Voice Lessons: How To Build A Distinctive Brand Voice

Nearly four decades ago, I made a presentation that captured considerable attention in the marketing community. The subject was “Brand Voice.” Today the concept is widely used by branding professionals, but it is still largely misunderstood. Too often Brand Voice is watered down to a page of generics: “innovative,” “human,” “collaborative,” that are supposed to drive the tone of all communications. So it’s no surprise that most Brand Voices are predictable, uninspired, and often incoherent.

An undifferentiated voice is particularly detrimental today as the focus shifts from what brands communicate to how brands communicate. To build a distinctive identity, a brand must develop an instantly recognizable voice that generates strong positive associations and establishes the character of communications, whether classic or innovative, glamorous or functional, aristocratic or irreverent, elegant, simple or down-to-earth.

We’ve studied hundreds of companies to learn how distinctive voices emerge. The starting point is self-knowledge; the organization must define what it does, what it stands for and how to generate supporting behavior from its’ core audiences. The most effective are generated when a powerful vision is nurtured in an environment designed to project purpose, position and culture. Vision can spring from many sources: a distinctive product, an impassioned marketing concept, the unique perspective of a visionary founder, or a well-defined corporate culture.

Hard To Get It Right

For corporations, political parties, candidates, doctors, or individuals, navigating the complexity of the exploding media landscape is extremely challenging. Brands must deal with massive fragmentation across mobile, social media platforms, pay TV services, etc. This was driven home in a recent meeting with a media company that was prepping a communications plan for one of the world’s largest public universities. Most of a two-hour presentation focused on social media platforms, leaving only 10 minutes to review all other media options.

Brand Voice programs today are usually structured around three or four words that provide direction for the tone of communications programs. But a more robust approach to building a voice is needed, one that fuses purpose, positioning, messaging, customer interactions and visual language. An effective voice addresses not only HOW you speak but WHAT you say and, very importantly, how you BEHAVE.

One cannot emphasize enough the significance of my credo: “clarity above all.” To break through complexity in communications there is no substitute for simplifying brand communications and business practices. Now, more than ever, we are challenged to recalibrate brand voice with pitch, tone and volume in an environment where speed, novelty, distraction and noise rule the day.

Allan Siegal

Alan Siegel is Founder and President of Siegelvision. A pioneer in brand identity and the creator of the concept of “brand voice,” Allan  has devoted his five-decade-long career to helping organizations achieve greater recognition and relevance. In 2011, he founded Siegelvision to focus on solving tough branding and communications problems for purpose-driven organizations. The following are excerpts from his forthcoming book:  Voice Lessons, Navigating the Complex Cultural Landscape to Build a Distinctive Brand Voice.