Finding Your Brand Voice
How character is driving a new brand toolkit that’s bold, responsive and emotionally intelligent.
People are overwhelmed by brands.
Think about it. We’re in an almost constant state of unsubscribing from emails and blocking irrelevant ads. The brands that we do keep around have one thing in common: They add value to our lives.
Beloved brands—at Lippincott, we call them Go-to Brands—balance connection (a mutual belief) with progress (a way to advance). For a long time, though, brands mainly concerned themselves with one or the other.
First, brands were trusted, stable, unwavering. But as faith in institutions declined (for more on this, visit here), brands shifted toward being adaptive—and they adapted to everything. On Twitter, the brand sounded like Twitter. On a bill, the brand sounded like a bill. This channel-led sea of sameness might have earned a follower or two but did little to build real customer loyalty.
Today, we know that successful brands need to balance connection and progress. Customers expect you to be both consistent and flexible.
Being human isn’t enough. You need to be a person.
In “Let’s Talk,” we noted that brands were shedding the rigid, robotic scripts of the institutional era. Across industries and audiences, brands began to speak more like people—and not just in advertising. Every communication, from water bills to loan denials, got “human” makeovers—with real results ranging from 30% increase in comprehension and 20% stronger favorability to millions of dollars in savings and incremental revenue.
While much of the shift to the “human era” was visual, the majority was verbal. One by one, companies across industries realigned their brand’s voice to feel more clear, simple, and human. The change was so ubiquitous that, less than a decade later, communicating a human tone is table stakes.
Today, brands need to do more than be human. They need to be a specific human—one who connects authentically with the brand’s purpose, its industry, its employees, and (of course) its audiences.
Design a voice that delivers.
In branding, a counterintuitive correlation governs almost everything: The simpler it seems, the longer it took to get there. Defining your brand’s character is no exception. It’s more than a pithy handle. It’s shorthand for how your company makes people feel.
A successful brand voice is defined by its ability to be both recognizable and responsive. And this is where most companies fall short in their current approach to building a brand voice.
When building a brand voice, you need two elements: a constant and a variable.
At Lippincott, we think of our constant as character: a clear, inhabitable persona, inspired by a real person, that is consistent across the entire organization regardless of subject, touchpoint, or audience. Our variable is something we call intent or, simply put, what your character intends to achieve in a given moment.
This approach allows us to create one set of rules that govern the identity of a brand while also acknowledging with whom the brand is, in reality, communicating.
Here’s an analogy:
You’re communicating on behalf of a brand whose voice is “Smart, Kind, and Unstoppable.” That looks great on paper—right? But, let’s say you’re a healthcare company. What does it mean to be “Unstoppable “when a member is looking to select a new plan?
Instead, let’s say that your brand character is a personal trainer. Immediately, key behaviors begin to emerge. A personal trainer starts by asking what you want to achieve. A personal trainer develops a plan to help you get there. A personal trainer first demonstrates how to do something before asking you to try. Those human cues become the foundation of your voice guidance.
Character is key. But uncovering one isn’t easy.
Like all great novels or movies, your brand voice also should be character-driven. But building the right character requires meeting four key criteria. A successful brand character must:
1. Support your purpose
A great brand purpose provides a strategic and moral framework that guides decisions across all levels of the organization. A great brand purpose tells a story. But when the brand purpose isn’t activated, it becomes a story that a company tells about itself.
People prefer brands that align with their values, and brands earn trust through a consistent and relatable expression of those values in every moment.
Our purpose is central to who we are, but our voice helps ensure that customers perceive us as standing for something. An authentic voice connects back to the promise that your brand purpose makes.
2. Be rooted in something real
Characters, by nature, have traits like us. Characters are vulnerable and complex and show different sides of who they are in different moments.
From sales to celebrations to shipping delays, trading technical jargon for contextual, relatable “human-speak” infuses empathy. When something doesn’t go as planned, consumers would rather have the news delivered by a person—not by a scripted robot.
The more “real” your character appears, the more it will intuitively resonate with communicators and customers (who are also, coincidentally, both human).
3. Inspire real actions
Often, smaller moments matter most to customers—moments to which senior leadership or even brand managers aren’t paying enough attention. That means, no matter how great the guidance, companies lean on individual communicators to make or break their customer relationships.
This is where intent comes in. If your character isn’t informing minor moments, like helping customers make a decision or empathizing in a challenging moment, then the character isn’t providing enough mileage.
4. Work for your entire organization
Let’s say you work hard to design a character that delivers everything mentioned above. Your character supports your organization’s purpose. Your character is based on a real personality type with unique and distinct behaviors. Check, check, check. But when you want to socialize your voice solution, you’re met with: “This is great! It’s really strong work—but it doesn’t work for my [LOB/team/audience/channel].”
Asking for input is more productive than asking for buy in. Before you move forward with a character, it’s important to pressure-test against the reality of your operation.
Brand voice fragmentation can lead to whiplash, leaving audiences feeling connected one moment and confused—or even upset—the next.
Everything has changed—shouldn’t your toolkit, too?
It’s time to embrace a new brand toolkit, built with a new set of rules that employ the four elements of character as its foundation.
Let purpose be your guide.
It’s not enough to have a purpose—you have to use it.
Archetype vs. Character
For many brands, voice begins and ends at the purpose statement—that carefully crafted expression of why you exist. But to create a brand voice that’s multifaceted, adaptable, and nuanced, we need to go deeper than a single sentence. So, where do we start? Some begin with brainstorming traits or choosing a celebrity sound-alike. At Lippincott, we begin with a bit of psychology.
The concept of an archetype, a pattern, has been around since the days of Aristotle. But in the 1940s, psychologist Carl Jung used the term to describe patterns in people. He believed humanity’s collective unconscious could be traced to 12 archetypes, ranging from the Innocent (someone who seeks simplicity) to the Challenger (someone who craves revolution). Eventually, some unknown hero applied this thinking to branding—and the rest is history.
Whether you use Jungian archetypes, zodiac signs, or Myers-Briggs personalities, character development is most successful when it’s anchored by something more objective and in-depth than a list of traits. And no matter what method you choose, it’s only the start. One archetype does not a distinctive voice make. By choosing multiple archetypes, each becomes a lever to turn up or down until the perfect combination is born. From universal down to ownable and precise, the result is a nuanced, human-centric, one-of-a-kind character and voice.
—Emily Seitz, Senior Consultant, Brand Voice
Many brands have lived through—and learned from—incredible societal disruption.
Old favorites like Wendy’s are reinventing themselves on social media, using irreverent characters to challenge our comfortable ennui. Others, like Walmart and Nokia, are looking to their heritage to propel themselves forward.
So, does applying a character to your toolkit mean that you should head for the cat videos or dust off the archives? That all depends on—you guessed it—your purpose.
In the right context, puns, memes, and self-deprecation can help brands break through the polished veneer of marketing and relate in new ways. Similarly, nostalgia (both obvious and subtle) can imbue expertise and foster trust.
But audiences see through trendy veneers. Somewhere between pop culture and history lies a vast opportunity to let purpose drive your character. Purpose adds objectivity to subjectivity.
LEARNING FROM THE LANDSCAPE:
- Google’s purpose statement, “To organize the world’s information and make it universally acceptable and useful,” is visible everywhere, including in the Terms and Conditions opener: “We know it’s tempting to skip these Terms of Service, but it’s important to establish what you can expect from us as you use Google services and what we expect from you.”
- Southwest Airlines looks to “Connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.” So it’s not surprising that the company’s weekly email, “Click ’n Save,” opens on: “Oh, the travel deals you’ll get.”
Purpose gives permission and guidance. When your toolkit reflects and expresses purpose, the resulting messaging, design, and experiences feel like natural fits—not trendy marketing tricks.
Be distinctly human.
Don’t be safe. Be authentic.
Founders, spokespersons, and mascots
For many first-generation brands, founders like Steve Jobs, Oprah, Richard Branson, and Herb Kelleher defined the values, purpose, aesthetic, and customer experience. As an iconic founder moves on or passes, however, a brand must determine how to handle its legacy. Some close the door on a prior era, while others continue turning to the idea of the founder as an almost mythic wellspring of inspiration.
Similarly, spokespeople – like the Pillsbury Dough Boy, Ronald McDonald, Captain Obvious, or the Energizer Bunny – have humanized and differentiated their brands. And while these spokespeople are less susceptible to human flaws, they aren’t built for every moment; for example, speaking to an investor audience or delivering bad news.
Using real people, spokespeople, or even mascots can be a great place to start building your character; but it’s important to understand the limits of each. Elon Musk may be seen as a genius, a hero, or an instigator. Flo may be a helpful resource in sales moments, but is her persona the right one to deny a claim? Defining a unique personality for your brand is the only way to build a truly consistent voice that can flex across all of the necessary touchpoints.
—Alex Marcus, Senior Associate, Brand Voice
Brands have traditionally built their expression on sweeping adjectives: human, innovative, authentic….
This well-intentioned but detail-lacking approach leads to a sea of vanilla brands. The reality is, no matter your industry, we all want to be human, innovative, and authentic.
But how do we design “authentically”? What’s an “innovative” way to bill someone each month?
Digging deeper to unearth your true brand character can break this paradigm. The more detailed you get, the further you move away from marketing-speak and the clearer the picture becomes for your teams.
LEARNING FROM THE LANDSCAPE:
Let’s take a look at outdoor brands. Any of them could be described as “adventurous” or “for explorers.” But Patagonia, REI, and The North Face create a more distinctive feel by differentiating themselves even further:
- Patagonia: an outspoken activist, a rugged conservationist, a caring trekker—we’d find them doing a six-month hike along the Appalachian Trail.
- REI: a trail guide, a gear head, a seasoned pro and helpful hiker—they’re the first to organize the group camping trip.
- The North Face: a modern explorer, a lifestyle off the trail, focused on the thrill—can you spot them skiing down the mountain?
Go beyond sounding humanistic to discover more specific and actionable traits. An electric, discrete, or romantic personality, for example, can show your entire organization how to take on the mannerisms, opinions, and style of your character.
Be realistic about where, when, and how your brand lives.
It’s time to reboot the rule book.
The voice of virtual assistants
From 2017 to 2018, NPR reported a 78% increase in the number of voice assistants in U.S. households. That means millions of Americans welcomed bots into their homes, adding a new member to their family and sharing more information than ever before.
We know that users react to sonic voice, but the language used is equally important. Personal assistants create a new way for brands to express themselves with a toolkit that addresses both the sonic and the language-based voice experience—and both driven by the assistant’s character.
In defining character, you need to understand how your assistant will serve users, as well as the broader brand. Once you know what you’re trying to achieve and the role that you want the character to play, you can decide on an appropriate character and a clear set of principles for how the bot communicates.
Character will drive perception of your assistant, but you also need a clear understanding of the boundaries in which you have permission to communicate. A voice assistant often has access to a lot of data, but users generally don’t feel comfortable knowing just how much you actually know about them. It’s easy to breach trust and sound like you know too much or are too involved. With a clear set of rules for how you communicate or even a singularly-focused brand voice, you can create a personality that lives within your established boundaries and still make a positive impression on users.
—Nicole Williams, Senior Consultant, Brand Voice
The traditional brand toolkit was designed to establish and protect identity—specifically, for print. Each element brought with it a set of rules, whereby every element had an exact use and that use alone was becoming more like a straitjacket than a foundation.
Then, the immediacy of digital channels and social media demanded brands to be in and of the culture. Facebook and similar social media platforms were created, and social guidelines were put in place.
Now, the world of AI is once again pushing us to rethink our brands.
As we lean more and more into building relationships through digital devices, consumers expect seamless experiences and interactions with brands across all of their devices, whether mobile, thermostat, fridge, or smart speaker. As brands expand their reach across categories, companies must think more universally about their brand voice (now, often a literal voice) throughout the user experience. If designers, writers, and developers are equally oriented in brand character, the result will be a seamless brand narrative and, with it, a differentiated user experience.
LEARNING FROM THE LANDSCAPE:
- Digital-savvy Domino’s Pizza was quick to step into the scene with its AI assistant “DOM.” What started as an app became a pilot program for customers who preferred ordering pizza by phone. DOM took orders, made suggestions, and dug up coupons. Beyond its technical nature, DOM’s personality also adopted Domino’s playful nature.
- Some brands are native to AI, like popular finance app Cleo. Thought of as a sassy finance manager, Cleo helps customers make smarter purchases based on set budgets—or advise against said purchases based on set budgets. While originally a Facebook Messenger add-on, the Cleo brand evolved into its own conversation-based app that listens and responds to its core audience as a friend would, complete with GIFs and emojis.
Our new toolkit must allow for comprehensive experiential language that encompasses visual, verbal, and emotive cues. The language not only includes pattern libraries—such as standard interactions, buttons and forms, and taps or swipes—but also includes mnemonic cues like motion, sounds, and light.
Redefine your internal audience.
To use the guidelines, your team needs to understand your guidelines.
When to speak up
More and more, the stance you take—or don’t take—on an issue can become the deciding factor in how the public sees you. In fact, 64% of consumers indicate that a brand’s position on an issue has influenced them to either buy or boycott it.
Consider a few things before you type a single word:
-Why are you taking a stance? You want to avoid virtue marketing. The public is savvy and will call you out on statements that appear hollow. Make sure your stance accurately reflects your purpose or the work that you’re doing.
-Does your brand need to take ownership of something? If so, think about how to frame your past actions in order to move forward.
-How comfortable are you with criticism? No matter what you do, you will have some criticism. Make sure that your teams are aligned and have a plan for how to handle issues as they come up.
All that said, don’t be afraid to say something. If your company really believes in an issue, taking a stance can solidify your connection to current consumers—and attract new ones.
—Wesley Tibbs, Associate, Brand Voice
While marketing departments may be the center of marketing-based activities for many traditional organizations, the prospective and end users see everything—from product development and product experience to public policy and employee engagement—as marketing.
People today expect to engage with brands on their own time, which requires our brand systems to transform from rigid marketing command-and-control to a much more universally understood set of guidelines that can be used by anyone, at any level, in any role.
LEARNING FROM THE LANDSCAPE:
The idea of “letting go” of your traditional brand stewards may seem daunting, but even megabrands like IBM have embraced the importance of a team mentality. While many companies view social media as a function of marketing, Ethan McCarty, IBM’s former digital and social strategist, believed, “It’s too risky to look at ‘social’ as somehow separate from the business process.” And that was in 2012.
From HR to product fulfillment, our cues and intents must speak to the broader set of users and influencers across the organization.
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We’ve helped the world’s best brands find their voice, delivering tangible business results, including improved favorability, increased comprehension, and millions of dollars in savings and increased revenue.