What Is Brand Voice?

Patrick Hanlon
Aug 20, 2017 · 7 min read

Brand voice is one of the most important, genuine and strongest articulations of what we call Brand.

Brand voice is where we not only state our beliefs, but what we say and where we say it reveals our personality: clever, serious, funny, witty, grave, academic, smartass, deadpan, corporate, et al. We are all the colors of the sea.

We are all well-acquainted with how Nike, Samsung, Apple, Coke and other Big Brands voice their global ideas. But here are others, including some newcomers, who might be re-inventing the ways we read, listen and hear things in the future.

The Skimm is daily email newsletter that focuses on delivering popular news. Founders Danielle Weisberg and Carly Zakin have found a refreshing new way to report the news that is BFF casual, “Hey there.”

The Skimm reaches over 5 million subscribers toplines the news, using bullet-point-style subheads that carry us from one point to the next: The story. What happened. What did President Trump say? What are other people saying?

The Skimm also creates non-traditional (that means clever) lead-ins like, “What to say to your friend who works at a non-profit…” to steer us into an article about non-profits pulling back from search and rescue missions.

Quartz, another news daily, wraps up stories about how alcohol levels help fish survive in cold climates and how skyscrapers make China look more attractive (in photographs, anyway), with the sentence, “Our best wishes for a productive day. Please send any news, comments, tipsy fish, and skyscraper pics to hi@qz.com.”

Beauty company Glossier translates their hair, skin care and other products into an articulate vision for the modern woman. This is competitive turf, but Glossier has discovered their own place in the universe.

The core of Glossier’s success is their brand voice (they just received their second round of funding), which speaks from an insight gleaned by Glossier founder Emily Weiss — that all women have a beauty routine, but they just don’t like to talk about it. Uncovering that truth in the age of transparency has made all the difference for Glossier, whose blog features real women exposing their down-to- the-details routines for skin care, acne, hair styles, exfoliating, you get the picture.

Speaking openly about their personal rites, makes outer beauty an experience that reveals each individual’s inner beauty. This transforms Glossier into an intensely personal experience, rather than just a transaction.

Beauty site Glossier’s unique brand voice matches its unique product selection. Brand’s insight is that women have everyday beauty secrets but are shy about sharing.

Brand Woot.com (see photo below if you want to ‘get’ this) subverts the entire thing by creating an inner voice and un-copy that pokes at traditional sell copy. Which totally tracks with the Woot audience, who is looking for instant deals on the merchandise they already identify with.

Think With Google, an online offering from Google (duh) to help people break down just how Google works and understand how their brands might participate, looks like a high-end Stanford tutorial.

The voice is friendly, erudite, academic.

Thoughtful.

Google reminds us that Brand voice can be expressed without words. The simple illustrations for Think With Google are as clean and friendly as a software app. The Think With Google design language communicates purpose, values, and personality.

Here’s another way to look at brand voice.

Direct marketing mailhouses have traditionally been staid B2B empires, but newcomer MailChimp, an email marketing platform that serves 15 million customers, has embraced its reason for being by hiring award-winning advertising agency Droga5 to help them underscore their existence.

MailChimp voices its brand by creating a series of homonyms that sound like “MailChimp”

MailChimp believes that creativity drives business, so they were inspired to play with their brand voice by creating a series of jolting cultural interventions that included creating a new brand of potato chips (FailChips), starting a fashion trend (NailChamp) and making short films about singing sandwiches.

These social activations served up names like MaleCrimp, MailShrimp, KaleLimp, VeilHymn, SnailPrimp, JailBlimp, and WhaleSynth. And the only thing they all have in common, is that they all sound like “MailChimp.”

Smartbox retailer Birchbox breaks the fourth wall with a subtle message to their User (see photo). Rather than using a conventional address line, the online fashion retailer that fulfills via mail helps make their customer and themselves just a little more special by adding adjectives next to the customer’s name. Not just “Jane,” but “The Tranquil Jane,” “Pretty Amazing Jane” and other BFF descriptors designed to make someone’s day when their order arrives.

It’s all in the voice.

John Legere is the selfie-described magenta-wearing, customer-loving T-Mobile USA CEO

Probably no one expresses ‘brand voice’ as literally as T-Mobile ceo John Legere. The self-described “magenta-wearing, customer-loving” T-Mobile CEO claims over 4.45 million followers on Twitter and sports his own emoji.

Mostly, Legere snarks rival Verizon on Twitter. But he also hosts a cooking spot on Facebook each week. Since taking the lead spot at T-Mobile in 2012, Legere has filled his closet racks with magenta-colored shirts, shoes, scarves, pants and jackets.

He’s literally living the T-Mobile brand. What other CEOs live their brand?

Photographs, illustrations, films, music and architecture also speak to create a brand voice. Images in The New York Times, Vogue, National Geographic, even AirBnb, differentiate themselves with imagery that can be dramatic, playful, killer.

In a snap, we know it’s Vogue, not Buzzfeed.

Brand voice can also be communicated via image, architecture, sound, smell and other sensory executions. Jennifer Lawrence Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, September 2017. National Geographic Photo of the Day by Adam Cunningham-White

Since its founding by Yves Chouinard, Patagonia has been the voice of Planet Earth. So it’s no surprise and totally purpose-driven to find a request to help save US wilderness areas on the company’s home page. And pleas to help save honeybees in company emails.

On the other side of the spectrum, Athleta is built to sell sell sell. (Athleta and Old Navy are the sales engines behind Gap these days.) So it’s no surprise to find an explanation of the functional qualities of Athleta brand fitwear on their pages.

More corporate-speak and ‘big campaign’ than brands mentioned elsewhere here, the voice sounds less like any woman we know, or want to know.

How’s your robot?

The brand tonality of robot personalities like Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Bixby today can be somewhat personalized with British accents, etcetera, to fit your human type. (What if, in the future, thanks to AI personalization, brand voicing is “sized” to speak your own vernacular? Hey dude! Hey Bro.)

Hmm.

Can a city have a brand voice? Yes, and thanks for asking.

Urban communities are little different than the communities that surround products, services or companies. Cities deliberately want to attract visitors, neighbors and citizens, just as voraciously as products want to attract Users.

The official guide for Amsterdam mouths what a city built precarious at sea level should say, “Welcome.”

In fact, urban development is so critical right now that, according to sources, the city of Atlanta, Georgia, USA has engaged in a transformational project that will help that city claim itself as a unique, distinctive and welcoming US metropolis. In the next few days, the city will release a 400+ page report signaling its intentions.

Watch for it.

Each of us is trying to become our own true best self.

The voice of the community helps us to gain intention, aspires, and propels our forward vision — and ultimately celebrates that which we want most on this earth: to belong somewhere, with people like us.

Each of the brands mentioned above articulate distinct, differentiated messages in design language, graphic design, art and photography, colors, tone of voice or in the images used.

Their content developers may be various, but each has a single-minded focus that keeps them sending out their own distinct beacon to attract fans, followers and influencers, and surround themselves with a thriving, engaged, passionate community.

It’s when the person out there listening knows that it’s you sending the signal.

That’s brand voice.

Patrick Hanlon

Written by

Nontraditional, people-first brand evolutionary, author of “Primal Branding,” TEDx, YouTube Creator Academy, PRIMAL.LIVE, founder primalbranding.co &Thinktopia®

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