Any brand, whether it’s of an individual or an organization, should know its own voice. The voice is how a brand showcases its personality and values. To be truly effective, a voice must be singular and consistent. Doing so gives a persuasive power to ideas and builds trust and credibility with an audience. Brands that stay true to one voice position themselves as more authentic than those with disparate voices. They’re more easily found, too. Adopting a standard lexicon helps a brand’s SEO, since search engines boost pages that consistently use the same terms.
A brand voice is a defining personality trait. Coca Cola is happy. Nike is confident. Apple is visionary. Successful brands can distill their personalities and voices down to just a word or two. But no organization can authentically project its values unless it also lives those values at the office. Tech start-ups stocked with millennials may tout a freewheeling culture that perfectly matches an ultra-casual and chronically upbeat brand voice, but there’s also nothing wrong with the polar opposite: an insurance company—with a long history of careful process—adopting a formal, neutral brand voice.
The consistency needed to maintain a brand voice extends from the smallest details of punctuation to the broadest applications of message and audience. A unified voice must:
• Say the same things. The brand aligns its messages across all platforms. No materials are contradictory. Terms, ideas and concepts are consistent.
• Use the same words. The brand agrees on definitions of its most commonly used terms and words to avoid.
• Use the same style. The brand follows a consistent style for spellings, capitalizations, abbreviations and other language variables.
• Use the same tone. The brand uses the same level of formality and the same general attitude, whether positive, negative or neutral.
• Speak to the same audience. The brand communicates with audiences through the appropriate media.
Communicators have a few means of projecting a singular voice. Let’s look at each.
Perhaps more than any other mechanism, diction—word choice—profoundly affects voice. Diction is about conveying the right message with the right words. It’s also the driving force of tone, which emerges through two qualities: formality and attitude.
Let’s look at two companies using their distinct voice to discuss identical topics. MailChimp is moderately informal and very positive:
“Customers feel loyal to the brands that they love just like they feel loyal to friends and family. Brand loyalty is rooted in emotion. As business owners and marketers, our end game isn’t necessarily to make a quick sale, but rather to establish an emotional connection with customers by marketing to them in a personal, caring way. That connection is what leads to lasting brand loyalty.”
The New Yorker, meanwhile, is moderately formal and slightly negative:
“Corporate branding is now big business, and companies routinely spend tens of millions of dollars rebranding themselves or coming up with names for new products. And good monikers are still defined by [Robert Young’s] precept that a name should somehow evoke the fundamental qualities that you hope to advertise.”
Neither is wrong; they’re perfect reflections of the overarching brand. Writing in one voice means consistently striking the right balance of formality and attitude.
Punctuation creates tempo. Commas, dashes and semi-colons slow down a text by marking where the audience should pause. A lot of pausing has a more formal effect than a fast-paced text, as a New York Times article by Ben Yagoda comically explains:
"As a professor at the University of Delaware, I read a lot of writing by college students, and in it a strong recent trend is reversion to comma-by-sound. I attribute this not so much to students’ love of the Constitution and the classics but to the fact that they don’t read much edited prose (as opposed to Facebook status updates, tweets and the like)….So students will write sentences like this:
So, students will write sentences like this.
But, they are wrong."
Medium also affects punctuation. Brands should follow guidelines that favour their preferred formats. For example: commas are difficult to read online. They are slow and easily missed on screen. See how Twitter uses short declarative sentences to avoid commas altogether:
“Twitter is what’s happening in the world and what people are talking about right now. See every side of the story. Show the world what’s happening. Spark a global conversation.”
Think about your reader’s experience and go from there.
Diction is word choice, syntax is word order. Like diction, syntax can signal attitude and formality. Single independent clauses can come across as authentic and no-nonsense—or terse, if used excessively. Winding, conditional sentences undermine conviction, while unusual word order can imply wisdom (used to great effect by Yoda). A brand can vary its syntax so long as it is aware of the effect it creates. Consistent, be.
A final component of voice is the speaker behind the writing.
• The first person. Using the pronouns I, me, we and us adds intimacy to writing. Many brands speak about themselves in the first person to convey warmth and a personal connection to their audiences. Look at this example from a Vice article, where the first person plus some self-deprecation creates instant empathy:
"I was never a particularly athletic child. For some godforsaken reason, my sociopath of a kindergarten teacher gave our class tests in skipping (as in, "to my Lou") and I failed them countless times before giving up."
• The second person. You. The second person is useful for addressing the reader directly, which also builds intimacy. Here’s an example from Kurt Vonnegut’s “How to Write With Style”:
"When you yourself put words on paper, remember that the most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show you or make you think about? Did you ever admire an empty-headed writer for his or her mastery of the language? No. So your own winning literary style must begin with interesting ideas in your head.”
But be careful not to accidentally implicate the reader if the topic is negative or the tone accusatory. Be like Kurt: implicate the reader willfully.
• The third person. She, he, it, they, one. Using the third person adds formality. News organizations almost exclusively use the third person because it fosters a sense of impartiality. For example: “CNN could not independently verify this report.”
A cohesive writing voice isn’t complete without a visual style to match. Consistent messages rely on consistent visuals to further establish trust and reliability. Most organizations use brand guidelines to put rigour around the exact colours, typefaces, iconography and layouts they use. Brand guidelines are useful, so long as they don’t conflict with the organization’s brand personality.
Success happens when all brand elements—culture, values, personality and voice—are in perfect sync. Maintaining a cohesive brand voice complemented by consistent design work eventually becomes natural. Until then, think of every image, word and punctuation mark as a chance to practice perfect vocal harmony.