Brand Voice:
Creating brands with depth

Sometimes, brands can seem like a complicated thing. But brand guru Wally Olins sums it up nicely. He says, “A brand is just an organisation or a product or a service with a personality.” It’s literally the first sentence in ‘Wally Olins: The Brand Handbook’. And arguably you can stop reading after that because he’s kind of cracked it.

So if we take that as a simple truth, then it points out something that brand agencies, ourselves included at times, get wrong. We concentrate too much on what a brand looks like, and not enough on what it sounds like. Think about the last branding project you did for your company. How many pages were there on logo usage? Primary and secondary colours? Photography? Background textures? 20? 30? And then think about how many pages were dedicated to language and tone of voice? Two or three at best.

“If we concentrate too much on how brands look, we’ll be as shallow as people who do the same.”

Capturing a brand’s voice isn’t a ‘nice to have’ or an ‘added bonus’. It answers some fundamental questions about your brand. How does it talk? What is its voice? And maybe most importantly – what does it have to say? 

Off The Front, a publication we developed for MAAP.

We’ve been as guilty as anyone of relegating voice to an after-thought – it’s how branding is done. But we’ve learnt over the past few years that if you give voice as much weight as identity, you create a fuller personality for your brand. And from our selfish perspective, when we run a significant brand voice process, we have deeper connections with our clients, understand them better and impact their audiences more meaningfully. It was a process that we hit upon gradually, with voice taking a larger and larger role in the brand process. I’ve been a singer in an indie rock band, a journalist, a breakfast radio broadcaster, a copywriter and a content strategist. So words and voices matter to me.

So what do we mean by brand voice? And what benefit might it have for your brand?

A tone of voice 'mixing desk' we developed for ahm insurance.

Let’s start at the ‘smallest’ expression of brand voice. A reply on the 14th comment on your brand’s last Instagram post. Who is writing that reply? What kind of guidelines have they been given? They’re making hundreds of micro-decisions of brand expression on your brand’s behalf every day. What kind of toolkit do they have on hand to help them make these decisions? Do they know whether they’re meant to use emojis or not? And which emojis are they allowed to use in which sequence?

Is your brand funny? If so, how is it funny? Is it ‘laugh out loud’ funny? Kind of mean funny? Or is it ‘subtle nod of recognition’ funny? Do the people at the coalface know this? Has it ever been articulated for them? And what about answering a product question? Do they have a Google doc they can pull some language from to describe the sweat-wicking properties properly in real-time? Or do they need to go and track down Darren in product development? These are all live examples of outcomes of brand voice processes we have run for clients.

“You shouldn’t expect your team – internal or external – to intuitively know your brand voice.”

If your organisation is small enough that the person who established the brand is also writing this post, then you’re probably equipped to answer these questions without even thinking about it. But if it’s bigger, or if you plan on it being bigger, then these are very real questions you might need to answer, daily. Because increasingly, the brand battlefield isn’t the glowing neon billboards of Kings Cross or Trafalgar Square or Times Square. It’s how well the brand responded to the fourteenth comment on that Instagram post. And in the same way you wouldn’t expect the design team to create a billboard without clear parameters, you shouldn’t expect that your team – internal or external – to intuitively know your brand voice. 

It boils down to a pretty important question: How empowered do they feel to express your brand?

Brand storytelling for Nike's 'Play New' platform.

Going down the brand voice path to us isn’t always about guidelines (although it usually starts here). The ultimate expression might be as large as a publishing platform, or as small as a phone script. After a lengthy tone of voice project with KeepCup, a key statement meant to illustrate how we might use language became a very real outdoor campaign. It’s literally written in neon in their head office. For MAAP cycling apparel, a principle in a brand deck became the name of a broadsheet print publication.

Brand voice is an unlocker. It allows you to understand your brand better, in order for your team to express it better. And that in turn creates deeper connections and ultimately, deeper brands.

Find out more about SouthSouthWest’s Brand Voice offering here.

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