A message is what a brand says; voice is how it’s said. Creating a voice for a brand is challenging, and once aspirational guidelines are agreed upon, deploying that voice consistently takes discipline. What kind of language does your brand use? Complex sentences or short pithy ones? What’s your tone when something is humorous, slapstick or sarcastic? Is the aim for communications to be inspiring, or uplifting, or optimistic? These three goals are similar, with word choice and phrasing perhaps all that distinguishes how a brand gets to one or the other. Everything taken for granted when an individual person speaks must be articulated and continually referenced for a brand to communicate “on voice,” simply and authentically.
Voice is how brands communicate, which means it’s where emotional connections are made and familiarity is reinforced. This is particularly important when it comes to establishing and reinforcing trust, which in turn is crucial for brands attempting to tell anyone anything that matters in the distraction (or chaos) of the present moment. Voice also lets brands communicate awareness of context. A brand’s personality might be insightful, proactive, and kind, but how these qualities flex to accommodate different circumstances comes down to voice.
Voice is important in times of crisis, not least because there’s an unprecedented volume of communication happening right now: “[w]e are seeing a COVID-19 related Tweet every 45 milliseconds,” or roughly 1,300 a minute. Not all of these messages are coming from brands, but still, it’s important to keep in perspective just how dense the forest of communications is right now. It’s also instructive to examine how different brands are putting voice to good use in order to transcend the transactionality of the typical day-to-day and rise to the current occasion—or not doing so. Saying “we care, and we’re doing something” might seem cut-and-dry, but plenty of brands have been criticized for coming across as boastful or sales-focused in communicating their Covid-related efforts or responses.
My colleague Britt Bulla recently wrote insightfully about branded communications in an article titled Who Are Your Real Brand Friends? This made me think about the voice of some the many similar messages I’ve received or read:
“UPS is committed to operating globally, except where constrained by government restrictions. The Novel Coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented complexities, which have required us to constantly reassess our operations. Our highest priority is to help ensure the health and safety of our employees, customers, and suppliers. Effective March 26, 2020 and until further notice, we have suspended the UPS Service Guarantee for all shipments from any origin to any destination.”
This is bad news, for UPS and its customers, but delivered as it is directly, without pandering, reads as concerned and responsive, rather than self-interested. It’s on-voice for UPS—these facts have repercussions, but we’re trustworthy and doing our earnest best. On the other hand, from a brand which shall remain unnamed: “Mother’s Day will look a little different this year. You’re invited to shop all jeans 50% off—yes, buy one get one free!” This might be well-voiced, but it’s negligently tone-deaf, under the circumstances.
Messaging in crisis provides opportunities to reinforce voice even as you expand your brand’s range. So, the apparel brand with the sunny, celebrate-the-discount voice might have little to say, but many other companies have found themselves writing and speaking to customers ever more often, lately. One insurer is repeating a refreshingly direct message for existing customers, which has been as welcome in emails as it is leading their homepage: “The GEICO Giveback: A credit of 15% for your next full policy term. We’ll take care of it, so you don’t need to do anything.” GEICO’s voice has always been focused on communicating how easy good insurance can be, so this message is just right.
Our advice for brand communicators is to focus on simplicity: triage messaging opportunities for priority and then focus on quality over quantity. When there’s something truly important to say, say it as directly as possible. See, as examples, Bristol Myers Squibb, a global biopharmaceutical company, offering help paying for essential drugs for life-threatening non-COVID-19 diseases: “Relief. Losing your job doesn’t mean losing your medicine.” Or CVS pharmacy offering free COVID-19 testing: “Choose a time. Drive up. Get tested.” If there’s an opportunity to leverage your brand voice at the same time, as UPS and GEICO did, so much the better.
If you have something expected that nevertheless must be said, make sure it’s as on-voice as possible, to differentiate and drive memorability. A newly-notorious supercut video, Every Covid-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same shows how easy it’s been to say the same thing, in the same voice, as everyone else. Here are a few recent communications from airlines well-regarded for customer satisfaction:
“Taking care of you is at the center of everything we do.”
“Taking care of you.”
“Caring for you is our priority.”
“Book your trip and we will take care of you every step of the way.”
The core message is undeniably important, but the lack of differentiation makes it impossible to say whether it’s Delta, Southwest, Alaska or American that wants you to know they care.
Zappos, the famously service-centric digital retailer, decided to double down on showing how much it cares: “Customer Service for Anything—Helping people find answers. PSST, IT’S FREE!” This is on-brand for Zappos, as well as on-voice: they’ve been telling for years how they love it when customers call, email, or chat, and so in a time when we might not need new shoes, it’s endearing to hear they’re still there for us, and ready to help with anything they can.
Covid-19 is leaving a changed world in its wake—the confusion, fear, and distrust that’s dominated our lives for weeks now will linger, regardless of what approximation of normal we return to, whenever that may be. Thinking about voice is an opportunity to consider what’s most important to your company and its customers, and a time to examine what “authentic” means for your brand: what you should say, and how you should say it.
Derrick Mead is a Brand Communication Director on the New York team.