Every time I speak to someone in the B2B space about brand voice and they describe theirs as “friendly but professional” I cringe. Unfortunately, you could be describing virtually every B2B business in the world. No one wants to come across as unfriendly or unprofessional, right?
The problem is that most people don’t really understand what brand voice is, let alone how to create it. And it’s true that it’s not an exact science and can be tricky to achieve, especially in the B2B world. Which is probably why, when people think about brand voice they look to the likes of Innocent Smoothies, Ben & Jerry or, more recently, Oatley.
But creating an authentic and consistent brand voice is an important part of differentiating your B2B brand and creating a connection with your audience that drives engagement and loyalty. So difficult as it might be to pin down, it’s an essential part of your marketing.
What is brand voice?
Brand voice is about how you convey your brand’s personality, how you express your attitudes and values and ultimately attract your ideal clients. It covers both what you say and how you say it, and is influenced by everything from sentence length to individual word choice.
It can literally be as nitpicking as whether or not you use contractions (can’t, I’ve, they’re). We wrote the website copy for a law firm once and they insisted that there were no contractions anywhere, which resulted in them coming across as extremely formal and businesslike rather than warm or approachable.
That’s not a bad thing, it’s just important to be aware that the language you use will impact how people perceive your brand.
But the best way to understand brand voice in context is to think about a conversation between two people – your brand and your client.
Start with who you are
So let’s create your brand avatar or persona. There’s a degree to which your brand voice has to be about you as a business. Not you the business owner, because that’s a different thing – although if you’re in a fairly small business or a start up, chances are the founder may well influence the brand voice in the early stages.
Creating a brand avatar is an exercise best done with more than one person – the business owner and the marketing lead at the very least, ideally a representative from sales too. Really, you want the whole leadership team involved, if you have one, at least in the initial brainstorming stages.
Together, discuss who your brand would be if they were sitting in the room with you. Would they be male or female? Young or old? How would they be dressed? What values would they express? Would they be chatty, funny, a good listener, reassuring, encouraging?
If the concept feels too abstract, try thinking about which celebrity your brand might be. A couple of years back we did some training with a South West tourism organisation. During a brand voice session we came up with the idea that their brand was a lot like Stephen Fry – intelligent and knowledgeable about all sorts of things but also funny and humble and very real, appealing to people of all backgrounds and ages.
The marketing team found it helpful to imagine they were writing from the perspective of Stephen Fry when composing blog posts and emails in the voice of the brand and became much more consistent for it.
Think about your audience
Now consider who you’re talking to. Hopefully you’ve already spent some time creating one or more client personas. As a B2B brand you may think you’re marketing to businesses rather than people, but ultimately even the biggest corporate deal is made by real people. From the gatekeeper to the person approving the purchase order, it’s important that you understand what they need to hear from your brand.
Do they want reassurance that you’re going to be there for them no matter what? Or do they want you to make them laugh and feel good about the business relationship you’ll create with them? Do they want to be part of your gang? Or do they need you to be the grown up and help you out when they’re stuck?
If we look at the example of the legal firm from before, they had clearly decided that their audience wanted no-nonsense lawyers who would get straight down to business, who would always get the job done with no messing about.
A different law firm might decide to go down a more approachable, reassuring route – yes we can do the job, of course we can, but we’ll listen to you too and we’ll hold your hand through the process.
Again, neither one is right or wrong, but they’ll end up with very distinct voices and attract quite different sorts of people.
Creating your brand voice guidelines
The brand and client avatar exercise will give you an excellent starting point for understanding what your B2B brand voice should be aiming to achieve. Now it’s time to pull these ideas together to create guidelines that everyone who writes on behalf of the brand – both internally and externally (PR agency, marketing agency etc) – can follow. This will ensure you get that level of consistency you need to build trust and client loyalty.
Writing brand voice guidelines is a task best left to your marketing lead, if you have one, or a marketing or copywriting agency. It doesn’t matter how your guide is actually formatted, but you want to end up with a document that translates the ideas you’ve had about how your brand should come across into a guide that anyone can follow to produce content that fits.
If the task of creating brand voice guidelines falls to you, make sure you include a concise overview of your client and brand personas. Have a summary of your brand offerings, your values and what makes you unique as a business.
And, of course, spend time creating a style guide and some helpful examples – words and phrases to use or avoid, sentences written in your brand voice and in a way that wouldn’t be acceptable, so people can see the difference.
A good exercise to try is to go back through any content you’ve produced recently and pull out the best examples – those that fit the characteristics you’ve decided on, those that could only have come from your brand and not your competitors.
Ultimately you want to create brand voice “pillars” – three or four words that sum up your brand voice as distinct from the competition. So that might be Encouraging, Enthusiastic and Human or Authoritative, Proud and Caring or Knowledgeable, Playful and Empowering.
Just make sure you don’t land on Friendly or Professional. These qualities need to be a given!
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