This is the first in a four-part series on brand voice in the written word, audio, video and design.
Voice underlays the foundation of commercial communications.
It guides the way writers engineer a message to impress upon the reader a desired perception of your company and products.
People say Earnest Hemingway’s prose was terse, Robert Frost’s verses conversational and Truman Capote’s descriptions dazzling. But how would people describe what John Deere, The Korte Company and Zappos.com sound like, and why should they care?
Developing and consistently implementing a distinct voice can build unique connections with customers, fostering emotional incentives to buy your products and services like a child to a Happy Meal.
Consistent representation builds cultural persona
William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White define voice in their classic writing guide, “The Elements of Style.”
Writers, regardless of form or function, use language to convey something about themselves [your company] to the reader, such as their spirit, habits, capacity and biases.
A company’s voice shapes the culture audiences perceive them to have. That perception influences their predictions about what working with the company will be like.
As Ann Handley describes in “Everybody Writes,” a brand’s voice is an expression of personality [company culture] and point of view. “It’s a key differentiator for a company that takes the time to develop it. (And not many do. So you have an opportunity there!)”
Company character building
Before you open a new text document, ask, how do I want the reader to feel about my company after they read this? Next ask, what company traits can we convey to make them feel this way? Practically every stylistic choice can be based on these questions.
Marketers often reference the archetypal hero’s journey plotline, as implemented in stories like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” and “The Lord of the Rings,” all the way back to “The Epic of Gilgamesh.”
Companies position themselves as guides, helping the hero of the story [the customer] to fulfill their mission of solving a problem
But Gandalf was a lot more to Frodo than just a guiding hand. Characters need personality traits, core motivation, unique worldviews. Much of this is already spelled out in company mission statements and core values, but the challenge is to bring it all to life in every phrase you write.
Example: The Korte Man
One of our long-standing clients at Gorilla 76, The Korte Company, uses two words that guide how its messaging is crafted: sophisticated grit. This phrase permeates the spirit of everything the company puts out to the public.
This sophisticated grit is personified in a character I like to call The Korte Man — a persona loosely based on the values, attitudes and experiences of Ralph Korte, the company’s founder. Ralph was known for such quips as, “I’d rather drive nails than eat.”
The Korte Man is an encapsulation of Ralph’s hammer-swinging spirit. He wears a white helmet, dirty work boots and a button-up shirt with rolled sleeves. He sounds like Sam Elliot and his hands are rough like Paul Bunyan’s. He swings a hammer as well as he can read a blueprint. He’s the kind of leader his small army of subcontractors gladly follows, come what may.
This spirit was already present when G76 co-founder Jon Franko took on the account as its first copywriter. Gorilla 76 Content Director Toby Wall has helped develop it after he took over the account four years ago.
The Korte Man’s voice evolved from their print advertisements, where his terse, choppy style was well fit for the medium.
“Print is dead, but the voice has stuck,” Toby says.
Toby took The Korte Company’s voice from print advertising and helped apply it across all of the company’s messaging as its marketing strategies matured and its goals became more ambitious.
“[The Korte Man’s messaging] used to be all brand, all voice, all the time,” Toby says. “Now, by necessity, it’s hard facts, details, complex solutions to prickly problems, guidance the audience needs to make the decision that’s right for them. The Korte Man is still talking, but he has to talk about a lot more stuff.”
“Print is dead, but the voice has stuck.”
Composition of voice
In her essay “On Voice” from the collection “Telling True Stories,” journalist Susan Orleans breaks voice down into two basic components, pacing and word choice.
Orleans explains properly manipulated pacing is a critical component of voice, used to subliminally alter the mood of a passage.
Pacing can make or break a good joke as well as a dramatic scene. The rhythm of your words can build like a drum beat, each syllable another rap on the snare, raising the reader’s anticipation. Then, the punch line, perfectly timed. Maybe it brightens someone’s day. Maybe it breaks their heart.
Think of the music that plays before the jump scare in a classic horror movie. That same tension can be portrayed through the length of sentences. Start with a long sentence like a violin crescendo slowly rises, building anticipation for an abrupt ending that releases the tension in a burst.
Consider how Edger Allan Poe’s “The Raven” uses pacing to add levity to the end of his passages, transitioning from a long sentence to a short, punchy, conclusive ending.
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels name Lenore?
How does the impact change when the phrase is worded, “May I see Lenore? Quoth the raven, ‘You shall note see her anymore.’”
Ending with the longer sentence reduces the weight and gives the phrase a more playful feeling than readers would expect from the likes of Poe.
Poe’s readers expect his writing to be on brand, and so do your customers.
Your overall pacing speaks to the character of your company. Short, tight sentences indicate a professional, all-business manner, but it also comes off as stiff and unfriendly if the length of sentences isn’t varied to some extent.
On the other hand, long, drag-on sentences can indicate that your company is unfocused, undisciplined and could be difficult to work with.
These literary principles are used in advertisements that cap off descriptive commercials with catchy one-line kickers like De Beers’ “A diamond is forever” or “America runs on Dunkin’.”
The Korte Man’s pacing is what I like to call “cowboy staccato.” Like John Wayne, he keeps things to the point.
His rhythm has a horse trot quality: dadun, dadun, dadun.
Infrequent incomplete sentences are calculated for effect — a tactic Toby believes is most effective when used sparingly.
Ahava Leibtag, author of “The Digital Crown,” recommends picking three or four adjectives that best describe how your company benefits every customer.
Does your company place more emphasis on being reliable or fast? The accompanying language reflecting those traits can be very different.
A company like online retailer Zappos places great value in being perceived as reliable and conscientious, while also wacky and fun. Everything you read from the company reflects that.
So when a software glitch caused a major pricing error, their apology letter read more like a note from a peppy co-ed softball coach than a corporate apology by referring to the glitch as “our little hiccup.”
This playful, familiar voice is also present on the company’s job page, where little casual turns of phrase help applicants know what to expect when they apply to a position “in the ‘City of Sin.’ Yep, Las Vegas, Nevada.”
The simple use of the term “yep” portrays the Zappos culture more effectively than most mission statements.
Using the right words is equally important as avoiding the wrong ones.
Using the wrong words in a social context can alienate potential customers. Implementing the wrong words on technical matters can leave customers feeling like you’re not the subject matter expert they need.
That’s why it’s important to use terms that express what your company has to offer within the language of the demographics in your customer profiles. Marketers may recognize this as the “voice of customer” model.
While many writing guides caution the use of colloquialisms, if the majority of your customers come from a particular region, culture or zeitgeist, using slang and phrasing that they identify with could make you stand out among competitors. However, don’t drown your prose in style at the expense of clarity and make your voice an annoying cliché.
Reading familiar language makes it more likely for people to identify with your content, relating it to aspects of their lives that go deeper than their job title, which will help instill brand loyalty.
For example, when The Korte Man “speaks,” you’ll hear about honesty and fair dealing. You’ll hear about working hard and giving back. When he says he builds for customers as if they were his own neighbors, he means it.
In other words, his fallback zeitgeist is Midwestern nice. But how does that square with the company’s national customer base?
Relating to the wider market
Making your company’s character unique yet widely relatable is a matter of good judgment and even better balance.
When writing for The Korte Company, Toby says it’s important not to overemphasize regional flair. As such, you’ll never see The Korte Man try to score points for style if he’s got something educational to say. He’ll speak in brass-tacks terms but won’t dumb down information because his audience includes facility managers and engineers responsible for multimillion-dollar projects. They know their stuff.
Toby says that’s why, even though it’s so specific, The Korte Company’s voice nonetheless works across a wide audience. “If buyers don’t see themselves in the history or in the geography or the demographics, they do see themselves in the work.”
As a result, The Korte Company has earned its audiences’ respect; with his cowboy staccato, The Korte Man shows he knows his stuff, too.
In the long term, The Korte Man’s voice will come to mind the next time a regional VP of logistics needs to contract for a Design-Build distribution center erected with Tilt-Up concrete panels.
Listen to your customers
There are multiple ways to home in on the language of your customers, such as customer interviews and analyzing how consumers talk about your products on social media.
Consider the pace at which they write or speak and note recurring key terms, then reflect what you’ve learned in your writing.
- What problems are they attempting to solve when they consider purchasing one of your products and how do they talk about them?
- What emotional states can you expect of them during the buying phase?
- Do they readily recognize and refer to your brand names or do you need to be more generalized?
The mood of your reader will affect the words they connect with. An anxious person is more likely to respond to aggressive language. And a calm person will be more likely to respond to pleasant prose that doesn’t harsh their mellow.
Think about if your product is intended to solve a frustrating problem, meaning your buyers are probably not in the best of moods. Or, is your product something customers generally only consider when finances are in the black, meaning they may be in better spirits?
Brand positioning (snuggling into hearts and minds)
Everything consumers hear from your company affects how it’s positioned in their minds, whether or not it’s a part of your positioning strategy.
Al Ries and Jack Trout teach in “Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind” the concept of positioning yourself in a comfortable and familiar place within a customer’s mind. This allows your words to break through in an overcommunicated world and your product to stand out in an overcrowded marketplace.
Write to relate your product to something that potential customers already hold dear.
For example, “Tractors are green, cattle are black.”
It was penned by an agriculture equipment dealership and livestock genetics company formerly under the Sydenstricker’s Implements umbrella.
Sydenstricker wants farmers to think of John Deere when they hear tractor and black angus when they hear cattle, just like people ask for “Kleenex” when they need a tissue.
By leading with the general terms, those who have strong attachments to tractors and cattle are more likely to pay attention than starting with company-specific language like, “Syndenstricker’s sells green tractors.”
The slogan positioned Sydenstricker’s products deep in the mind by attaching their products’ physical characteristics with a widely familiar bit of poetry, “Roses are red, violets are blue.”
While the slogan relates to a flowery poem, the language is direct and to the point, fitting for the personalities of many farmers and ranchers.
Everything consumers hear from your company affects how it’s positioned in their minds, whether or not it’s a part of your positioning strategy.
Spread voice across media
A single slogan can be forgotten, but the consistent feeling customers get when they tune in to your content won’t easily fade away.
That’s why you need to expand your voice strategies throughout all of your company communications, internal and external, as well as maintain traits of this company character in every speaking engagement, web layout and multi-media project your company undertakes.
Not every medium will require the same stylistic choices. A white paper should inherently be a more straightforward voice than what would be appropriate for a sharable Facebook post, but it should still feel like your company character is behind every word.
They think about how your company character would phrase a message, rather than think in their own voice with their unique habits. This process can also be a useful way to solve writers’ block, Toby says, because team members can get out of their heads.
Consider putting together a company style guide with elements of the voice outlined so every team member has fast access to an essential resource that won’t be impacted by staffing changes.
In our next series installment, we’ll see how written voice practices apply to the spoken word. Many of the same principles and strategies can be carried over but need to be fine-tuned to fit the specific requirements of the medium, whether it’s podcasting or public speaking.
Build a chorus
While creating a consistent public-facing company voice is important, it shouldn’t limit the voices of your employees and subject matter experts.
Jon says the overall value of a company is supplemented by the unique perspectives and qualities of its employees, so their voices should be celebrated as well.
The challenge for company leaders is adding all of the voices within a team to a chorus that creates a richer overall message.
Encourage your team members to build upon the voice of your company by putting their own ideas and contributions on display in a way that supports your positioning strategy.
Expand upon your company’s online learning center by having team members write about the challenges they’re experiencing and what new solutions could improve the lives of their peers and customers.
Develop your voice and put it to work
The ability to create a compelling company voice and then put it to work is an essential tool in any well-rounded industrial marketing toolbox.
When it’s sharpened up, you’ll be equipped to share what you know and what you do with a growing audience that feels a genuine connection.
And as your audience grows, so builds your pipeline.