Is Your Brand Identity Half-Baked?

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Amelia-Varela-headshotBy Anelia Varela, US Director, The Writer

Logos. Colors. Typefaces. Photography. Flick through any brand identity guidelines and you’ll see pages and pages devoted to these ‘core elements’. Problem is, most guidelines stop there – completely overlooking one of the most crucial parts of the brand: its tone of voice. 

A recent, independent study of Fortune 1000 companies reveals that more than 80% of the businesses surveyed have no formal tone of voice (or what some called ‘verbal identity’). And 94% of those have no intention of creating one.

At a time when brands are creating more content than ever, I find this baffling. Every day, people are writing on behalf of your brand, from blogs and tweets to IMs and emails. With no guidance on how to get the right personality across in their writing, they could be undoing all the good your carefully crafted visual identity has done.

Get it right, though, and you could get closer to your customers, change how people feel about you, and stand out from the crowd.

Early adopters are seeing the benefits

Tone of voice is still a relatively new concept in the US compared to, say, the UK, where it has developed into a whole industry of its own alongside branding and design. But if the early adopters are anything to go by, the US could follow suit. Of the businesses surveyed that do have a tone of voice, 80% say it’s just as or more important than their visual identity. And 96% say they would invest in it again.

One company that’s taking its language seriously is technology giant Cisco. When its brand experience team realized that people internally and externally didn’t understand what it was talking about a lot of the time, it set out to fix it. A new tone of voice has helped to both simplify Cisco’s language and make it more distinctive. And it’s being rolled out across the entire company.

“Language is everywhere and too critical to leave to your old style guide,” said Michael Lenz, Cisco’s Global Director of Brand Experience. “Intentionally governing your brand’s voice pays dividends across your customer’s entire journey. The emotional feedback and data have proven it repeatedly. It’s the real foundation of your brand experience.”

Technology and financial services are leading the way

Cisco isn’t the only tech company that’s caught on to the importance of language. Technology and finance companies top the list of those most likely to have a tone of voice. What’s interesting about this is what those two sectors have in common. Both offer complex products and services that most people on the street struggle to get their heads round. And both have had considerable knocks to their reputations in recent years – the financial crisis and the NSA scandal.

A clear, consistent tone of voice is a tangible way to connect with customers and rebuild their trust in your brand.

Why savvy businesses are waking up to tone of voice

Connecting with customers is top of mind, according to the study. The need to make language more relevant to customers was cited as the top reason for having a tone of voice. Differentiation from competitors came in close second, followed by clarity, consistency, and the need to communicate with new audiences.

When you look at all these potential benefits, it does make you wonder why tone of voice isn’t on more companies’ radars. But this could change. Even though 80% of those without a tone of voice say it’s less important than their visual identity, only 14% dismissed it as completely unimportant.    

If any of this has changed your mind, here are some tips to help you come out on top.

Four tips for a successful tone of voice

  1. Get the boss on board. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being in the tone of voice business, it’s that top people can get it moving, or stop it dead. And the research supports that. So if your CEO and senior execs don’t buy in to the idea, get to work convincing them. Need help? We have all sorts of proven results at The Writer that we’d be happy to share. For a taster, take a look at The Proof of the Pudding, a white paper by our colleagues in the UK.
  1. Measure, measure and measure some more. While evidence of other companies’ ROI from tone of voice might help you sell in the idea, nothing will help you convince the skeptics more than some juicy stats of your own. So once you have your tone of voice, test the results by rewriting your most read, most sensitive, and even most complained about pieces of writing. Fewer repeat complaints? More engaged employees? Response rates up? Skeptics silenced.
  1. Use it everywhere. Your tone of voice shouldn’t be confined to the brand, marketing and communications teams alone. Indeed, the survey shows that 80 percent of companies with a tone of voice say it’s reached all functions in their organization. That product manager writing a page of your website? The complaints team dealing with irate customers? The HR team telling people about a restructure? Their words are as important as the ones in your new brand campaign, if not more so. So make sure they have the tools and the training to use those words wisely.
  1. Keep it fresh. So you’ve got your new tone of voice. Great. But what’s right for your brand today might not be right a year down the line. Businesses change, markets change, customers change. That’s not to say you should rip up the playbook and and start again every few years. But do review it every so often to make sure it’s still relevant. And keep it up to date with examples from all corners of your business.

About the Author: Anelia Varela is US director of The Writer consultancy, with headquarters in New York and London. During her 19-year career, she’s worked with some of the Fortune 1000’s biggest brands, here and abroad, to help them find their voice and get their words working harder for them. 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Ford Kanzler on at 10:48 AM

    Agree that consistent tone or verbal style are valuable. But what’s also too often missing is any competitive brand differentiation. Management hasn’t come together and agreed on how they want to be known in their market, what the brand stands for or what they provide of value to customers that their competitors either cannot or are not providing. This makes nearly sort of marketing communications tactic a non-starter and a time/money waster. Its not rocket science, its behavioral science. People can only remember one thing that special or important (to them) about a brand. Diversified companies are most guilty of this, attempting to be all things to all people. But one-product companies are equally guilty.
    Look at a dozen web sites and see their About page. They’re typically claiming some sort of “leadership” but without any sharp focus or supports to their claim. I suggest an attribute of all successful brands is they’ve discovered and are using or have had some kind of differentiation applied to them by their market. Get the differentiation figured out before communicating, regardless of whether the correct or consistent tone-of-voice is being applied. Otherwise its: “Distinct or Extinct.”
    For more on how organizations can develop competitive differentiation for their communications strategy go to:
    https://www.prsavvy.com/images/MM_Sustainability.pdf
    For a great often humerous read on the topic, grab Jack Trout’s “Differentiate or Die.” He provides numerous examples of brands that got it wrong and right, as well as ways brands can effectively apply differentiation besides the completely lame claim of being “a leader in…”



  2. Nanette Hale on at 7:19 AM

    Great article Anelia! And thanks for sharing the really interesting data from The Writer’s survey. Disconcerting that SO many Fortune 1000 companies do not realise the potential of a strong brand voice! Very encouraging, on the other hand, that the figures are so convincing from those who have embraced brand language and are now reaping the benefits. A clear brand voice not only helps a company differentiate in the market, get closer to its customers, and build a convincing and consistent brand experience. It has internal benefits too. It supports company culture and makes internal communication run far more effectively. In an interview we did with him last year, Michael Lenz, Global Director of Brand Experience at Cisco, sums up perfectly what is really at stake here: “Whenever you communicate, you have an opportunity – one that you can win with words.” Why would companies not want to do that?
    To read the full interview with Michael (part I and II), go to: https://thevoicecompany.dk/blog/winning-with-words-cisco-systems-on-brand-language-part-one/

    I agree with you Ford that competitive brand differentiation is severely lacking. We notice this quite a lot here in Scandinavia where many knowledge-based companies tend to sound the same. The ‘About us’ page is a good case in point. To quote fellow writer http://www.annhandley.com, “If your logo fell off, would you recognise you?”