard to imagine how you could pack more nonsense into a mere six syllables.
A quick story: About ten years ago, I wrote a little article on the overuse of the phrase “quality solutions”; at the time, a google search turned up 12,948 examples on the web. Today, a decade later, the figure stands at more than 60,400,000!!
60,400,000!! — that’s a 466,500% increase in the number of “quality solutions”! Quality solutions everywhere! Cringe.
Obviously, my rant didn’t have its desired effect. Look at those numbers. When it comes to differentiation, describing your “value proposition” (ouch—more jargon!) as a “quality solution” amounts to dissolving your brand into a vast, undifferentiated sea of googled clichés. When it comes to developing a unique brand voice, some keywords are better left locked up.
Characterize Your Brand—Literally. Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine Your Product as a Character
That’s right–some kind of character, not necessarily a person, perhaps something more cartoonish, along the lines of a mascot. Whatever works:
This all may sound slightly infantilizing, but it works. Just go with it. You won’t need to keep the character—though you can, if you like. The figure merely serves as a tool, a visual reference to help you imagine a brand persona and voice in more tangible terms.
Your Brand Talks
All products speak—in one way or another. When developing a brand voice, it helps to imagine how you would like your brand to sound. So imagine your brand character introducing itself to a group of strangers. What would it say? How would it greet the audience? Consider all the possibilities and experiment with combinations. You’re trying on voices. It’s a bit like trying on new clothes—except not. It may sound ridiculous, but personifying your brand is really the whole point. So, imagine how your brand would greet your audience:
Obviously, there are many more options. As I say, play with combinations of words. Sometimes you need to sample what doesn’t sound right in order to get a sense of what fits.
High and Low Diction: Do you run a diner, or a bistro?
Diction means simply “word choice.” English teachers tend to mention it most often when there’s a problem with the level of diction. The level of diction can play a powerful role in brand voice. The English language sports many near synonyms: Groups of words which may share more or less the same basic meaning (denotation), but which differ in associative meanings (connotations). And sometimes these associative meanings can be arranged in levels, according to a hierarchy, from “high” to “low.”
Consider these levels of diction as they apply to variations on the word “food”:
Now apply the hierarchy to the word “clothing”:
Tone: “The Sound of Sense”
Don’t just consider word meanings—also make sure to speak the words aloud. Speaking the words is key. The goal here is not simply to determine word choice or “diction,” but tone—not simply what you say, but how you say it, the attitude you convey.
What is the meaning of “tone”? The dictionary generally uses words like “attitude” and “mood.” Actually, debates over the meaning of the word “tone” will likely never end. The idea of tone can get crazy interesting–one of those concepts that can eventually seem to everywhere and affect everything. Or maybe it’s just me. In any event, you’re generally safe in referring to the term as the complex whole of mood, attitude, and feeling that shape the meaning of a message.
Robert Frost and the Sound of Sense
The most useful description of tone I have read comes from the poet Robert Frost. He preferred to use the phrase, the “sound of sense.” But I think Frost’s concept provides a very useful way to understand tone. Simply put, what Frost calls the ‘sound of sense’ refers to the meaning conveyed in the impressionistic sound and rhythm of words.
Of course, poetry as poetry involves the use of words beyond their more explicitly literal meaning. But Frost’s view of language entails a uniquely impressionistic sense of meaning. To explain his thinking, Frost asks us to imagine the sounds of a muffled conversation coming from behind a closed door: Even if we can’t hear particular words, Frost points to the ways in which we can often determine an underlying sense of the conversation’s meaning through the sounds, pace, rhythm, and intonations conveyed in the exchange. As Clive James explains
Frost had studied how the meter and the intonation formed an interplay which, on the page, would stabilize the rhythms of a conversation overheard from the next room; a conversation whose specific meaning might be a mystery but whose drift was detectable from how the speech rose, fell, sped and slowed.
Simply put, the sound and pace of words convey an underlying sense impression of meaning. For me, Frost’s notion of the sound of sense captures the essential power of tone: The sense of meaning present at once within and beyond the specific meaning of particular words. To attend to tone is to maintain a sensitive awareness of the impressionistic, affective impact of words as experienced on mulitiple levels. Tuning into these unspoken dimensions of meaning is essential to developing an effective brand voice.
So, when developing your brand voice, try pairing up to hold conversations behind a closed door. Have others listen from the other side. Discuss. In other words, experiment with sounds. It’s crazy interesting!
“Owen, this Piece is a Bit Too Radiohead”
You may also consider thinking of popular icons that you think approximate your brand—either by comparison or contrast. A colleague once told me that a piece of content was a bit too “Radiohead” for a particular brand. I love Radiohead, so I took the feedback as a personal compliment. Of course, I also made the necessary changes. After all, I wasn’t writing for my personal brand. The feedback helped me clarify how my own style and voice was shaping my sense of another brand. As I say, I love Radiohead. Maybe I try to sound like Radiohead. Maybe I should beware of that tendency. Maybe the brand was more Kings of Leon. Maybe I should listen to them more often. In any event, it was very useful advice—I knew exactly what he meant.
The point is, references to iconic figures like bands or actors can provide a very useful, efficient, point of reference for your brand. After all, these icons function as their own mythical, brand personas. Words are a tool for communicating your brand, but they are not the only tool.
Whatever tools you employ to conceptualize and communicate your brand, carving out your brand identity fundamentally involves determining your impact: The complex blend of ideas, values, and ideas you want to impress on your audience. As you experiment with possibilities, discuss what sounds best and why. Take notes–your notes will serve to carve out a progressively clearer sense or your brand’s voice and personality.
Brand Style Guides are NOT Grammar Books
Then bring it all together in a style guide. But be careful how you use the guide. Style guides are useful—and they are all the rage. But ask yourself whether your style guide is about your brand or whether it simply presents a collection of rules for style and grammar. If you can replace most of your style guide with a college writing handbook, you haven’t really designed a guide to your singular brand voice. You may have some useful tips for effective usage, but not a vision of unique, differentiating voice. Worse, a “brand guide” that only provides grammar rules is basically a handbook for commoditizng your brand. Seriously, you’re better off making everyone in your office wear t-shirts that say, “t-shirt.” At least that strategy has the tonal benefit of irony.
Tools, not Rules:
Guides should provide tools, not rules. Reduced to more simplistic rule books, style guides, like “grammar rules” can turn into prescriptive boundaries on how one “should sound.” And those kinds of rules can kill the vitality of your brand voice. Guidelines are just that—guidelines. Let them live and evolve. The quickest way to restrict the authenticity of a brand is to start prescribing rules around how to talk. Ann Handley has a great metaphor for how to think of style guides:
Smarter companies treat tone of voice guidelines as a living, breathing, evolving entity that helps an organization’s staffers communicate with similar (but not identical) styles… think of tone of voice guidelines as bumpers on a bowling lane: They help gently guide your communication in the right direction, and help content creators avoid a gutter ball.
Bumpers on a bowling lane–nice! So experiment with some possibilities. You often don’t know how you want to sound—more often, you know how you don’t want to sound. So start chipping away from there!
For more on effective brand writing, check out these posts: