How to craft a brand voice

Brand voice covers not only a company's tone of voice and the language used in its communications, but also what content and messages a brand shares and prioritises.

'Tone of voice' is the phrase you find in most brand guidelines, when you get to the section about language. But 'tone of voice' is only half the story and half the battle. After all, it covers how you speak, but fails to mention what you say.

Your tone is all about the character that comes through in your language. Whether you say, 'Welcome, Ms Jones, how can we help you today?' Or, 'Hi Fran, what can we do for you?' Or, 'Come on in, Francesca, you're going to love this. Those choices tell audiences about the personality of your brand, making it more (or less) engaging. And that matters. A lot. 

But it misses out the content of your messages. When a new customer arrives, do you tell them you've been a trusted name in this industry for 150 years? Or that you've been voted Britain's Nicest Place To Work three years in a row? Or that you've just transformed investment banking with your new app? 

All three could be true, but how you prioritise them – and whether you mention them at all – will be just as critical as your tone when it comes to how you're perceived. That's why at Reed Words we prefer 'brand voice'. (That, and the fact it's the clearest, least pretentious term we can find.)

British Heart Foundation's brand voice is positioned around 'Fight for every heartbeat,' and uses direct and clear messages to get its point across

Style is critical, of course: phrasing, formality (or lack of it) and whether you use quick, choppy sentences or long, flowing ones are all important aspects of a voice.

But substance is just as vital. What does the brand want to achieve? Who are its competitors, and what are they saying? What is the audience looking for – and what can we say to persuade them we're the place to get it? 

A fully-fledged brand voice that balances tone and content is a strategic tool as well as a creative one – a red thread that runs through every touchpoint of the brand, if you like. And these days, that brand voice matters more than ever.

Brand voice works as brand glue

As we all know, brands project themselves in more complex ways than ever. You can now encounter an organisation in a tweet, live chat or Facebook post as easily as a TV spot or poster. 

Gone are the days when 'identities' could be 'managed' with a book full of logo sizes and Pantone numbers (if they ever really could). Brands now have much less control over how they appear. 

Often, they're embedded in someone else's platform – their own 'look and feel' becomes subject to someone else. So anything that can create that crucial 'red thread' through every touchpoint becomes an extremely valuable tool. Brand voice does that just beautifully.

Twitter is an obvious example. On a mobile app, @Nike looks pretty much the same as @adidas. The two obvious differences are the logo – and the language. Looking at the two feeds, @Nike's copy is strikingly short, sharp and active – even in conversation. Very 'Nike', in fact. As I write, its most recent tweets (all @ replies) say: 

That's a pretty consistent voice – and we can probably all agree which is the weak link. The last one, by the way, is in response to a photograph of a Nike-swaddled baby.

And @adidas? Again, here are the latest five tweets at the time of writing (all @ replies again):

Apart from the obvious decision to end every tweet with an emoji, this voice doesn't seem as sharply defined as Nike's. You could reverse engineer some basic principles based on the Nike list. And many readers could probably guess the brand from those tweets alone. Both would be trickier with adidas. 

The point is, Nike's brand comes through powerfully, with zero visual support. That's voice as brand glue. If you can get the same tone and messaging running through your ads, tweets, app, website, packaging, and everything else, it reinforces the brand at every encounter, wherever it happens. 

That's not easy to achieve, obviously. In fact, once you get to any sort of scale, it's bloody hard. But it's a tremendously powerful asset. And brands have finally woken up to it – big time.

Rewriting the rulebook?

In a way, none of this is particularly new. The fact that you should change what you say and how you say it depending on what you're writing is kind of obvious. It's not like Bill Bernbach wrote every VW ad a different way. And David Abbott didn't write for Sainsbury's the way he wrote for the RSPCA. Copywriters – and audiences – have always understood that brands have personalities, which their voices should reflect. 

Even so, it's taken a long time for 'brand voice' to move from that sort of intuitive, background assumption into more of a recognised discipline.

Perhaps that's because writing is one of those crafts that's easily overlooked. The best writing is often almost invisible. As George Orwell famously said, it's like a window pane: revealing its subject with beautiful clarity, but never drawing attention to itself.

Simple calls to action paired with bold, clear images helped transform the way Alzheimer's Australia was seen by both citizens and the Australian government

Writers don't help, to be honest. We tend to be a quiet bunch – very good at grumbling in pub corners about how little people understand or respect writing, but perhaps less brilliant about really getting out there and promoting it. 

Despite all that, voice has slowly edged into the branding limelight over the past 20 years or so. It's still establishing itself in many minds (and budgets), but we've come a long way from: 'Here are the layouts, can you just fill in the text boxes please?'

How copywriting discovered its voice

Looking back, things seemed to really get moving in the latter half of the 1990s. For me, a few points along the way seem especially relevant.

First, in 1995, there was Howies. The clothing brand's clever use of copywriting fitted its products and catalogues perfectly, and helped take the brand to a new level – with customers becoming fans, not just consumers. 

In 1997, Interbrand gobbled up legendary British design firm Newell and Sorrell – swallowing, in the process, a chap named John Simmons. A passionate believer in the power of words, Simmons was frustrated that this side of the brand equation was so overlooked. He coined the phrase 'verbal identity' (an equal partner to visual identity), and built a division at Interbrand to offer it. 

That he could do this – that a major agency would support it, and clients buy it – was another big sign that words were gaining new currency in design and branding. 

The identity for Birmingham Hippodrome – by Purpose, in collaboration with Reed Words – was informed by the idea of 'a stage for life'

Innocent burst onto the market in 1999, and as anyone who's attended a brand voice workshop knows, it changed the world. As its writer and head of brand, Dan Germain, has said, Innocent was a social brand before social media even existed. It even had its own hugely popular festival, Fruitstock. And arguably, it was Innocent's unique voice – silly, jolly and almost never about fruit – that was a massive contributor to its success.

In the same year, D&AD recognised the emergence of Writing For Design with a new award category of that name. And in the years since, brands and consultancies have rapidly become more sophisticated in the way they use – and commission – writing. 

They've started involving writers at much earlier stages of branding – which makes sense, when you think about it. When you're trying to boil a complex offer down to a two- or three-word essence, it's worth having a wordsmith in the room.

More and more, brand writers are doing what they should have been doing all along: helping shape and crystallise the strategies behind brands, as well as developing the guidelines and communication. 

The packaging for the Simple Value Argos range uses short and snappy copy to reflect the simplicity of the goods, and the honest tone reflects the products' solid quality and good value

Looking to the future

Looking at the examples we've covered, it seems brand voice can be useful in everything from clothing to charity to chatting to customers on the phone. As as far as we can tell, the future looks rosy for brand voice. (Unless it's just our spectacles.) 

Partly, it's because of a need for coherence in an increasingly omnichannel world that never switches off. But it seems there's also a deeper recognition of how powerfully words can capture subtle, complex ideas in clear and compelling form. And as brands find more ways to talk (think artificial intelligence, for example), their voices can only become even more important in the future. 

This article originally appeared in Computer Arts issue 266. Buy it here!

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