Brand Voice? Huh?

February 11, 2022
9 min read
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From crypto start-ups to restaurant chains to finance and fashion companies, the brands I speak to are trying to figure out how to have a voice. 

Teams will say things like, “We need to get our story straight. We need an omnichannel brand. We want to have a voice in the culture.”

A voice makes you stand out in the marketplace. It differentiates you from competitors. Before the internet, people associated brands with just a logo. Then it was about packaging, magazine ads, and billboards. Then it was about cute jingles, TV advertising, and celebrity affiliation, which created a new culture of status signaling.

In the 11th century, when livestock was branded with hot irons, farmers discovered a new barometer of value. When that livestock shows up thousands of miles away, and the customers are happy about the quality of meat or wool, they talk about it. The story spreads. It becomes a shared memory.

Today, brands are more than just a logo. It’s a company’s standing in mainstream culture. It’s the stories they inspire customers to tell themselves. It’s the reputation of the founder(s). It’s what they say (or don’t say) during times of crisis. It is being vocal about things you care about (the environment, human rights, paid leave, diverse leadership). A voice embodies what your brand believes and imbues the brand’s symbols with a story — even accountability — for how it behaves in the communities that it promises to be in service of.

"Nearly eight-in-10 (79%) consumers surveyed say they feel a deeper personal connection to companies with values similar to their own.” — Cone/Porter Novelli, 2019

Today, brands aim to have the following:

1: A thriving community that talks to each other, supports each other, and collaborates with one another.

Example: Notion’s community sharing best practices and hosting events. This is a real definition of community. People who love the product share knowledge and practices with other users around the world.

2: A voice that stands out from the competition.

Example: Match’s brand evolution to stand out from the sexy competitors and re-emerge in the universe they created. Robinhood’s new design identity, built by my friends in COLLINS, completely transformed how a finance company behaves. Now every crypto company is using similar visuals.

3: A garden — whether a podcast, newsletters, editorial engine, or all of the above; brands want to create entire ecosystems where their story is told consistently and at scale.

Example: Shopify has a blog, guides, podcasts, free tools, and courses. WeTransfer has WePresent. Kickstarter has The Creative Independent.

If building a brand is a long game, then building your own garden, your own editorial platform, and understanding your voice is in service of that brand’s mission.

Look at this recent job posting that signals the future. 

Tacombi is a Mexican chain restaurant in NYC with nine locations. Why would a restaurant chain invest in a “branded content program rooted in connecting people to Mexico”? Well, look at their origin story. They started in 2005, serving tacos out of a Volkswagen bus in the Yucatan. For four years they expanded across their region, ultimately landing in the Big Apple in 2007/08. 

That is a story that can serve as a foundation for producing more stories. Big stories can be atomized into smaller themes that your brand stands for. What else do they believe about Mexican culture and food? What bridges are they trying to build between culture and customers? What conversations aren’t happening in the food industry that Tacombi has the possibility to lead or start?

Brands like this are sitting on a goldmine of stories. The more history you have, the more ideas can emerge. The challenge these days is figuring out how to unlock those stories and serve it up to a niche audience that wants to hear from you. 

If you look at every Mexican chain restaurant in the world, the first comparison might be the food. Then maybe price or quality/quantity. But after the product, how else does a brand replenish the customer’s love? Stay top-of-mind? Engage in a conversation? 

The path that many companies can’t ignore is producing compelling, thoughtful, resourceful stories. Editorials. Those stories spread. Stories are how we develop a connection to a brand and with the people who belong to the brand. If a customer loves the brand and the stories they produce, it will be difficult to change that customer’s mind to go elsewhere.

Think about how you might learn about Tacombi:

  1. A friend tells you about it (a surefire way for you to try it).
  2. You see an advertisement (depends on your mood, time, place, consistency, and the effectiveness of the ad).
  3. You see a picture on Instagram.
  4. You randomly stumble upon it.
  5. You discover a recipe, or a food show, produced by this brand. It so happens that you’re interested in making your own Mexican cuisine at home (or they inspire you to start). They provide all the resources and tips to get started. You’ve never had this brand’s food before, but after devouring all of their content, it is a no-brainer for you to go and try it. If they deliver on their promise of quality authentic Mexican food, this brand now has a place in your heart. You love their product and stories.

“78 percent with high brand trust say they’ll likely share or repost content about the brand, they will recommend the brand to others, and they will defend the brand against criticism ” — Edelman, 2020

Pause on the word “defend.” 

We irrational, funny humans will “defend” a brand because an attack on our beloved brand feels like an attack on our identity and character. As Debbie Millman brilliantly said in Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits: “Why do humans create tribes? Why do we have a drive to telegraph our affiliations and beliefs with symbols, signs, and codes? … Our motivation to brand, and to be branded, comes from our hardwired instinct to connect.”

I think about my irrational adoration — and pretty much every product person in tech — for a company like Stripe. 

I don’t use Stripe. Yet I catch myself saying, “I like their brand.” What am I really saying? Why would anyone say that about a company that they don’t give money to? 

It means I respect their publishing arm, Stripe Press. I love the origin stories of the founders being immigrants; I admire their carbon off-setting endeavors; I like how they talk about their mission in simple, understandable, non-techy language. I’ve been fortunate to meet some employees, and they were all kind and thoughtful. 

If I were to use a payment processing system like Stripe, they are number one in my mind. The memory of their brand has carved a place in my heart purely through the spread of good stories and, clearly, an excellent product, and a strong point of view on how they can transform the internet and businesses of all sizes.

After you build a product that people want, then an editorial arm rooted in a company’s origin — and vision for the future — will create authority around a topic and keep the company accountable in their promises.

Which is why mattress companies produce content about sleep science.
Which is why finance companies are publishing newsletters about money.
Which is why fashion brands are trying to own the conversation around sustainability.
Which is why brands leverage “influencers” to gain access to an existing audience.

From Nicholas Johnston via Axios, rightly titled “The job of the future is editor in chief”:

“The big picture: Because it's never been harder for companies to reach distracted consumers, more and more firms are hiring editors and content creators to build everything from podcasts to news websites to print magazines to grab your interest.”

My recent conversations with executives at global brands sound like this: “How do we build our garden? Our ecosystem? What’s our voice? How do we build community? We have a great product, we’ve been around for 10+ years, and now we want to invest in our brand. We need better language to highlight our value. We want to grow our editorial voice and our community.”

A lot of companies hope to build a brand as memorable and indestructible as the names above. 

Unlikely voices

I worked with the agency 2x4 to give a voice to NYC’s most historic neighborhood: The Seaport.

Why would a neighborhood have a “voice?” What does that even mean?

When you look at other hot spots in NYC — Industry City, Meatpacking District, Williamsburg — they all have Instagram and Twitter profiles with tens of thousands of followers.

What are these profiles for? To attract visitors. Visitors = business. 

They want tourists to know about it and for city dwellers to adventure to their area. How else could these neighborhoods attract visitors? Well, they could spend money running subway ads or a billboard that no one cares about. Or they can hold a partnership event that draws a crowd and gets people to realize that the neighborhood exists.

The long and hopeful game is to have a voice that inspires people to visit. Compelling photos plus a “voice” can build the neighborhood’s image. If people share them on their Instagram stories, then you can get visitors through word-of-mouth. They become curious about it. Visit it. And if they love it, they’ll bring a friend. Win-win.

The 2x4 team knew exactly the kind of visitor they wanted to attract. My job was to take the brand strategy and develop writing guidelines for the teams that would bring this neighborhood to life. Everything from website copy to social media captions to campaigns now has a clear point of view, examples to use, and tone of voice that looks and sounds different than other neighborhoods.

Evolution of brand

I’m hopeful about the future of business and branding. 

Branding is a manifestation of human nature. We create brands — and swear by them — because brands represent unity in shared beliefs and behaviors. They create belonging and connection among people — the rawest, most fundamental elements of human life. The desire to communicate our affiliations through symbols and stories was not brought on because of social media and technology; those worlds amplified those human desires. We’ve been telegraphing our identities and ambitions through brands since time immemorial.

The need for businesses to continuously evolve and brand themselves turns this endeavor into a force for good. Brands are scrutinized for everything they do and say. There is an expectation that they must be good in the communities they are part of. That makes it easy for customers to build a brand up or completely tear it down.

A voice gives form to a brand’s vision and point of view. When done authentically, it inspires customers to find their own identity in the brand’s story and voice. To use it as their own.


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