What you say and how you say it matters. Brands love to talk about voice, but a lot of them end up sounding the same.
Every company wants to serve the customer and be conversational—which is fine. Those aren’t bad things, but they’re not differentiators anymore. They’re just table stakes. If your team feels stuck talking in circles about brand voice, you can avoid arguing about tone and POV by playing a few brainstorming games.
Now brainstorming as a concept has been misused for decades. You’re probably familiar with the old song and dance that goes, “Everyone yell out ideas while I write them down, no criticizing or editing until we’re all done!” Turns out, not ideal. As Harvard Business Review pointed out in 2017, professionals brainstorming in groups came up with fewer good ideas than professionals working alone. The key to brainstorming well is to carry out exercises independently first.
But how do you know where to start? Before you think about dropping upwards of $50,000 on a brand consultant, try these exercises first.
Choose a celebrity spokesperson
Have everyone involved write down three ideal celebrity spokespeople for the brand. These can be actors, musicians, businesspeople, activists, political personalities, fictional characters, or archetypes—as long as they don’t actually work for the company.
You can either lean into your brand or comically play with it, but either way, you should glean something about your brand based on the final decision. If you’re All-State, you want Dennis Haysbert, the kind of actor who seems like he could pull off a beleaguered police chief or senator. If you’re CapitalOne selling to moms who shop, you choose bubbly and smart Jennifer Garner, someone relatable to women with a proven track record of supporting Ben Affleck through his troubles.
AirBnB might choose a 30-something celebrity who anyone would be excited to sit next to on a plane: Jennifer Lawrence or Gina Rodriguez. Apple might lean into its music and multimedia capabilities, hiring Pharrell or Janelle Monae. Venmo might pick someone who at least looks like they’re still nickel-and-diming their friends over beers, which sounds a lot like Jonah Hill.
Describe the opposite of your brand
If you have an established strategy, it’s easy to get comfortable describing your brand voice with the same handful of adjectives. Once your team repeats those four words over and over for a long period of time, they start to lose their meaning. One way to combat this creative stall is to think about what your brand is not.
Take Gap for instance. Gap is whimsical, but not cheesy. Pixar films are universally acceptable, but not pandering. They’re emotional without feeling manipulative, and visually affecting but not overstimulating.
This gets easier as you jump from brand to brand, and you can always try out a few before taking on your own. Jeep buyers are adventurous, but not aggressive. Wells Fargo is established, but not stuffy. eBay is scrappy, but not shady. You get the idea.
Go to a hypothetical dinner party
This one’s a classic. If your brand could come to life as a person at a dinner party, who would you be? (If your brand targets a consumer base that’s younger than typical attendees at a dinner party, you can always substitute a college party, a house party, or a high school cafeteria, and the central question remains the same.)
A slightly different example of this phenomenon is the “Website Anthropomorphism” meme, which you might recognize as several years old because our understanding of certain platforms has evolved since the joke was popular. For instance, Facebook in the drawing below is represented by a cute blonde girl in a crop top, whereas now it would look more like an angry old person yelling at The Onion.
Consumers do this marketing exercise for companies all the time, so you might as well give it a try on your end. Here’s another example from a Dorkly post, in which an artist rendered video game companies as different types of men.
Read your tweets out loud
This is an exercise often practiced by novelists, playwrights, and fiction writers who want to make sure their dialogue really crackles. If a person who doesn’t work as a writer feels odd reading a character’s dialogue aloud, that tells the writer the copy may need work.
Not all your social media copy needs to translate perfectly to the ear, but certain things will become obvious if you take turns reading tweets, LinkedIn posts, and Facebook updates out loud. Your messaging might sound too robotic, or you’ll begin to notice that you’ve peppered into too many exclamation points.
At a previous job, we had an unofficial habit of declaring ourselves “thrilled” to do everything. Thrilled to receive invoices, thrilled to send a draft, thrilled to attend a conference. It got disingenuous very quickly.
Study your audience from afar
Social media marketers are eager to talk to their audience and build a sense of community. But they can also benefit a lot by just reading without commenting or interjecting.
Let’s say you’re in charge of audience engagement at a tech startup that’s just developed an app for working mothers. Before you start creating content, find out how these mothers speak to each other on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. Do they use a lot of emojis? Do they quote-tweet each other with commentary instead of simply retweeting? If they’re sharing inspirational, positive quote cards, that’s a move you can follow. If they share stories about modern parenting, set up some Google alerts and post on-brand articles about relevant aspects of your audience’s lives on your feed.
What you say and how you say it matters.
There’s no “right way” to do this exercise. However, you do have to decide how closely you want your brand to sound to your target demo. Some consumers might enjoy being addressed by brands who see them as equals, especially if you’re in the food and beverage industry, but many others follow brands in a more aspirational sense that warrants authority and professionalism.
For instance, I would very much like to be a Free People woman, but budget-wise, I’m more like a TJ Maxx woman. If Free People started branding themselves as a hub for bargain shoppers, I wouldn’t be so inclined to save for a sweater as soon as it goes on sale. That would seriously dilute my concept of what they sell—the dream that a young woman might leave Manhattan, move to Santa Fe, and dress only in naturally dyed linen pants and learn to paint.
Is your brand a friend to your consumers where they are today? Or do you sell the goods they hope to buy frivolously in 5 years? Your brand’s voice has to make that clear.