5 brand voice mistakes that are costing you customers (& the easy ways to fix ‘em)

Or how consistency, thoughtfulness, and a unique perspective can make it easier to build a brand people love

image by: Jimi Filipovski

Is brand voice bullshit?

If you’re like many startups, there’s a good chance you’ve brushed aside talk of “brand voice” as marketing hogwash. An unquantifiable woo-woo idea beautifully pitched by agencies for a cool $50k…

…or maybe you see some value in the *idea* of a brand voice and you’ve tried to find yours. Only to have it feel like a teenager hitting puberty — squeaky, awkward, and totally uncomfortable….

…or maybe between raising capital, fixing major bugs in your product, and hiring a team of people you actually trust, brand voice hasn’t crossed your mind.

But here’s the thing: brand voice is like a pheromone you can actually control. When used well, it triggers delight and builds connection between your brand and your customers. Put another way — it’s how to make folks fall in love with you fast.

No? So what is brand voice?

Larsen says that “brand voice is the purposeful, consistent expression of a brand through words and prose styles that engage and motivate…The personality of your brand is determined, in large measure, by the words you use and the sentences you write.”

For my clients, brand voice is a tool for creating connection and powering growth. But too often brand voice is poorly executed.

Here are five common missteps:

1. You’re not speaking your customer’s language

When it comes to brand voice remember: it’s not all about you. Too often teams lead with the question — “what voice do we want?” instead of “what voice does my audience want?”

The most desirable voice starts with your customers. Because as Joanna Wiebe always says, the most high converting messages come from your customers.

So, what startups are doing it well?

Glossier gets it. Their brand voice is directed by their customers. According to Patrick Hanlon at Primal Branding,

The core of Glossier’s success is their brand voice… all women have a beauty routine, but they just don’t like to talk about it…speaking openly about their personal rites…(t)his transforms Glossier into an intensely personal experience, rather than just a transaction.”

Copy like “we’re not out to make you into someone else…” are ripped from a cosmetics counter. Swing by any department store and you’ll be sure to hear a woman saying “I want to look natural, like myself” to a sales associate. Hell, I’ve probably said this myself.

Another way this is done well to use the client’s language directly. Buffy, a direct-to-consumer comforter company leans heavily into customer reviews. Rather than writing copy that says “Buffy keeps you cool” they use actual, vivid language from a customer which is waaaaay more powerful than plain ole’ copy

Here’s how to speak your clients language:

  1. Talk to your customers Ask them about their problems, what they need solved and why. Understand how they talk and what they talk about. In other words, research!
  2. Listen to your customers Notice and take in the words, phrases, and tone of how your customers speak and write. Some may even call it eavesdropping. Whatever you call it, take notes.
  3. Use your customers voice Can a review do more work than copy? Consider pulling feedback and swapping it out for the copy you have, like Buffy does. Better yet, find ways to consistently integrate it.

2. You’re trying too hard

If you only take one thing away from this article, remember this: humor is hard.

Too many startups try to be funny or quirky but fail to put in a complete brand framework (e.g., style guides, processes, communication guidelines, etc) that support a unique brand voice. With looming deadlines and sprints to the finish, companies often rush into writing and create a tone for that moment without thinking about the ecosystem of your UX or your brand.

Brand voice doesn’t work when it’s out of alignment with your message and your customers.

According to Nielsen “Humor is extremely risky, because when it fails, you annoy and alienate your users” and yet startups regularly misfire with humor, either diluting the message or simply turning readers off.

And yet, The Hustle finds alignment between humor and brand alignment. They’re a media company that sends daily emails about the latest tech news. I mean they’re subject line about a South Korean company finding sunken treasure was “Comin’ for that booty” (obvi I clicked), but despite this humorous flair, they never sacrifice the message.

Even The Hustle opt-in page is laced with humor, but really it’s all about the message: what they offer, who it’s for, and why you should join.

Another brand that has found a way to leverage humor in their brand voice Goodr, maker of running glasses. Why is this an example of well-executed humor as opposed to trying too hard? Consistency. They have a very quirky brand voice infused throughout their entire brand experience

From their product names to their web copy there is a bizarre, “in the know” humor that works really well. Take their sizing: the “og” (original) and the “bfg” (for big fucking Goodrs). And their lab is called the STI (Science Testing Institute)…also just watch this video.

So why does this bizarre humor work for Goodr? For one thing, it’s consistency. This voice is infused throughout the entire brand experience. And second, it’s in large part because Goodr has such a specific and clear segment — runners.

How to find balance in your voice:

  1. Always remember, your message comes first Never sacrifice your message for a laugh. Make sure you are saying what’s important, first.
  2. Ease up on the humor if you’re going to use it, know why and know how, and most importantly, know your customer
  3. Know your audience Understand how they talk, the jokes the make (and don’t make) and then, only then…begin to deploy humor in a way that mirrors them.

3. You’re Boring

This mistake is on the other end of the spectrum of trying too hard. It’s when companies have stripped any personality from their brand voice.

I see it a lot of SAAS/tech-heavy companies where complexity and product specs overtake message and voice clarity. But when your company is built on a sophisticated foundation , your brand voice needs to be there to make things simple.

Nielsen Norman Group conducted a study that showed users unanimously preferred a hospital that adopted a more casual, serious, and enthusiastic tone of voice as compared to a formal, serious, and matter-of-fact tone of voice. ​​​​​​​And this was true across the industries they analyzed: banking, insurance, security, and health care — all in all, casual, conversational, and enthusiastic tones performed best.

Tone of voice has significant impact on user perception of a brand. So much so that it can influence typically stagnant measurements of desirability, like NPS.

What does this mean for you?

Simple. If you’re playing it safe or are just “stating the facts” amp up your personality. Be relatable and warm. Start a conversation that will make customers love you.

So who’s doing it well?

Acuity does a great job bringing in just enough quirk to their SAAS product. It’s specific, enthusiastic, and conversational.

Notice how they use plain language…even when they’re being a wee bit snarky. “show up at the right time” and “spend 5,000 years going back and forth…schedule, and then reschedule again.”

And one of my favorite all-time favorite use of not-so-boring brand voice is Muzzle’s notifications. Here’s a screenshot below, but it’s worth your time to watch them in real time.

The extension is easy to understand — it mutes notifications during presentations. But Muzzle digs into the specifics and brings to life all the “types” of notifications you may want to mute. Notifications about STI testing, dick picks, notes from your mom, etc. I sat there and watched this for at least 2 minutes.

Which is to say, look at what personality and engagement can look like for the most straightforward of products.

How to be less boring:

  1. Write in plain language in other words, leave the jargon behind. Write the way people talk.
  2. Nix formality— small things matter, things like conjunctions, colloquial words and phrases, shorter sentences, being more direct.
  3. Have fun this is a mindset thing, but it really can make all the difference — have some fun with your writing. Don’t follow all the rules and find what makes you unique.

4. You’re too consistent

As a new company, the advice you’re often given when it comes to brand voice is to select guiding principles or adjectives. Words like “conversational” “enthusiastic” “warm” and while I think that exercise can be incredibly valuable, too often a startups brand voice gets boiled down into these narrow tone troughs.

Instead, I like to ask what’s happening in the customer’s journey and how do we need to be talking with them? Asked another way, what does the customer need from us right now, in this moment?

This is a piece of UX writing. Think about the user flow and their emotional state at various parts of the journey.

Brand voice is not the same thing at every moment. Think about your customer and what they need from you in that slice of time.

Mailchimp does a great job. It’s a quirky, accessible branding with a great brand voice. There’s nothing stuffy or uptight about their brand voice and the rest of their branding matches this. But think about the anxiety of hitting send on a 10,000 email list. Hell, I’ve had equal anxiety sending an email to 20 people.

But here, Mailchimp brings in some additional warmth just as you hit send. A virtual pat on the back. So think about the moment that is needed and the tone required. Because your brand voice is like a regular voice..it fluctuates, it changes, it mimics a person.

Take Basecamp. They’ve built a very user-centric brand voice (a dream as a copywriter). So rather than putting all their features up front, they focus on their users problems and build a voice around direct, factual, and problem solving.

As opposed to Basecamp’s job page where the voice naturally moves from direct and factual to something more aspirational and verbose. Which makes sense, because the sale on a jobs page is markedly different than a homepage.

How to shake things up:

  1. Think about your customer first. Always. Where are they in your UX? How are they feeling? If you were talking to them right now, what would you say? And how would you say it?
  2. A good brand voice isn’t stagnant. Never make your writing decisions based only on a few guiding adjectives. Always come back to your customer and your product. Then overlay it with your guiding adjectives.

5. You’re following in your competition’s footsteps

As a startup, you know all about product differentiation and I bet there’s been a lot of thought about what makes your company different. But this kind of rigorous thinking isn’t applied to brand voice. Too often, the writing just…happens and no one is there to think enough about what makes your company unique.

You know that old maxim, when they zig you zag? That’s what I’d recommend with brand voice. It doesn’t need to be a crazy turn, but work to carve out your own brand voice niche.

Take Bumble, the dating (now networking) app where women make the first move. While many dating platforms adopt an optimistic, romantic or highly-sexual voice, Bumble does this:

Takes a direct shot at d**k pics with a sarcastic voice. No ooey-gooey romance here…

Or Oscar, a health insurance startup that describes getting an insurance quote as zen. While most insurance companies take a professional or fatherly tone (think Allstate), as a tech-forward insurance company, Oscar uses an accessible, direct, and modern voice that bucks against the status quo.

How to distinguish yourself:

You’re unique, just like everyone else

  1. Anchor in your own identity First things first, know what you offer. Get really clear on what makes you different and lean into it.
  2. Identify what your competition is doing…and deliberately be different It also pays to get a clear sense of how your competition is talking to your customers and think critically about how to make yourself standout. About the ways the existing brand voice is falling short.

Wrapping it up

Here’s the thing — voice matters.

The good news? If you spend time thinking through your brand voice, you’re brand and copy will end up being so much stronger. That’s because you’ll really understand what your customers want and who they want to be hearing from.

If you want to have the best chance of having your customers fall madly in love, avoid these common startup brand voice mistakes:

  • Not speaking your customer’s language
  • Trying too hard
  • Being boring
  • Being too consistent
  • Copying your competition

Remember: it’s NEVER just about your product’s benefits. We all want a reason to care and brand voice is the fastest way to make it happen. So write with confidence, energy, and always with your customers top of mind.