How to Develop Your Brand Voice

Learn how to develop a unique and consistent brand voice that speaks to your target audience, plus how to create brand voice guidelines for writers.

April 26, 2022

Nobody wants to be boring. You can pay to advertise your content, promote it all across social media, and build all the links you want, but if your content doesn’t connect with your readers — are they really going to care about what you’re saying? Are they going to want to read more?

The internet is full of brands that are all trying to attract attention, but most of them look and sound exactly the same. Or worse, they fail to achieve any distinct brand personality whatsoever. Instead, their content simply fades away into obscurity, never building any real connection or loyalty with their audience.

That’s one reason developing a brand voice is so important. Having a powerful voice does more than just attract attention — it converts.

But there’s something else to consider here: imagine someone calls you and claims to be your mother, but they don’t sound like your mother at all. What’s your immediate reaction? Fear? Distrust? At best, you probably feel like something isn’t right.

The same thing happens when you don’t have a consistent brand voice. If your written content isn’t delivered with a clear voice, it can be hard to build trust with your audience. This may seem like a subtle effect. However, reports show that brand consistency has a tangible impact on revenue.

Too many companies make the mistake of focusing all their branding efforts on the visual elements (logo, colors, fonts, etc.), while overlooking the need to have a consistent brand voice. In order to solidify your brand as a legitimate and respected leader in your industry, you need to develop a voice that speaks to your target market.

Instead of being mistaken for someone else, let’s look at how you can develop and document your own unique brand voice so that anyone you hire can write like your brand.

Why A Brand Voice Guide is a Powerful Asset

If you’re a founder or early employee at a startup, you might be able to write in your brand voice without much effort. After all, you’re immersed in your brand culture every day. You get it — maybe better than anyone else.

But as your business continues to grow, so does the demand for content. Ask yourself: if you’re the only one who understands your brand voice, how will you keep pace with content production without burning out?

The fact is, you’ll need to hire more writers to keep up with your editorial calendar once you have a content marketing strategy in place. More writers means more unique voices. If one person has to approve everything before it gets published, you’ve just created a massive bottleneck that holds back growth.

Pure intuition isn’t scalable, but rules and guidelines can be. That’s where a brand voice guide comes in — this is a detailed asset that helps other people to emulate your brand’s voice, so you can expand your content marketing efforts and maintain consistency.

A brand voice guide codifies the unique traits that define your brand voice, through deep analysis of written work and existing brand assets. By providing examples, comparisons, rules, and conventions for your brand voice, any qualified writer should be able to read the guide and sound exactly like your brand.

Writers don’t even have to be immersed in your company culture to understand the voice. However, a brand voice guide is also a great internal asset to make sure employees who write on behalf of the brand remain consistent.

If you’ve never seen a brand voice guide, they vary is size depending on the needs of the brand. They include general information about the brand voice, company values, tone descriptors, and even minute details like punctuation, average sentence length, and whether or not to use an Oxford comma.

Some people may find that level of detail excessive. That’s okay—these people usually don’t have to use it. At its core, a brand voice guide is for the writers. Not everyone at the company needs to read the guide in full, but anyone writing for the brand should be familiar with it before they draft your next piece of content.

The Anatomy of A Brand Voice

If you’ve never developed a voice guide before, it can be tough to know where to start. While there are plenty of areas you could dive into, it’s useful to think of your brand voice as having five basic components:

Let’s look at each part in detail to see how they work.

The Brand Identity

Start by defining the core mission, vision, and values of your company. This is the brand identity — the most authentic part of the brand. It’s most often inspired by the intentions and identities of the people who created it. Every other part of the voice emanates from the core brand identity.

If you’re not the founder, look into the history of the company and talk to the founder(s) if possible. If the company is still relatively young, you may not have a well-defined identity just yet. That’s okay. The company may have to go through an emo phase to figure it out, but you’ll get there eventually.

Here are a few prompts to help you start defining the brand identity of your company:

Keep in mind that a brand identity is more than just a “why.” It’s how your core mission is expressed in the way you do business.

What makes your brand unique? The answer to this may involve your products, level of service, customer experience, proprietary technology, pricing, or anything you offer that sets you apart from the rest of your industry (especially your competitors).

The Brand Personality

The brand personality is a specific persona that describes how the brand identity presents itself to the audience. It also describes how the voice is positioned relative to other brands, how its core values are expressed, and its perspective on the industry and the world at large.

Imagine you’re describing your best friend to a complete stranger who has never met them before. To give them an overview of what your friend is really like, you may describe some of their character traits, and include a few stories for illustration. You can convey your brand’s personality using a similar structure.

A high-level analysis of writing style (vocabulary, grade reading level, cadence, sentence length, etc.) can help here. You don’t need to go too deep at first, but understanding the technical aspects of how your brand communicates will help you codify the brand personality. Just like a person, part of your personality is the way you say things.

For example: Ask an 8-year-old hoverboard fanatic and a 97-year-old war veteran to describe what happens in The Wizard of Oz. They’re likely to use totally different words and sentence structures to describe the same events.

It’s also important to identify core personality traits and what they mean in the context of your brand voice.

For instance, if one of these traits is “educated,” how does this come across? Do you exhaustively explain complex topics to demonstrate your expertise, or do you cite every claim to adhere to academic standards? Either approach could be described as “educated,” but they are two entirely different styles of communication. To reinforce your explanation, be sure to provide examples and caveats (i.e. what does that quality not mean in the context of your brand?).

The Audience

Your brand voice should always be developed in the context of the audience you serve. Whether they’re part of your team, loyal customers, or people who just landed on a blog post with no prior knowledge of your brand — you’re never speaking into the ether.

Your message will be more likely to resonate if you have a clearly defined reader in mind. In other words, your target market should inform the way your brand speaks.

Start to develop your audience by taking a detailed look at your ideal customer personas. If you don’t have these yet, now is the time to develop them. Start by getting to know the customers you serve every day. Look at how they interact and speak on social media, what memes and GIFs they use and retweet, what niche communities they spend time in, and what articles they share.

Keep in mind that your audience may also be more specific than you realize. Unless you’re a company like Coca-Cola that can basically market to anyone with taste buds, you probably have a highly distinct audience with specific beliefs, desires, and needs. Beyond that, Coca-Cola’s wide variety of drink products also allows them to market to a more diverse audience. The more niche the market, the more likely it is that your ideal customers have a culture and language all their own.

That being said, no community is a monolith. You’ll need to account for varying worldviews, fears, aspirations, levels of educational attainment, political beliefs, and prior knowledge. Find out what your ideal customers want from your brand, and how you can develop a voice that speaks to them most effectively.

Tones

While the voice is a consistent aspect of your brand, your tone can vary by subject. Think of it this way: it doesn’t matter whether someone’s angry, afraid, enthusiastic, or depressed — you can still recognize their voice. Even though they sound different, you’d never mistake them for someone else. It’s only the tone of their voice that’s changed.

All that said, identifying the specific tones of a brand voice can be difficult. While there are a number of tools available online to analyze your writing, this is mostly an intuitive process. You can use emotion and tone wheels for inspiration, but in the end, it requires a deep understanding of the brand identity to clarify your brand tones.

Image Source: https://allthefeelz.app/cc/feeling-wheel/

How your brand talks about and treats certain subjects will speak to your core values. For instance, if you value environmental health, what tone will you take when talking about climate change and pollution? Most likely it wouldn’t be “flippant” or “dismissive.” Instead, it might be “compassionate” or “alarmed.”

Whether we like it or not, it’s not always possible to check difficult issues at the office door. Odds are, your brand will eventually be forced to address some sort of weighty topic. It’s better if you have a strategy for how to communicate about difficult matters beforehand. Something as simple as the wrong word can alienate portions of your audience and make a difficult situation worse.

To get started, think about the tones your brand voice might use to talk about things like:

You’ll also want to define your brand’s everyday tones. These are the tones you might use when talking about a positive or neutral subject.

There’s no right or wrong way to describe your brand tones. Some brand voice guides will list them as a series of tone words for different situations. Others like Mailchimp’s guidance on “Writing About People” describe how to use certain tones all the way down to the word choice level.

Usually, your tone will also vary by channel. It’s important to define rules for each one. How do your tones change when posting on your own website, social media, or on websites owned by other brands?

Technical and Stylistic Choices

If you’ve ever seen anyone perform a good impression of someone else, it’s often the detailed mannerisms that set it apart. With a brand voice, these details come down to grammar and style choices — things like punctuation, non-standard grammar preferences, use of numerals, how bulleted lists are formatted, and word choice. This is the most practical part of a brand voice guide and where its mannerisms become more concrete.

In your guide, you may decide to define common phrases, translate or assume prior knowledge of industry jargon, confirm the spelling of copyrighted words and slogans, and discuss the use of slang or swearing in brand content.

For many of these rules, you will probably adhere to standard English grammar. If that’s the case, it’s best to avoid cluttering your voice guide with grammar lectures. Instead, focus on defining the gray areas where you have a specific preference over another. For example, you may have an opinion on passive voice or the use of “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun.

Remember, there are no right or wrong answers to these questions (except the Oxford comma — always use it, and don’t listen to anyone who says otherwise). It’s true that a lot of brand voices make similar style choices. But they aren’t your brand.

While it’s most effective to analyze existing content to codify these rules, you may not have much written content to work with at this stage. That’s fine. Existing content simply opens the door for you to start developing rules that make sense for your brand. You can write these rules as you develop content and start realizing what works for both your brand identity and connecting with your audience.

Documenting Your Brand Voice

Understanding a brand voice is one thing, but crafting one from a blank page is another task entirely. There’s no shortcut — the only way to do it is to sit down with your team and start working on it.

Every brand voice guide will be unique based on the needs of the brand, but they all share a common function: making it easy for anyone who reads it to emulate your brand voice. The goal is to make your voice guide comprehensive, practical, and accessible. By paying attention to formatting, visual brand standards and practical measures, you’ll be on your way to developing a valuable brand asset that can grow with your company.

Make your Guide Easy to Reference

A thorough brand voice guide will include a lot of content, but you don’t want writers to have to read through a whole guide again and again just to find a single section. To help writers make practical use of your guide, each section needs to be easily accessible.

To make the guide easy to reference, consider the layout and design. Pay attention to how you structure and format your voice guide so that it’s readable and easy to use on a regular basis. Using consistent formatting with brand colors, varied typeface for section differentiation, and bullet points can help communicate the purpose of each section visually. Beyond that, designing graphics to illustrate key points can make it easier to conceptualize and retain the information.

You also want to make sure your guide contains a linked table of contents for easy navigation and quick reference. This way, writers can jump into the guide and skip directly to a section they want to review.

How to Start Documenting

While multiple people at your company may want to contribute to the brand voice guide, it’s best to limit the number of people involved to a small group. Developing a brand voice by committee can be difficult and unproductive, leading to a circus of opinions about different aspects of the brand. Trying to please everyone involved can end up diluting your brand voice. Keeping your group small allows you to stay focused. This group may include founders, copywriters, customer service reps, an in-house digital librarian, or anyone at your company who has the right expertise and authority to help you develop the voice.

Once you have your small group of brand authorities, you will want to start looking at existing written content (if available) together to analyze what makes it distinct . Pick a selection of 5-10 pieces that best represent your brand voice, have proven the best at conversion, or that your audience has connected to most strongly. Look for common themes and discuss the specific traits that appear across the pieces in the group. Document the parts that work and those that don’t in detail.

After that, you want to gain insight into the technical aspects of your brand voice. You can use programs like ProWritingAid and Hemingway to analyze your writing for grade level, grammar patterns, vocabulary level, and cadence. In some cases, you may find that your use of certain punctuation and grammar styles isn’t consistent. Now is the chance to codify clear preferences for your writers to follow in the future.

Include Plenty of Examples

Nothing teaches a lesson quite like a real example. To give your brand voice legs, be sure to include examples of passages in your voice guide that illustrate your content standards or different aspects of the brand voice. For many writers, this is often the most helpful part of the guide.

Often, it’s good to start with examples from competitors. You can either use them as a counterexample of what not to do, or describe how your brand might rewrite the same content. For instance, your competitor may have a line of copy that says something like, “Your customer data will be compromised without DataShield.”

In this case, if your brand tone documentation directs writers to use an active voice over passive voice, you might say, “Protect your vital customer data with DataSentinel'' instead.

It’s important to be detailed and specific about how your brand voice would communicate the same thing in its own fashion. Pay attention to word choice, style, and tone of voice. If there are certain attitudes tied to your brand that may dictate copy (i.e. “think positive” or “the customer’s needs are most important”), you’ll want to include them to help writers make decisions between different copy options.

How to Implement Your Brand Voice Guide

Once you have a fully developed brand voice guide, careful implementation is key to getting the most out of this new asset. With new guidelines like this, some team members are bound to resist full adoption. To help smooth out the process, here are a few tips:

Writers Should Read The Full Guide At Least Once

No one needs to memorize it, but reading the guide in full at least once will give anyone a good idea for how your brand voice is supposed to sound. After that, writers should keep the voice guide on hand to reference throughout the writing process.

Encourage Regular Review of Your Guide

Whether you’re working with staff writers or freelancers, it’s good practice to have them review your brand identity and personality on a regular basis.

While the full guide should always be accessible for reference, you may decide to create an abridged version that includes the most important voice aspects for writers to quickly review before starting each piece of content. You can do this by listing out the key traits (positive, educated, authoritative, etc.), the most important rules, and a few example paragraphs of brand content. This will reorient them towards the core elements of your brand voice, allowing your brand to shape the way the content is produced each time.

Reference the Guide When Providing Feedback

Your editors and content managers should also read the brand voice guide in full so they can edit your content according to those standards. They can then reference the relevant parts of the guide when making comments or suggestions on a document. This not only lends credibility but also serves to reinforce key points about your brand voice. Over time, these suggestions will stick and your team of writers will develop a much deeper understanding of the brand.

Update the Guide When Necessary

Your brand voice guide is an asset that is meant to evolve with your brand. As you learn and practice writing with these guidelines in hand, you’ll learn what works for your brand voice and process.

It’s a good idea to open the floor for writers and other stakeholders to provide feedback on efficacy and functionality. However, be sure to set guidelines for what kind of feedback you’re seeking and set up specific channels for receiving it. Otherwise, you may end up with too many suggestions to handle and only a handful of good ideas. To further limit the committee of opinions, you may even decide to have regular meetings about updating the guide.

Over time, your voice will become more defined and you’ll have more confidence to hand off the writing process.

Final Thoughts

In today’s world where marketing messages are everywhere, it’s never been more important for brands to be consistent, unique and recognizable. To achieve that, you’ll need more than a great logo, catchy slogan, or a nice website.

What sets you apart from the rest of the noise? A unique voice and perspective that prospects recognize when they read it.

While it requires a lot of analysis and creative work, developing your brand voice is an important step toward creating a strong presence in your target market. Content marketing is about more than quality information and high-volume publishing. Both of those are important, but consider that every piece of content you publish is an opportunity for you to introduce more people to your brand. When every piece of content is truly representative of your brand, you’ll be more likely to resonate with your most ideal customers — your brand evangelists.

If you want to be able to keep pace with all the content needed to attract and educate customers, you’ll need to find a way for others to communicate on behalf of your brand with authenticity. A brand voice guide is exactly what makes this possible. With this resource, you can start to hand off the writing process to other team members so you can take on select pieces that require your unique perspective.

If you want a content marketing campaign that emulates your brand voice, drives traffic, and produces ROI, our team at Conversion Media can help. We provide content marketing services for a variety of industries and have experience covering complex and highly-specialized subject matter. As part of a solid content strategy, we can help you start reaching more of the right people with your own unique brand voice.

Learn more about how our content marketing services can drive growth at every stage of the customer lifecycle.

Special thanks to Justin Blackman who helped us develop our voice guide process.

While we offer brand voice guides as part of our content marketing & SEO services, if your brand needs a one-off brand voice guide, we highly recommend his firm, Pretty Fly Copy.

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Josh Knight

Josh is a Content Manager at Conversion Media. With a background in creative writing and film, he is able to drive increased engagement for brands of all kinds by delivering compelling content and intuitive design.‍

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