Brand voice: What the hell is it, and why does it matter for your business?

About copywriting, brand voice, and style.

People tend to fall into two distinct groups: those that understand (and advocate for) a strong brand voice, and those that don’t—or just don’t see what the big deal is. If you’re in the second camp, never fear: I’m here to break it down for you, and give you a few tips to ensure you don’t confuse or upset your customers with inconsistent copy.

To understand voice and tone, let’s start by analyzing a (fake) text conversation between two people.

Lisa and Bob are hungry

Lisa is texting her friend, Bob, about dinner. She’s known Bob for about five years now, and the two of them text each other a couple of times a day, so she knows exactly what to expect from him.

Bob is a pretty good communicator. He texts clearly, uses punctuation, and throws in the odd emoji for effect, even when he’s drunk or in a rush. He’s also sarcastic, deprecating, and swears a lot in his messages — just like IRL Bob.

I used one of those free “fake iPhone text conversation” apps from the internet to make this. It was actually kind of fun.

On her way to dinner, Lisa gets another text from Bob:

Now, you’ve only read four of Bob’s messages — not five years of friendship’s worth, like Lisa — but I’m still willing to bet that something feels off about that last one. The punctuation is missing or incorrect, the whole thing is a rambling run-on sentence, there are no capital letters, and no actual curse words. It just doesn’t sound like Bob.

Now, if this were a real-life scenario, it might be simply that Bob is flustered and trying to do multiple things at once. Maybe he turned off predictive text, or changed some keyboard settings by accident. But, whatever the reason, that last message didn’t feel right… did it?

Voice and tone — like design — is about familiarity

The way Bob presents himself in writing (including text messages, real-life conversations, emails, online comments, and social media posts) is his voice and tone. And it’s not just Bob; each and every one of us has quirks or habits that make our writing unique.

Think about the friend that uses at least eight emoji at the end of every Facebook post, the friend that LOVES putting things in ALL CAPS for EMPHASIS, and the friend that puts ‘lol’ at the end of every comment (lol). We quickly get used to each other’s patterns, and as soon as people deviate, we notice. Subconsciously, we ask ourselves, ‘is something wrong?’ or, in extreme cases, we think ‘is this actually the same person talking to me, or someone impersonating them?’

Dramatic changes in someone’s language, voice, or tone can trigger uncomfortable feelings, including distrust. And in the same way that each of us have a personal voice and tone, businesses with a strong brand identity understand the importance of having a brand voice for themselves — and more importantly, keeping that voice consistent.

Many companies do this well, ensuring that their voice remains the same across all touchpoints. When someone first sees an ad, visits their website, uses the product, gets an email, or sees a social media post, the best brands make their copy feel like it’s always coming from the same ‘person’ — even when there’s a whole team of writers, each working on different areas.

Brand voices that stand out

Slack keeps their voice and tone exceptionally consistent. Google ‘chat apps for work’ (or anything similar), and Slack’s search result is simple, concise, and descriptive, all while being friendly:

Move on to Slack’s website, and the clear, conversational, and human language continues:

At every point on the homepage, it feels like you’re having a conversation with the same person. Even on the enterprise pricing page, where many businesses love to get technical and flashy to show off, Slack isn’t confusing you with unnecessary jargon, buzzwords, or flowery (but ultimately empty) marketing-speak. They’re keeping it short and simple, and getting the message across as fast as possible.

And their voice is unique; they’ve taken a friendly, simple, human approach, with regular infusions of humor. It’s comforting to always feel like you’re interacting with the same entity.

Snippet of a Slack help article

Like Slack, Dropbox uses simple, informative language, but removes some of the humor and injects just a tiny bit more professionalism, and for good reason; when you’re responsible for the safe handling of data for 500 million+ people, trust is paramount.

They’re expertly toeing that line between hip, casual, friendly Silicon Valley copy, and overly-corporate, serious conglomerate copy.

Airbnb takes a similar approach, but successfully injects a little more feeling:

They manage to combine gentle nudges of emotion with calming, trustworthy language (and bright, airy visual design) to create a simultaneously soothing and motivational user experience — perfect for when you’re booking travel experiences.

Ensuring your company’s brand voice is consistent

So now you understand how voice and tone works, and you’ve seen a few examples of businesses that do it well (and still sound different to each other). If you’ve never thought about tightening up your company’s voice before now, there are a couple of places to start:

  1. Talk to the head of your marketing team. An experienced leader will understand the importance of brand voice, and will ideally have experience from previous companies (or, at the very least, will know of good writers that can help).
  2. Hire an experienced brand writer. The best writers will have experience writing copy across all areas (UX, marketing, social media, emails) and will know how to define your company’s voice, create a style guide, and educate your employees on how to adhere to that voice.
  3. Do it yourself. If you’re a small company without an existing marketing team, it’s totally feasible to be your own brand voice champion. Read up on the subject. Digest high quality writing style guides from brands you admire. Take writing classes if you need to. Reach out to experienced writers for help and advice. Take notes when you see good copy, and avoid replicating bad copy.

Good writing is about empathy

At the end of the day, good copywriting is about showing respect and empathy for your customers. A good brand writer will make sure your business:

  • Only says what needs to be said, to avoid wasting customers’ time
  • Uses language that customers clearly understand and resonate with
  • Uses a voice and tone that customers recognize, and that makes them feel comfortable

Failing to write good copy (and keep it consistent) can cause a range of negative emotions in your customers — from confusion, to distrust, to outright dislike — and no-one should ever want to make their customers feel this way.

Consistent visual design is already accepted as vitally important for a memorable, pleasant brand experience. Today, consistent copy is just as important.

Find your voice—and use it.