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What's Your Company's 'Voice'? Here's How to Figure It Out.

What's Your Company's 'Voice'? Here's How to Figure It Out.
Image credit: IDEA iDebate | Flickr
This story appears in the April 2015 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

One of the biggest branding mistakes companies make is not paying enough attention to their tone of voice.

“Voice” is one of those concepts that may sound better suited to the literary world than the business world. In literature, it refers to how you come across in your writing. In marketing, your tone of voice can be a significant differentiator.

Companies spend a great deal of time on logos, color selection and other cues they think of as “branding”—the look and feel of their website, collateral and signage. But very few take the time to consider the benefits of employing a unique voice. Consider this: If you were to mask the logo on your website, would you sound unique? Or would you sound like everyone else (i.e., your competitors)?

Your tone of voice isn’t about what you say but how you say it—and it’s about the impression your brand leaves on customers. Developed correctly, your tone of voice can be the secret sauce in your content recipe.

Define what makes you you.

Marketers call this developing a “brand positioning statement” or “mission statement.”

Whatever you call it, the idea is to define who you are. Or, as Dr. Seuss wrote, “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.” He wasn’t talking about marketing, but he might as well have been.

Ask yourself these key questions:

“What’s unique about your business?"

“What’s special about your products?"

“What’s special about the way you do business?"

“What’s your company culture like? (Are you buttoned-up or playful?)"

“How do your employees relax together? (Do you play beer pong in the parking lot or have morning yoga sessions?)“

How do you want to be regarded by customers and your community? (Are you a trusted source for high-level insight or hands-on practical advice?)

This should help you come up with a few keywords that best define who you are. But go beyond the generic.

“Don’t fall into the trap of choosing trite, nondifferentiating factors such as ‘friendly,’ ‘honest,’ ‘reliable’ and so on as brand values,” says Andrew Bredenkamp, founder and chairman of Acrolinx, a software platform that helps companies hone their tone of voice. Such attributes are just one big duh, or “the least you would expect from any company,” he says. “They may be important to your service, but they won’t help you create a distinctive tone.”

It’s also wise to avoid buzzwords and clichés like “cutting-edge,” “proactive” or “revolutionary.” “If you’re looking to be different, they put you at a disadvantage right from the start,” Bredenkamp notes.

Instead, identify more descriptive terms that reflect specifically who you are and how you wish to be perceived.

Translate those words into a style.

Abstract attributes in isolation don’t mean much, so develop some detail around them. Make them real and practical.

For example, if one of your brand values is “creative,” what exactly do you mean? When and how are you creative? How does your creativity help clients? Or, if one of your brand values is “unusual,” what exactly does that mean? In what ways are you unusual, and how does that quirkiness benefit customers? Do you solve problems differently? Do you have an approach that exemplifies that ideal in the real world?

Flesh out those words with a few sentences or a story.

Write it down.

I almost said “create a style guide,” but I worried I’d lose those of you who might think such a notion would be pedantic—especially for growing, scrappy businesses. But I think it’s important for entrepreneurs. Often, the brand voice of an organization grows organically from the founder’s personality and values. That’s great, but what happens when the company grows and a marketing team starts writing the emails the founder used to pen herself? That’s when you’ll be glad you wrote all this stuff down.

So what goes into a style guide? Start with some of the basic information noted above, and add from there. A simple Google Doc would work so it could be accessed and updated as needed.

A couple of important points to spell out: 

Pronouns. Companies tend to be all over the map with these, using the first person (“we” and “us”) in one sentence and the third person (“Abbading Inc.”) elsewhere. First person tends to be warmer and create a more accessible tone, while third person tends to feel more detached and paternal. Pick one based on your brand voice and stick with it. The same goes for your audience: Use “you” or “customers” consistently.

Jargon. I used to take a hard line against jargon and insider language—as in, don’t use it. But lately I’ve rethought that rule, because jargon can sometimes include key phrases that are necessary to signal a shared mindset or to convey a depth of knowledge. Spell out which professional terms and phrases your company embraces and which it does not. Most important—and this goes for anything you write—be sure to use only terms that clarify rather than obfuscate.

Sweat the small stuff. Don’t think about your voice only in the most obvious places, like your website’s homepage and your Facebook page. Take it further. Consider how you can use your voice as a differentiator in surprising places, like on your 404 page, email confirmation or “Thank You” page.

Now, here’s how it sounds in action.

So all this talk of voice sounds awesome, right? But how does it actually play out? Can the words you use really help brand you?

Freaker USA manufactures and sells one-size-fits-all beverage insulators—also known as koozies. Beverage insulation is a pretty pedestrian category. But Freaker USA stands out in part because of its tone of voice, which extends across everything it undertakes.

Here’s how the company describes itself on its “About” page:

“Established in 2011 and located in Wilmington, N.C., Freaker USA quickly grew to be the global leader of preventing moist handshakes and sweaty beverages. They aren’t just selling you their fit-everything product, they’re giving you an invitation to their party—a starter kit for a new lifestyle. The Freaker isn’t a strike-at-the-wind attempt to get rich, it’s the background music to a never-ending journey. Infusing life, style and functionality into a drink insulator.”

Think about that for a minute. Freaker could have described itself with a bit more utility, something like this: 

“This drink insulator keeps your bottled beverages colder longer, plus folds flat for maximum pocket portability. It fits your bottle or can like a glove and is classier than a brown bag.”

In fact, that’s a bit of website copy I co-opted from one of Freaker’s competitors. It doesn’t convey nearly the same brand story, does it? If Freaker spoke that way, you wouldn’t get a sense of what makes the company unique.

Remember how I mentioned sweating the small stuff? This is an excerpt from Freaker’s email subscription confirmation:

“If you received this email by a whoopsies, simply delete it. As long as you don’t click the confirmation link above, we won’t haunt you with a subscription to our ass-kicking newsletter. You won’t be delivered weekly sales and giveaways right to your inbox. You will never know love. Just delete this email and carry on like nothing here ever happened. OKAY LOVE YOU BYE!”

Your company might not be as quirky as Freaker USA, and that’s OK. The point, more broadly, is this: What’s your own brand voice? And does it clearly reflect what makes you you?

Edition: December 2016

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