At ev+ AGENCY, we love to talk about branding—a lot. It’s a subject you can deep dive, covering everything from philosophy to strategy to pop cultural impact. So far our series on branding has covered a lot of ground, including the basic fundamentals of what branding is, brand essence, and the strategic concepts of brand positioning. In this installment, I’m going to talk about brand voice.
We Contain Multitudes
When considering your brand’s voice, it’s helpful to reflect on how you use your own voice in different situations, as reference. Think about all the people in your life with whom you speak: parents, grandparents, siblings, kids, friends, co-workers, bosses, authority figures, perfect strangers and the like. When speaking with them, you generally know what’s appropriate or reasonable, or what will be well received. You have a keen sense of whether you should be funny or serious, reverent or irreverent. Perhaps the situation requires humility, or maybe you’re the authority figure and you adjust your tone accordingly. Whatever the case, you communicate as required because you generally know your audience and the nature of the relationship.
I used to think about this a lot when I watched stand-up comedy. Obviously comedy was what I wanted and expected. But I also wondered what a guy like Gilbert Gottfried was like when he spoke with his wife and kids. In normal situations, could the great Norm Macdonald possibly be anything other than his brand of dark comedic genius? Who was George Carlin when he wasn’t exercising the idea that anything can be funny in the right context? The answer to these questions, almost certainly, is that they are, or were, in the case of Carlin, many things because people contain multitudes and there are multitudinous types of people. But my proxy relationship with stand-up comedians is such that I want them to make me laugh. They want the same so the voice they use in the contexts where we encounter each other (TV, old comedy records, the Internet) is comedic. It’s a win-win. And the better job they do, the more loyal I am to their brand of comedy.
Multiple voices, one identity?
The Greek philosopher Plutarch articulated a fascinating thought experiment: the paradox of Theseus’ ship. Theseus was the heroic warrior who founded Athens, and, as the story goes, his ship was kept afloat in the harbour in honour of his exploits. As time passed, the boards, sails, and masts rotted away, one by one, and were replaced in order to preserve the monument to Theseus’ heroism, until none of the original material remained.
This is where Plutarch asks the question: if none of the original materials used to build Theseus’ ship remain, is it still Theseus’ ship? You’re probably inclined to say yes. But ask it another way: if the ship were in a museum and thieves in the night replaced every board, mast and sail, yet no one but the thieves realized it, would it still be Theseus’ ship, possessed of the same meaning and symbolism? Now it’s not so easy to answer, is it?
What emerges from Plutarch’s paradox are deep questions about identity and how it’s affected by change, growth, time, authenticity and endless other variables. Tie this to the concept of each of us having many voices evolving over time, used so that some audiences only ever see singular dimensions of our personality, and you might ask, “who are we really?”
The takeaway from all of this is that identity, at its core, is essence—things like feelings, impressions, emotions, beliefs, values, personality, symbolism and much more. We merely adapt how we express the essence of who we are. It’s why we never lose our identities as individuals and remain recognizably ourselves, even as we grow, age, mature and communicate in myriad ways in correlation to the world around us.
Your brand’s voice and identity function in precisely the same way. It’s why a fast food chain like Wendy’s, built on the wholesome image of founder Dave Thomas’ daughter, Melinda Lou, can sell value meals for children while also putting out a surprisingly amazing tongue-in-cheek competitor-dissing rap album called We Beefin?. They saw a place for it among their audience, adapted their voice, and they delivered. I’m not suggesting you book studio time for your brand to make a cheeky record aimed at the competition, only that intimately understanding your brand’s identity and how to articulate its voice to specific audiences will strengthen it, without question.
How to craft your brand’s voice
Assuming you understand your brand’s “why”, its essence, the audience, and how it ought to be positioned, you can begin work on its voice. I usually start by charting out the components. There are two layers to this. The first is sorting the demographics. How old are they? What are their general interests? What’s the tone they most enjoy?
Let’s say you’re a video game company, stewarding your older base, while acquiring and engaging younger fans. It could look like this:
Next, I map out the voice characteristics for each demographic, and record the ways in which your brand should and shouldn’t speak to them. For brevity’s sake, I’ll zero in on the 26-25 demographic:
Of course these guides could be shortened or expanded, depending on your understanding of the audience. The point is that by documenting your brand’s voice, you provide your team with clear direction on how to wield it and engage your customers, according to a nuanced understanding of who they are and what motivates them. And more importantly, documentation will ensure consistency and business continuity, even as your team shifts and fresh eyes take over. Like Theseus’ ship, you can change all the working parts of your team, without ever losing your brand’s voice or identity, thanks to well-crafted strategy ensuring the essence remains the same.