Why your brand may need more than one voice

Conventional wisdom says that brands need to speak with one voice.  I think that advice is incomplete, and can be sometimes counterproductive.

Content strategists often talk about the importance of the voice and tone of content.  The words a writer uses convey more than literal meaning.  Perhaps as you read these words you are wondering who wrote them.  You may be asking yourself who the author is, and whether you should pay attention.

Voice and tone are about the broader meaning of words.  Voice is the implied persona of the author. Tone is “the attitude of the speaker to what he is speaking about,”  said I.A. Richards,  the moral philosopher and literary critic who first developed the concept in 1929.  I like to think about tone as the emotional intelligence the author reveals.

Voice is how you speak in general, and tone is how you talk in specific situations.  Voice is your general attitude, while tone is your attitude in specific circumstances.  For example, someone talks with the detached casualness of a hipster (voice), and reacts with irony to discussions about politics (tone).  The attitude you infer shapes how much you like the author.

There are two aspects to likeability: the extent we self-identify with the category of person we perceive someone as being, and the extent to which we judge their behavior as compatible with our own standards.  Voice addresses the self-identification aspect, while tone addresses the moral judgment aspect.

The concept of literary voice has been co-opted by the commercial world for some time now.  First, companies seeking to shore up their corporate identity adopted the idea of a “brand voice,” which applied to short form content used in advertising.  More recently, companies have started embracing the notion of a “content voice” to cover all their content.  But as the notion of voice has stretched to serve new purposes, its assumptions may need revisiting.

His_Master's_Voice
His Master’s Voice. Image of Nipper from wikipedia

The corporate takeover of voice as a concept has been motivated by a desire to inject personality into organizations.  By having a distinct voice, brands hope to be seen as people, not as faceless corporations.  They reason: “People don’t want to read some corporate blah-blah talk.  We need a distinct voice that differentiates us from everyone else.”

Personifying organizations is tricky. When a prominent American politician argued that “corporations are people,” he was mocked.  People rarely expect corporations to be their personal friends, even if they don’t want the organizations they deal with to be robotic.   Corporations aren’t people, except when people decide to act like corporations, as in the case of celebrities. One can run into trouble buying into the myth that brands are just like your next-door neighbor, or your favorite novelist.  Brands in many respects are more complex than individuals, and equating a brand persona with a human creates confusion.

Consistency advice

One widely offered bit of advice concerns the need for a consistent voice.  Nearly everyone who addresses the topic of brand voice or content voice repeats the recommendation to keep one’s voice consistent.  The recommendation rests on two assumptions: 1. that consumers expect brands to have a consistent voice, else they will be confused, and 2. that brands are more impactful when they use a consistent voice.

The advice for content strategists is well captured by the folks at MailChimp, who have been at the forefront of promoting voice and tone guidelines for content.  “You have the same voice all the time, but your tone changes.”

There is indeed value in having a consistent voice for an audience, but that does not imply brands should have the same voice for everyone.  And while brands should have a unifying purpose, it doesn’t follow brand should have a single voice to express that purpose.

Even when drive by a common purpose, brands can have diverse missions, and as a result, different groups notice and relate to a brand’s purpose in different ways.  Brands should not come across as being one-dimensional by having a voice that’s too narrow.

Individuals have a single, recognizable personality largely because the attitudes we express unconsciously reflect both our personal history and our organic make up.  We have limited capacity to be all things to all people; our attention can’t be spread everywhere.  Even so, people aren’t one-dimensional; we can have many sides to our personality, sometimes even contradictory. Our cohesion comes naturally, without seeming robotic.

Voice and identity

Organizations are artificial entities, and need to be purposeful in how they coordinate their activities and communicate them.  Without coordination, they seem chaotic; with too much coordination, they can appear robotic or artificial.

A voice helps us answer who the speaker is: their intent and their perspective.   A voice is not simply what is signaled, but how it is perceived.  Often, brands spend too much effort worrying about what they are signaling at the expense of considering how it is perceived.  For perception is a matter of individual interpretation.  Perceptions, by definition, will vary.

To date, advice about content voice has largely assumed that people will perceive the voice in the same way.  The assumption is: the more consistent you are in your voice, the more likely people will see you as you want to be seen.  Tone should be dynamic, modulating according to different circumstances, but voice should be the same always.

This preoccupation with consistency of voice can risk freezing out audiences a brand may wish to reach.

Dynamic branding

The proscriptive character of voice guidelines can resemble the corporate identity guidelines used by big brands in the past.  Branding teams became known as “logo police” because of their preoccupation with the sanctity of the logo.  The logo was the symbol of the unity of the corporation, and minor inconsistencies and deviations were thought to harm the brand.

Visual and service branding has since evolved beyond assuming that consistency is the highest priority.  Many corporations are developing “dynamic brands” that morph to adapt to different contexts and audiences.  Even the logos change.  The goal is to present an impression on customers that seems living, not rigid.

Many brands still maintain tight controls and lay down explicit guidance.  But growing numbers of brands rely on implicit guidance based on example rather than rules, and allow a looser and more dynamic interpretation by operating units for how to express the brand.

If voice is meant to reflect the brand, but it’s no longer axiomatic that the brand must be rigidly fixed, then perhaps content voice should be flexible as well.

The limits of fixed voices

Ideally, the goal of a content voice should be for audiences to know who you are, and what you stand for.  Voice tells audiences what they can assume about you based on the way you communicate.

The goal of consistency can result in bland advice.  Voice guidelines may tell writers to sound “smart but not elitist.”  Such guidelines may be sound and be applicable to all audiences, but not provide the patina of personality desired.

The alternative is to develop voice guidelines with a strong personality.  MailChimp is recognized as a well-developed example of a content voice with a strong personality. With its lighthearted voice and cartoon avatar, MailChimp embodies a voice personality the Japanese would describe as kawaii — teeming with cuteness.  It embodies the firm’s culture, informal and friendly.  It’s different from most IT voices; it’s quirky and has its fans.

MailChimp voice and tone guidelines. screenshot from voiceandtone.com
MailChimp voice and tone guidelines. Screenshot from voiceandtone.com

The danger with an approach like MailChimp’s is to offer too much personality.  Sounding different and appearing unique may be a goal of the brand, but is not necessarily a goal of consumers.  Consumers are primarily seeking the actual product, not the content supporting the product.  The benefits of voice differentiation are limited: the more successful a brand is at attracting certain audiences, the more likely it is to alienate other audiences.

MailChimp is apparently successful with how its content is perceived by customers in its target markets.  But no matter how good their service, some potential customers may be put off by their voice, and by Freddie-the-Chimp’s jokes.  Fun and informal doesn’t necessarily convey gravitas, or imply serious standards compliance or fault-free reliability of delivery performance to a dour corporate IT procurement officer.  The tone of their contractual information may be more serious, but the general impression given through their voice overall is one of fun.  As long as their voice is both fixed and iconic, they are defined by what audience segment is willing to self-identify with their voice.

Brands don’t need to act monolithically

Brands don’t necessarily mean the same thing to all people, even when the brand is driven by a common business strategy and purpose.  When brands mean different things to different people, they shouldn’t try to act the same to everyone.

Let’s consider some common situations.  Many organizations have divergent stakeholders who are attracted to a common offering but expect different things from it.  Health organizations deal with patients, doctors, and researchers.  All are interested in health, but in different ways.  Countless businesses sell similar or even identical products to both businesses and consumers.  How the B2B customer uses and evaluates products can be very different from a B2C customer.  Finally, nonprofits focus on an issue or service but have widely different stakeholders.  The concerns of large foundations that are donors will be different from small organizations or individuals that are recipients of grants or services offered by the nonprofit.

When brands serve very different constituencies, they need to talk to them with different voices.  It is not enough to simply change the tone according to different situations.  Different constituencies will need to perceive the brand as reliable according to the values that most matter to them.  The brand’s voice needs to reflect that.

An example of a brand that serves different constituencies with different voices is Oxfam.  The charity has a mission of being a “practical visionary.”  According to Wolff Olins, Oxfam’s branding agency, the charity uses two voices:  simple direct language to talk about practical topics such as emergencies, and a rich language to talk about visions for solving problems.  These different languages correspond to the different constituencies: practical support is sought by people and groups in need, while visions are developed to attract interest by funders and large donors.

When to use one voice, when to use two

A single consistent voice is appropriate in some cases, but not others.  To illustrate, we can divide brands into two types.

The first type of brand is confident they have one audience that all wants the same thing from them.  The brand may offer many products or address many topics, but does so in a consistent way. The brand’s advantage is about its process: how they do things is special, rather than what they address.  Whatever it does or sells, it delivers it in a consistent way, emphasizing some particular brand value such as efficiency, convenience, selection, price, or value.  Walmart, Amazon and Gilt will all have different voices even though all sell a range of products.  But each brand will use a consistent voice regardless of product it is selling.

The second type of brand is more defined by the specialty they address than their process.   What they chose to address is notable, and they are experts about that specialty.  They attract interest from a range of people who have different concerns and levels of understanding.   Each different constituency has particular needs.  They need to be addressed in different ways, according to their interests and level of understanding.  The voice needs to speak to what’s at stake for the constituency.  We can imagine such a brand having two distinct voices.  Perhaps one is a caring voice, aimed at non-specialists who rely on the services of the brand.  These people already are sold on the brand’s expertise: they just want to be assured they can take advantage of it easily.  Another voice might be an expert voice, competent and efficient, aimed at proving to other experts they really are the best at what they do.  Such a constituency of peers might include investors, hiring candidates, business partners, or the trade press.

Conclusions

Voice and tone guidelines are helpful tools — without them content effectiveness is hampered.  But the guidelines need to reflect not only the brand’s goals for how they wish to be seen, but also consider how audiences need to hear things. Voice and tone guidelines for content have evolved from the practice of branding guidelines, and accordingly often have a brand-centric orientation, rather than a truly audience centric one.  There rarely is there much audience input into the development of voice and tone guidelines.

Rather than rush to implement guidelines for staff to follow, brands should first test content with likely users to see how it is perceived, and learn the expectations of users.  I like how MailChimp has done a lot of work with tone to make sure that it adapts to different user situations.  The tone is emotionally intelligent, taking into consideration the user’s likely frame of mind in a given situation.  Other brands should considered user needs for tone the way that MailChimp has.

User needs are important not just for tone, but for voice as well.  Users can’t define your voice, but your voice needs to work for them.  Voice can help brands relate more effectively to their audiences, but it’s important brands don’t come across as  a tribe that some feel excluded from.

— Michael Andrews