How to create effective brand voice guidelines
As COVID-19 knocked our world sideways, brands had to quickly adjust the way they spoke and what they said to keep pace with people’s feelings and rolling events. There were definitely winners and losers; those who mastered it and those who ended up sounding tone deaf. You can read an incisive rundown here. https://time.com/5814509/coronavirus-marketing/
What this adjustment demonstrates is the significant power of brand voice. It’s on the front line when expressing the personality and values of a brand. And it’s central in forging an emotional connection with people.
Take Innocent, for example. The Innocent voice is easy-going, playful and unafraid to be quirky, and it won people’s hearts. John Lewis is another brand with almost evangelical customers. Its brand voice is a clever and careful balance. Warm without being overfamiliar, witty without being smug. Contrast this with Pot Noodle. Described by The New Statesmen in 2013 as ‘Lad culture in snack form’ – this pretty much summed up its brand voice. Confrontational and tabloid-esque, this is the brand that called itself ‘The Slag of all Snacks’. Its crass honesty was controversial, but it tapped into a certain slice of the market and got everyone talking.
What’s interesting is how these brand voices come into being. What is included within brand voice guidelines to define brand expression and inspire words that people connect with?
Not just ‘what’, but ‘where’
To answer the ‘what’s included’ question, we first need to look at where your brand voice guidelines sit, which is hopefully near the beginning of your main brand guidelines. Things like your mission, vision and values feed into voice as much as they influence visual identity. To an even greater extent, your brand essence, attributes, personality and character directly guide your brand voice.
There are no hard and fast rules on how detailed brand voice guidelines need to be. You might only need a one-page-wonder, especially if you have an in-house copy team who have been trained on your brand and write nothing else. However, if you engage with agencies or freelancers, you’ll probably need to give them a more detailed foundation from which to work.
Everything we write should be…
The voice of any brand needs its anchors. These are the words and descriptors that define how you write and sound. Generally, you need between 3 and 6. Any fewer and you don’t have enough to give your copywriters a good steer. It might make your voice a bit two dimensional. Any more than six and your voice can become too diluted.
Your anchors should reflect the personality of your brand and the way you want to communicate. They are what you measure all your words (written and spoken) against.
Here are some examples of descriptors:
Human – we write like one person talking to another. Keep it conversational wherever possible.
Thought-provoking – we challenge pre-conceptions and conventional wisdom. We pose questions and use rhetorical devices to carry our argument.
Measured – to express a sense of authority, we use modest adjectives and construct fluid paragraphs. We always express a balanced opinion, giving both sides of an argument or all possible outcomes.
Casual – yup, we’re pretty laid back. It’s not writing, it’s chatting. Txt spk is ok on Snap. And the only dictionary we use is Urban Dictionary.
These anchor words sometimes come straight from the brand essence or personality, and have a descriptor added to explain what it means in a copy context. And that descriptor can be short and sweet or long and detailed – it’s up to you.
Many brands have preferred words and phrases as part of their vocabulary. You can usually identify these if you read enough copy. But it’s a handy shortcut when the key ones are listed. Often you find the basics in the company’s boilerplate copy and can build from there. By offering some guidance on brand language, it can help copywriters make sound decisions when working in spaces like Twitter and LinkedIn, which have channel-native language. To dive deeper, read The Changing Nature of Brand Language.
Documenting what you don’t say is equally important. Clear parameters are a timesaver for copywriters. Eg ‘We don’t use slang.’ Or ‘Don’t refer to ‘guests’ as ‘customers or clients’. If competitors ‘own’ certain key words or phrases, note them so they can be avoided. If most of your copy is likely to be translated or your target audience is non-native English speakers, metaphors might be a no-go. If your brand has banned words, list them. Sometimes, brands use lists of ‘We are: We’re not:’ to highlight things to avoid.
We are: We’re not:
Quietly witty Megalolz!
Here’s an example that demonstrates on-brand and off-brand writing styles from William Russell, whose guidelines we created in 2018.
A brand, like a person, has one voice. But tone should vary, dependent on message and context. This doesn’t mean discarding the anchors. To give a quick example…
An energy company has four brand voice anchors:
When communicating with existing customers about a money-saving deal, you’d expect to see ‘friendly’ and ‘energetic’ leading the way in the copy. By contrast, when giving customers bad news about price rises, you’d see ‘clear’ and ‘professional’ leading, with ‘energetic’ dialled right back. (If you want more detail on this, we’ve blogged about it.)
In your guidelines, you might want to set out a few scenarios and explain how to vary the tone to fit each one. Sometimes you can achieve all the variance in tone you need by dialling your anchors up and down. However, if you need more nuance across different audiences, media or messaging, this is the place to add it.
Punctuation shapes your brand voice
Punctuation is powerful. How you structure your sentences makes as strong a statement as your words. If precision and attention to detail are part of your brand, insist on traditional grammar and punctuation. If you’re a bit more laid back…well…cut the copywriter a bit of slack. Like, using fragments. Or dashes – a softer pause than a full stop, and waaay cooler than a semicolon. ; )
Examples of how copy should sound
Always include examples of on-brand copy in your guidelines. If it can be taken from real-life examples – great. If you’re updating your brand voice, before and after paragraphs are really helpful to demonstrate the shift. If you’re starting from scratch with a new voice, get a few ‘hero’ samples written.
A good way to demonstrate how anchors and tone are applied is to take a piece of copy and annotate it. Point to where copy expresses various anchors and where tone comes into play. If there are rules around headline construction or calls-to-action, add these too. This at-a-glance analysis gives a copywriter a strong steer on what’s on-brand and why. It’s worth including samples of ad copy, social copy and web copy as there are sometimes subtle differences in the copy approach.
Do you have a particular voice artist that you use for your brand? Note their name and contact details. Or perhaps you have a preferred voiceover style for your brand that’s heard on radio ads or video scripts? Either write a description ‘Female, mature, warm, regional accent from north of Birmingham.’ Or provide a URL to an online example of voiceovers that are on brand. If you have online guidelines, you could add an audio file for quick reference.
Some brands like to include a paragraph on how to get into the brand mindset and what to think about as you write. It could cover brand philosophies or offer insight into customer psychology. Alternatively, you might have done relevant research, so want to direct your copywriters to it. That’s the thing about brand voice guidelines – you have the freedom to include anything that you feel is useful. And this also flags the advantage of online guidelines – you can update sections and links easily.
Emojis are brand language too
James Villas sent me an email with an emoji in the subject line recently. I was surprised as it didn’t fit my perception of the brand, but it certainly reframed it. And it highlighted the fact that emojis can be part of a brand’s language. Unless it’s a strict ‘No!’ on emoji use across all brand touchpoints, emoji use should be set out in your voice guidelines. Eg ‘Only use emojis in texts and on social media, and then a max of two per post.’ And you might want to set out which emojis are ok, and which are not, (unless you’re ok with your brand responding to customers with ‘aubergine’, ‘circus tent’ or ‘watersplash’).
And don’t forget your style guide
This picks up on the earlier point about punctuation. The nuts and bolts of writing are important. It’s the written equivalent of the exclusion area around your logo and which fonts to use. Copywriters need to know what’s on-brand when it comes to things like abbreviations and acronyms, capitalisation, contractions, numbers, dashes etc. It’s a long list. But make sure you have it in place. It’ll save your marketing team hours of time as they won’t have to return copy with endless amends, due to style errors. Mailchimp has a great template for what should be in a style guide. Or you can direct copywriters to your preferred online style guide, eg The Writer. For wider guidance on current word use (eg the correct way to refer to people’s gender, currencies etc), why not direct your copywriters to the Guardian and Observer Style Guide? It’s an amazing reference, with the reassurance of being a credible source.
Let’s talk about your brand voice
Is your brand voice a bit muffled? Or do you have multiple voices speaking? Maybe you have a fabulous brand voice, but it’s not captured in written guidelines. We love a good chat, so get in touch.