“lol, wtf was that”: The Myth of Brand Voice

by Jason Ocker

Last month, the booze delivery service Drizly sent out a mass email to customers that was supposed to be personalized, but instead was just the template. The opening line was: “Let’s get this party started, (name)” and the rest of the email was lorem ipsum. But this isn’t an article about marketing personalization. It’s an article about brand voice.

They flipped the error by sending out a follow-up email with the subject line: “lol, wtf was that.” In the email, Drizly joked about why it happened (the dog did it) and made it up to customers with the coupon code LOREMIPSUM, turning botched marketing into topnotch marketing. But this isn’t about marketing campaigns. It’s about brand voice.

It kind of doesn’t exist.

Brand Voices All Sound the Same

An author’s voice is that quality present in the writing that identifies the writer. It’s a combination in various proportions of tone, style, word choice, theme, and content. Brands, however, are corporate things, so they can’t have a single identifiable voice. As such, many define “brand voice” as the rules by which corporations deliver words.

Most brand voice guidelines are identical: Talk directly to the audience, don’t use jargon, be professional (i.e., no jokes or attempts to be clever). The exception is consumer brands that encourage jokes and cleverness. Drizly is in that latter group. Many brands wouldn’t allow a WTF near their copy, even though the phrase is commonly accepted these days since it (sadly) gentles one of our most enjoyable swear words.

But those rules don’t equal a voice. Sure, Oreo’s copy is distinguishable from IBM’s copy. But not from Chips Ahoy!’s copy. And who knows what Nabisco’s brand voice is.

Content Marketing & the Socials Impact Voice

Both the socials and content marketing have changed how companies communicate with their audience. For the socials, somebody at the brand is often in actual word-to-word written conversation with its audience, but what comes out of that still isn’t an identifiable voice. The tone will conform to different norms than other marketing collateral (emojis, joke setup tropes, common phraseology) that allow a brand to seem more like it has a voice, but really, it sounds like most other Twitter accounts.

What also happens with voice on the socials is that a CEO can subsume the brand. You can see this with Tesla and Elon Musk. Does Tesla have a brand voice? Probably not. It barely has 12 words on its website. Musk certainly has a voice, though. You can recognize his tweets from Mars.

Meanwhile, content marketing has dispersed brand voice. Your content is now bylined and coming from multiple experts within your company, each with their own authorial voice and each more important at making an impression on your customers than any basic marketing copy. At that point, it’s like running a newspaper, trying to align multiple voices into one identifiable brand in general.

What’s Really Important When Delivering Words

So what does all that mean for brand voice? Just that marketers should focus on other elements than voice when delivering words.

1. Stay on Point: If I tell you a story about an alcoholic writer who fights monsters in a small town, you might recognize it as a Stephen King story, without me reciting a single word of his text. That’s because a writer’s voice is predominantly content. What you talk about the most is what really identifies you. So make sure, with your content, that you’re hitting themes important to your company over and over until your company is identified with those ideas.

2. Say More With the Visual Brand: Think of a company you interact with a lot. Say, Netflix. Can you recognize its voice? How about its interface? Its product/visual brand is how Netflix stands out. A collective of people can’t have the same voice, but they can all wear the same shirt.

3. Concentrate on Story: Your story can be told a lot of different ways in a lot of different styles. Fifty salespeople will tell it fifty different ways, for instance. Just make sure that what’s being told in all those different ways is still the same story at its core.

4: Be Clear and Honest: Clarity and honesty is really why “lol, wtf was that” worked for Drizly. It came clean with the fact that there was no excuse for the error and did it in a way that it wasn’t hiding behind any words. Even its terrible dog joke illustrated that it had no good explanation for what happened. If you’re speaking clearly and honestly to your customers, that’ll work out miles better for the brand than any attempt at contriving a tone.

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

Jason writes. Tells stories. Develops strategies. He oversees a wide range of creative and technical projects. He’s also an award-winning author of half a dozen books and has been featured on or in CNN, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, and TIME.

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