How Clear Is Your Brand’s Voice?

This man had a distinctive voice. Does your brand? That voice. I heard it, softly, from a table 10 feet away.

It was 1990. We were in a quiet, trendy Hollywood restaurant whose name I never knew and I doubt still exists.

I was with an agency producer, working on a TV job for a large telecom client.

It was the unmistakable voice of an old friend. I wanted to jump up, hug him and tell him my whole family and all our friends missed him.

But I didn’t because he was speaking softly, it sounded private, and I didn’t want to interrupt.

Besides, we had never met, and I didn’t want to scare the hell out of him.

It was Don Knotts.

A.k.a. Barney Fife,  Mr. Limpit and Ralph Furley.

I didn’t need to see him to know. Of course I turned my head. Of course it was him. That voice was completely unique.

Brands can also have a “voice.”

What exactly does that mean?

It’s what people hear when you communicate. It’s personality, character, style and substance. It demands attention.

Some brands have a voice as distinctive as Don Knotts.

They’ve developed an appropriate, effective way of communicating with their community through advertising, events, design, in-store experience, systems, service, websites, social media, cause advocacy and more. Think of McDonalds, Nike, Harley Davidson, Trader Joe’s, Southwest.

Each has a voice that attracts attention—and encourages relationships.

Smaller companies can also have a distinctive voice.

You can probably think of local retailers, or companies in specialty markets, whose voices make you listen.

Or think of your favorite bloggers. For me, Marcus Sheridan, Gini Dietrich, Mitch Joel and Avinash Kaushik stand out.

You could easily pick out each one’s singular voice in a noisy room full of bloggers.

How do you develop your brand’s voice?

I don’t think there’s a quick answer. The fashionable answer is “be authentic.” But can a brand—an artificial construct—be authentic?  Do the Dew, anyone?

I think it takes work, trial and error, and craftsmanship. It demands consistency.

Your brand’s voice might consist of characteristics like these:

  • Authoritative
  • Competitive
  • Emotional
  • Entertaining
  • Friendly
  • Fun
  • Gracious
  • Helpful
  • Kind
  • Outrageous
  • Professional
  • Sarcastic
  • Sexy
  • Sincere
  • Snooty

None of these is right or wrong. The key is finding a voice that’s right for you.

I recommend ongoing work in three areas:

Know yourself
What do you really offer? Why is it important? Why are you, or what you do, different?

Know your competitors
Who else talks with your customers? What do your customers think of them?

Most importantly, know your customers
What are their true needs, practical and emotional? How can you fit into their life?

Excel at these, and you’ll communicate with confidence. Talk and write as if it were person to person. See what approaches work. Your voice will grow and develop.

I’m not sure this is enough to develop a voice as distinctive as Don Knotts, or even the Pillsbury Doughboy. But I think it’s a good start.

What do you think?

21 thoughts on “How Clear Is Your Brand’s Voice?

  1. Hi Barrett,

    I think you keyed in on something important and that is the need to figure out what voice is right for you.

    Some people and brands pick voices that simply don’t work for them and they waste ungodly amounts of time trying to fit the round peg into the square hole.

    Part of that sometimes occurs when you try to please everyone and forget that some people will never like/love/be interested in you and that is ok.
    Josh recently posted..Are You Out Of The Loop About Google Plus Communities?

    • When writing characters in novels one needs to strive for a unique voice. I read where one should be able to strip the character names off the dialog and the author should still be able to tell who is speaking.

      It isn’t as easy as it sounds. You’d think the author would remember which dialog went to which character, but we often we don’t, and there is always the danger of them all sounding the same.

      I don’t know what my point is, other than, like anything, the more one practices the easier it becomes to develop multiple voices for characters. Maybe it is the same for brands or maybe that is a bad idea.

      I guess the first step is to be aware of its importance and your post certainly does a good job of pointing that out, and then one needs to take the time to see if their brand is straying from the voice they want.

      Voice is hard, but like anything, it gets easier with time.
      Brian D. Meeks (@ExtremelyAvg) recently posted..Touched: Ch 11

      • re: “I read where one should be able to strip the character names off the dialog and the author should still be able to tell who is speaking.”

        Absolutely! We say the same thing about advertising and other marketing communications. The problem arises when you’re trying to “make a good ad” rather than communicate in a way that’s really true to the brand or company and the relationship between it and the customer.

        Otherwise, in a way, you’re somewhat being dishonest. It’s like using a fake accent to make people think you’re something that you’re not.

        I imagine it’s a huge challenge for a novelist.

  2. Jeez, you must have written some gold here. Josh wrote more than a single sentence. Damn!

    I have always gone for sexy and snooty. Does it show?

    Agreed that the three “knows” are the critical mass for great communication. Somehow there are a few people on the same wavelength this week. I am posting on a similar subject tomorrow albeit likely not as succinct but in a similar vein. Did you get by Craig McBreen’s place this week?
    Ralph recently posted..Forget Instagram. Watch this video: France 2012 A moment in time

    • Ralph, for me it almost always comes down to the “three knows.”

      I’ll have to see what the prolific Mr. McBreen is up to. It’s hard to keep up with that guy!

  3. I think you’re right. I know one turning point in my writing occurred when I started to be more relaxed with it. It was difficult as I’m an academic through-and-through. First person? Forget about it. In some ways, I think poetry has had more to do with how my voice has developed than any other sort of writing. It’s hard to tell anymore. Everything blends together. I’m not sure I can or should point to any one thing.

    Also, it does take time. I’m working with a writer who’s encountering the pressure to have that voice immediately. I’m trying to remind the writer that it takes time and a lot of consistent writing.
    Erin Feldman recently posted..Write Right Decorates for the Holidays

  4. Barrett,
    Finding my voice has never been the issue for me! LOL

    My difficulties, as Jayme could share with you as it is when we became friends, instead of “connections”, came from reconciling who and all I was and how each related to Pioneer Outfitters. (Thus! My Identity Crisis)

    I was lucky enough, when I jumped into the deep end, I jumped right into the middle of SEO and Blogging experts! How’s that?! Now, all I was learning in my classes, should have sent me to different outfitters as a group. Instead, I had surrounded myself with a living, laughing entire set of encyclopedias!

    My real struggles online have been the “hows” like “how do I put a big header in?”, LOL.

    Great post. I’ll be back. (said in THAT voice!)

    • Amber-Lee, thanks for taking the time to visit and comment. Really appreciate it! It’s nice that you fell in with a good crowd. The things you need (the “how-to’s” you mentioned) aren’t all that tough when you have generous online pals.

      By the way, your Twitter profile header looks great. Hope you DO come back!

    • This makes me stop and think, Jayme. I think you’re right, ‘voice’ and ‘personality’ are practically interchangeable. When I sat down to write, the voice idea was in my head, as I related it in my mind to my Don Knotts moment. Which, I have to say, really was a goofy thrill — I had to exercise HUGE restraint from interrupting his meal!

      I try not to get hung up on the fact that people different marketing/branding terminology for similar concepts (“Your definition of Value Proposition is wrong, that’s a Positioning Statement, you dummy!”) but at the same time I try to be precise. Don’t always succeed!

      Voice might be said to be what gets heard, literally, whereas personality might include a broader range — images, actions, choices about where to engage and what to engage in. But it’s really splitting hairs. Which is a long way of saying… you’re right!

  5. While reading this there are two companies that popped in my head that are extremely good at this that are rarely included in the “Nike, Starbucks, Harley” discussion. Whenever I see one of their commercials, even with no logo or spokesperson until the end, I KNOW I’m watching a Target or Old Navy commercial. Very distinctive.

    • Damon, thanks for dropping by. I hear you about the “Nike, Starbucks, Harley” thing, it’s so much more interesting to ID companies that have a strong, consistent voice, and also aren’t household names.

      On Old Navy and Target: Old Navy does a very good job of tying their commercials in with their in-store experience. It’s all very distinctive. Target has been very good for years, but this year they unleashed some of the most irritating commercial of the season. It was very uncharacteristic. Being irritating can’t possibly be a good strategy, can it?

  6. A personal or business brand is so essential. It requires consistently focusing and delivering in our niche area. Great point about knowing self! Looking forward to reading your blog more.

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