This entry was originally posted on January 25, 2007 at the old Brandstory blog (link available for a limited time). Of everything I wrote at the old blog, this entry got the most enthusiastic comments. I’ve added some of them at the bottom of the post—sorry I could not port the links to the writers who posted them.
I’m not just talking about how a brand sounds to the ear, though that is important for products that communicate with broadcast media: think Tom Bodette and Motel6 or Hal Riney (who voiced Reagan’s famous Bear Ad) and Bartles & James.
There are lots of examples of companies that consistently use identity design to reinforce their brands, but far fewer brands seem to give as much thought to the voice of their communications. Mini does it exceptionally well, across all mediums. The Economist and Apple too. Harley Davidson does a pretty good job (there are exceptions). Saturn used to have unique voice—before it was assimilated.
But what’s the brand voice of Marriott? Cascade? Pepsi? Dell? Citi? Buick? Is there anything unique about the way Kroger, Budget, Hershey’s, or Delta speak to their customers? None of these are bad, but none of them speak in a special way to their customers.
Try googling “Brand Standards.” There are dozens of examples of identity guidelines showing how to use official logos, fonts, and colors. But very little attention is paid to brand voice—the words, phrases, and characteristics that set a brand apart take a back seat to the more “important” visual aspects of the brand.
Why is this? I have a theory. As we grow up and attend school, most of us “learn” that we are not good artists—that is, we can’t draw much beyond doodles. Bureaucrats think of art classes as luxuries, and cut funding because they are not as important as the standard reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Writing on the other hand is more universal. Very few people learn they can’t write in the same way they learn they can’t draw. Regardless of whether you are good at it, writing is required for most classes from math to English, debate to biology. So most of us grow up thinking we write relatively well (even though we probably don’t). Certainly well enough to communicate.
So we don’t trust ourselves with the design of marketing and other important business materials. We hire professionals for that. And we create brand standards to help us when the designer isn’t there. But we do trust ourselves to write effectively enough to get our point across, even though we don’t have the training to create a brand voice. So we create copy. Lots of it. Most of it bad.
Even many copywriters don’t think about copy the way designers think about design—tweaking a few words here, cutting a phrase there, rewriting a paragraph over and over until it sounds just right. And that’s too bad, because when done right, the brand voice is the most difficult part of branding to copy. You can’t fake it.
Have you seen a brand standard recently that includes direction on the brand voice? How well is it followed? Does your business use a unique voice to tell your brand story? Let me know in the comments.
Read a little more about brand voice here.
More thoughts (video) about the failure of our schools to teach creativity by Sir Ken Robinson, here. I highly recommend taking a few minutes to watch this very funny, very insightful video.
Some of the original comments:
Larry Fahey: Good God, it’s like you’re INSIDE my head. I’m a copywriter and brand strategy guy, and this is it in a nutshell: Everyone thinks they can write. When’s the last time you saw a client come in and take the mouse from a designer to fix up a design? Never. But they rewrite copy at will. I wish I had a nickel for every time a client has told me “no one reads the copy anyway.”
I’m a cynic at heart, but if I wasn’t, I would say there’s a bright side: The smart agency (or client) can find a real advantage over competitors by paying attention to the finer points of copy. In a world filled with terrible copy, great brand copy could be a real edge. That is, if you can find a good brand copywriter. Big “if.”
Agent A: We spend so long trying to explain this to clients. Completely agree that it may be a perspective that’s nurtured though. I was in an ad agency recently, and even their own account handling people referred to the “creative” and “the copy” as being separate elements.