How to build a distinctive brand voice

Alan Siegel, CEO and founder, Siegelvision

Alan Siegel, CEO and founder, Siegelvision

The concept of a brand voice is widely used today by branding professionals, but it is still widely misunderstood and underleveraged. All too often, brand voice is watered down to a page of overused words — “innovative,” “human,” “collaborative” — that is supposed to drive the tone of all communications. So it’s not surprising that most brand voices are predictable, uninspired, generic, and often incoherent.

An undifferentiated voice is particularly detrimental today as the focus shifts from what brands communicate to how brands communicate. To build a distinctive identity, a brand must develop an instantly recognizable voice that generates strong positive associations and establishes the character of communications whether classic or innovative, glamorous or functional, aristocratic or irreverent, elegant, down-to-earth or straightforward.

I studied hundreds of companies to learn how distinctive voices emerge. The most effective brand voices develop when compelling visions are passed down to employees and nurtured in environments designed to project purpose, positioning, and culture. Vision can spring from many sources: unique products, impassioned marketing concepts, the unique perspective of a visionary founder, or a distinct corporate culture. The starting point is self-knowledge; the organization must clearly define what it does, what it stands for, and how to generate supporting behavior from its core audiences.

It Has Become Harder to Get It Right

For corporations, political parties, candidates, doctors, or individuals, navigating the complexity of the exploding media landscape is extremely challenging. Brands must deal with massive fragmentation across the proliferation of mobile, social media platforms, pay TV services, and many different new platforms.

In a recent meeting with a media company that was putting together a communications plan repositioning one of the world’s largest public universities the significant portion of a two-hour presentation focused on social media platforms, leaving only 10 minutes to review traditional media platforms (TV, newspapers, magazines, and radio). The digital and social media strategy covered 12 platforms, reaching audiences from the predictable (Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn) to obscure sensory-activated sites and audio.

Brand voice programs today are usually structured around three or four words that provide direction for the tone of communications programs. A more robust approach to building a voice is needed — fusing purpose, positioning, messaging, customer interaction, and visual language. A compelling voice addresses not only HOW you speak but WHAT you say and how you BEHAVE.

One cannot emphasize enough the significance of the credo: “Clarity Above All.” If you want to cut through complexity, there is no substitute for simplifying communications and business practices. Now, more than ever, we are challenged to recalibrate voice with the right pitch, tone, and volume in an environment where speed, novelty, distraction, and noise rule the day.