How to find your brand’s voice

Oreo’s epic Twitter win during Super Bowl XLVII was hastily assembled by a large huddle of advertising and marketing pros: social media specialists, creatives, and brand managers. Its success has raised the profile of agency “newsrooms” and real-time marketing. More importantly, this all-hands effort shines a spotlight on the role of collaboration in brand voice strategy and planning.

Successful businesses don’t stop the brand voice discussion at the walls of the marketing organization. Heavy emphasis on flattening the department is helping to bring a more diverse range of perspectives and opinions to the table, but at a bare minimum, the brand voice should be carefully coordinated between marketing and all advertising agencies.

Building the tribe

Before bringing anyone else to the conference table for a brand voice discussion—for that matter, before you even reserve the room—look at the internal communications process for other major strategic decisions made by your company. Not only should the same stakeholders play some role, but the dynamic and tone of interdepartmental communication may even give you some hints about the most authentic voice of your brand.

Ignite Social Media‘s client onboarding process requires, at a minimum, the participation of the brand’s marketing leadership, creative team, community manager, strategist, and analyst. “It’s a very collaborative process. Usually our teams are on-site for two or three days with this group once our team has done the initial evaluation,” says John Andrews, Ignite CMO. “The process is designed to get all the stakeholders engaged in bringing the brand voice to life socially.”

If this seems like far too many cooks in the kitchen who will step on each other’s toes and dilute the voice, the real goal is to build comfort and develop a common perspective. “The longer you work together and understand what each other wants, the less back-and-forth there is,” says Erin Ledbetter, Ignite VP of community management. “It’s why we really prefer having the client involved in the development of the voice from day one, because then they feel like they have a stake and understand where we’re coming from.”

A matter of equity

Some experts recommend going even deeper when designing and tweaking the brand voice. P. K. Kannan, chair of the department of marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, advises thinking in very simple terms when building the brand team. The purpose of a brand voice is to help build brand equity. Therefore, any stakeholder keenly interested in building brand equity should be part of establishing and propagating the brand voice. “The brand makes the promise, but the people who are going to deliver on the promise are the employees,” he says. “So the branding team has to involve all of the people who touch the customer, and that will include customer service.”

Ledbetter agrees that customer service often knows more than marketing about how the brand is actually being received and understood. “The people who are closest to the customer, even if they’re not the big, creative people at the agency, are best-equipped to know if something is going to resonate or not.”

Bringing front-line employees to the brand voice mix doesn’t require asking every call center agent and sales clerk to sign off on the branding vision. But it does mean that the brand voice should be developed and propagated in a way that is concise and easy to replicate, to the point where it can become second nature for employees. In many cases, a stylebook summarizing the key characteristics of the brand’s persona and attitude can help employees speak and act with the brand’s best voice. But the biggest successes happen when voice is instinctive.

“Look at Southwest Airlines, whose brand personality is fun, competent, and sincere. They train their employees very hard on that, and employees deliver that promise to customers whenever there is contact,” Kannan says. “When they encounter a situation, they don’t go to a rulebook. They know what the brand personality would do when interacting with customers. When a company is able to do that consistently, the brand becomes very strong.”

Living at social speed

Beyond training and reinforcing the message, marketing can’t maintain control of the brand voice in those face-to-face situations. Social media may feel so immediate and spontaneous that there is no room for stewardship, but the brand risks going off-message if the social marketing team is left alone to pounce first and find the brand value later. In plain language, if staying on-voice is important (and it is), someone has to be the grown-up in the room. “This person is in charge of reviewing the content before it goes out. Whether it’s a marketing director, a director of communications or a head of copywriting, this person will ultimately be the chief monitor of the brand voice,” says Matt Lee, director of marketing at Adhere Creative.

Finally, keep in mind that erring on the side of inclusion is not a license for leadership to fall asleep at the switch. Even in the most collaborative setting, the brand’s top marketer is empowered and responsible for setting the tone. “It’s okay if you want five or 10 people to have an opinion, but it shouldn’t be a vote,” Lee says. “Whoever is the leader on the marketing side of the company needs to ultimately define what the voice is.”

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.