“Bueller … Bueller … Bueller.”

If you’ve ever seen the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, this is definitely a voice, and tone, that doesn’t go unforgotten. This tone is great for the movie, but what if everyone sounded like that? It’d be a painfully boring world, and one that would eventually drive everyone crazy. But fortunately, that’s not the case. We’re all different—some more than others. And that’s why we remember Ben Stein’s character of Ferris’ teacher in the movie so well—he stands out from the crowd.

As with people, not all businesses are the same. They have different missions, value propositions, offerings, and audiences. A company’s brand(s) should reflect its offerings and position in the marketplace. But how?

One distinct way is by having a unique brand voice that’s specific to the individual brand and the audience it’s speaking to. For example, The Ritz-Carlton and Howard Johnson, although both hotel brands, speak to their audiences in distinctly different, yet appropriate, voices. The same can be said for brand voices of Volkswagen and Chevrolet, or any other well-structured brand. They set themselves apart for different reasons. A common tool that allows them to do so, while remaining consistent, is a brand voice guide.

So, what’s in a brand voice guide?

A brand voice is more than the company’s goals, specialties, and a list of what they offer. It helps communicate what a brand stands for and how it should be considered in the marketplace. It’s the attitude and vibe of the brand. It guides how to behave, interact, and communicate to everyone externally, and ideally, internally, too. Communicating with a consistent brand voice will help reinforce a brand’s position in the marketplace, while also building credibility between the brand and the audience.

Just as important as owning a specific brand voice is knowing how to create one in the first place. A brand voice is often comprised of at least three essential elements:

  1. Brand personality traits
  2. Tone
  3. Style

1.      A winning personality

When speaking with clients, I often refer to this development of the brand voice as the what or the what you are. In other words, this is the impression you want customers or audiences to correlate with your brand. Often, it can be more relatable and easier to comprehend when made relevant to our own lives.

In the past, I’ve related it to a family unit and how kids are raised. As a society at whole, we aim to raise our children with respect, morals, and rules of behavior. These teachings or lessons that parents try to instill in their children don’t fluctuate much from child to child within the same household. Whether it’s being empathetic, honest, trustworthy, or any number of other ways of being you can think of, it’s what parents want their kids to grow up to be. For example, parents may want their child(ren) to grow up to be empathetic or trustworthy. In this case, you could clearly state: “He is empathetic.” “She is trustworthy.” Again, it’s the what. We’ll cover the how in a bit.

We attribute human personality traits to a brand to help identify the brand and guide its communication—whether speaking to an audience through printed or visual marketing or one-on-one communication. It’s the impression of what the brand is that we want to leave with people.

If not already established, there are many ways to determine personality traits for a brand. However, one method we have been using successfully at Zion & Zion is referencing the Brand Personality Scale developed by Jennifer L. Aaker, found in her Dimensions of Brand Personality study. It’s a great write up that deserves reading; however, a quick summation is that all brands fall into at least one, and often more, generalized factors, consisting of:

  • Sincerity
  • Excitement
  • Competence
  • Sophistication
  • Ruggedness

From there, each factor category can be broken down into a handful of facets. For example, the factor set of sincerity consists of the four facets:

  1. Down to earth
  2. Honest
  3. Wholesome
  4. Cheerful

Aaker further explains that each facet can also be broken down into specific personality traits, each having slightly different meanings and levels of appropriateness for a brand. Sticking with the factor of sincerity and then its facet of cheerful, we arrive at a list of potential personality traits—all corresponding to the facet of cheerful. They include: cheerful, sentimental, and friendly—all of which mean something a little different. At this point, one can choose a personality trait (or a few) or create an option not found on the list that best suits the brand. The Aaker model certainly isn’t exhaustive of personality traits.

2.      Striking the right tone

A brand’s tone represents the appropriate communication techniques and how it sounds. Going back to the family analogy, it’s who the brand is. While the personality traits represent what parents try to instill in their children, the tone best represents who that child is individually. While parents try to teach each of their children the same morals and rules of behavior, no two children are the same. And, as each might go throughout their day practicing the same morals, each does so in a different way—a way that’s unique to who they are as an individual. The brand personality traits represent what a brand is while the tone represents the way it goes about being that trait.

Appropriately and consistently using a brand’s tone helps reinforce its personality traits and helps strengthen the brand. Some tone examples are:

  • Encouraging
  • Sincere
  • Informative
  • Candid
  • Diplomatic
  • Optimistic

Of course, there are many, many more. Tones deemed appropriate for a brand should illustrate the sentiment for the way a brand goes about being what it is—tones emphasizing traits. For example, a brand’s voice can be encouraging while being sentimental. Or, candid in its attempt to be friendly.

3.      Do it with style

After personality traits and tones—or as described above, the what and who—comes the style of our brand voice, or the how. The style in which we communicate a brand’s voice has as much to do with the punctuation and grammar guidelines of written messaging as it does with verbal communication.

Your style guidelines can be as extensive as you wish, but keep in mind the reality and likelihood of people actually following them as they become increasingly comprehensive. They can address such things as:

  • How much do you say or how long is your copy?
  • Do you use contractions?
  • Is slang okay?
  • Should you use an active voice?

The choices you make for style should strengthen the personality and tone you’re aiming for. If a brand is best suited for being conversational, then perhaps having the freedom to occasionally begin sentences with conjunctions like or, and, or but is a style guideline to consider. Using personal pronouns like we, you, our, or your is another good one for a conversational tone.

A common way to express style guidelines in a brand voice guide is to provide dos and don’ts like this brief example:

Be conversational It’s encouraged to intermix the starting of sentences with conjunctions such as and, but, and or. Use personal pronouns like we, you, our, and your to sound friendlier and welcoming. Don’t be overly strict in sentence structure which can cause the brand to sound stiff, unfriendly or unapproachable.
Using contractions It’s good to be informal in our communication with the usage of contractions like we’re and don’t or haven’t. Using we are, do not or have not can often sound formal and potentially impersonal.
Long and short sentences In body copy, shorter sentences interspersed with longer sentences help with rhythm and keep an audience engaged while reading. This is especially true when a lot of information is being presented. Don’t bore your reader by dragging on and putting too much information in a single sentence or repeat long sentences back to back.
First-person references After establishing context, use first-person references in order to keep things warm and approachable, i.e.:

“There isn’t a better office location than with ACME Brand. Our corporate lease space is a traditional Class A office environment with the rare luxury of onsite retail shopping, restaurants, and beautifully landscaped common areas that include courtyards and fountains.”

The absence of first-person references creates an impersonal and unfriendly tone, i.e.:

“There isn’t a better office location than with ACME Brand. The corporate lease space at ACME Brand is a traditional Class A office environment with the rare luxury of onsite …”

Bullet points When you have a list or a lot of information to include in writing, it’s best to use a bulleted format for easier and faster reading. Whenever possible, bullets should be the same, as either:

·         A phrase with no period, or

·         Information created as a complete sentence with a period

Don’t dump a lot of critical information into a paragraph when it’s easier to understand as a bulleted list.

When developing your own brand voice guide, you can certainly expand upon these style guidelines and cover the areas you find to be most pertinent to the particular brand and audience.

A successful brand voice

Although a brand voice guide is often thought of as a tool for written communication to a brand’s external audience, it’s also incredibly important for all forms of communication, whether verbally with sales-floor agents and call-center staff, or written communication for pieces such as a website or brochure.

Overall, when you create a brand voice guide that is embraced and utilized correctly, the brand better communicates a consistent voice that helps build trust and credibility between the brand and its audience.