Let's talk about brand story + voice

It’s seems as if everyone in a five-mile radius is talking about brand voice and story. What it is, how you get it, and how you apply it to your business. Some get it right while others maybe mainlined too many Gary V. videos and get it terribly, terribly wrong.

If someone doesn’t understand the difference between brand development, brand story, and branding, RUN. Building a brand is not about a logo and color palette and brand development involves data, insights, and market research.

If someone starts talking about how content is king and engagement is queen, RUN. Preferably to the nearest shower so you can cleanse yourself of the nonsense. Nothing’s “king” or “queen.” Stop re-engineering the basics into newspeak. This is about you, your story — what you say and how your say it — and how that story connects with your intended audience in a way that’s honest, real, and meaningful.

Why did you get into this business? What did you set out to achieve? Why do you think you matter? What are your values? How do you show up for your customers? How do you convince them that you’re not just another mouthpiece spreading the disease that is noise and viral videos?

This is what you need to focus on, not listening to the “guru” of the moment.

In this short guide, I’m going to tell you what a brand voice and story are, why you need it for your business, and how you can map it out over the course of a few days. If you’re not shilling or shady, life is simpler than you think. I’m also sharing a 33-slide slide deck on creating your brand positioning and purpose. Enjoy and share the riches.

Who am I? I’m a marketer who’s been doing this for 20 years (brand side, agency side, and out on my own) and I have all the grey hair to prove it.

What’s a Brand Story?

The Brand Story tackles both the big questions and the minor ones. Why did you create this business? What motivated you? Who do you want to serve and why? Is there a glaring gap in the market, which you feel confident you can fill?

But let’s make it plain and simple.

You meet someone at a party. You hate parties because people and obvious feelings of awkwardness and psychological despair (OH, THAT’S JUST ME? OK.) You make small talk about how you know the host and then you exchange the perfunctory, so, what do you do?

You wouldn’t blurt out a manual or copy from a sales funnel page, right? At least I hope you wouldn’t. No, you’d tell them about the business you created and why you did it. Maybe you’d talk about your vision and mission. Not everyone’s in for the money and maybe you want to leave your mark in this world in a particular way. What bolts you out of bed and keeps you up at night? What struggles are you discovering along the way.

You tell this story in your own words and voice — it’s unique because it’s from you. You might speak super fast and act animated when you get excited or maybe you’re thoughtful, measured, and wistful. But there’s a story that you want to tell and it comes from inside of you.

And how you tell it? Well, let’s keep reading.

“One of the best things about stories is they’re totally unique to you. So nobody has your story and nobody can copy your story. So this is a very intelligent and strategic way to leverage your uniqueness in the marketplace.”
— Marie Forleo

Who’s your customer?

This is where I see everyone fuck up royally. They build their brand, their voice, their content strategy, logo, website — the whole shebang and they kind of forget one important, seriously crucial, how the fuck can you forget this…

THEIR CUSTOMER.

Everyone gets into the ME ME ME game that they forget that customers are all about ME ME ME and they’re the ones with the money to get you on the tropical island vacation you want so much.

I got my story all gussied up, ready to PARTY but where do I take the story? Who do I tell it to? A lot of marketers develop brands and then they take that package and shove it down the customer’s throat. I like to do things in a common sense way. Understand my customer from the jump and then tailor my voice and messaging accordingly.

IT’S NOT ROCKET SCIENCE. TRUST ME.

Getting to know your customer

This is also hard because we make projections who we think our customer is and what they need and want and often we are wrong. Do the research. Dig into Amazon reviews, comments on blog posts, forums where your customer is hanging out, social media, and how your customers are connecting (or not) with your competitors. Talk to your intended customer, look at data online (resources like Pew, comScore, Nielsen, reputable statistically significant studies can now be found online, for FREE), conduct surveys and informal interviews. You want to know:

•Behaviors: Who are they? What do they love?. Go deep. Everything from the magazines and TV shows they consume to how often they use their smartphone. This is not about demographics. This is about sketching out a real person. I like to do this by imaging a “week in the life of” and jot down all the things my customer did when they woke up to when they collapsed into bed. In detail.

•Pain-points: What keeps them up at night? What do they need to make their life easier or better? When they complain, what do they complain about?

•Motivations: Why would they come to you? What experiences have had they had with products/services in your sphere? How have your competitors served them? This leads me to…

•Their Journey: Get a notebook and write down their complete experience (from the trigger that’s the problem to post-purchase and in between points of purchase) as a diary entry. Research and talking to your customer will help with this.

•Influences: Who shapes their opinion?

Here’s some math for you

Your Story + Knowing Your Customer’s Story =

(drum roll)

Your Brand Voice Guide

What’s a brand voice guide?

Consider the Brand Voice Guide a blueprint for how you communicate. How you bring your story to life and create the tone + tenor for your brand.

The idea is that if someone was gagged and blindfolded, they could distinguish — based on what you say and how you say it — your brand from the pack. The BV guide outlines:

• Brand essentials: These are the basics: positioning + purpose, benefits, and reason to believe. You need a foundation to refer back to. Think of this as your starting point.

• Brand voice, tone, and personality: Are you chatty and conversational or formal? Are you witty? Do you use slang? Are you more focused on being a trusted authority or a trusted friend/colleague? Think of how Blue Shield talks to its customers vs. Glossier, Peloton, or BMW.

• Language: What kind of words do you use and how do we use them? Are you about the 50 cent vocabulary or down-home and simple?

• Details ON who your brand would be if it were a person. Their habits, behaviors, tastes, and preferences. This is you bringing your brand to life.

• Brand voice do’s and don’ts.

• Examples to give context and see the voice in action.

Why do I need this?

There is SO MUCH NOISE out there and the specificity of your story will help you stand out. No one wants the sea of same or a shameless rip-off of an original. What I’m getting at is that your brand voice and story forces you to be focused and consistent. It shows how you’re different than every other kid on the block. And you’re forced to make deliberate choices about your business.

Consistency. Focus. Uniqueness. ARE KEY.

Imagine your voice is all over the place. One day you’re dropping slang like “glow up” in a newsletter (I did this) and the next you’re formal and using every multisyllabic word in the thesaurus. One day you’re saving the manatees and the next you’re talking about cash money millions. You can be more than one thing, but you have to be consistent, focused, and unique about your story, values, and voice.

Otherwise, it’s kind of like meeting someone with multiple personalities. It’s inconsistent and exhausting. More importantly, you don’t establish familiarity. That means no trust. That means no business. If people have to work to understand you they’re not going to work with you.

Don’t be the flavor of the moment. Be what your brand demands you to be. Lean into customer expectations and wants. Be consistent, true, and honest to your story, voice, and your business.

How do I create a brand voice and story?

WE’RE READY FOR TAKE-OFF! FIRST, YOUR STORY. PEOPLE DON’T CARE WHAT YOU DO, BUT WHY YOU DO IT.

Think about a simple story. Why did you get into the game? How you think you can change it. Maybe you lost everything and decided to rebuild your life? We like to call that a transformative moment. Maybe you got fed up with your crazy incompetent boss screaming in your face?

Maybe you took a trip that changed your life. Now, the goal here is to find stories that can either teach your customer something or create a more meaningful connection.

Grab a sheet of paper. Write this story down.

THINK ABOUT YOUR CUSTOMER. What are they expecting from you? What do they want and need? What are their behaviors, pain-points, motivations, journeys, and influences?

NOW, WRITE THAT DOWN.

Why? Because if you don’t know how to speak the language of your customer, they won’t listen. These inputs will shape your brand voice guide.

NOW THAT YOU HAVE ALL THAT SWEET INTEL AS A FRAME OF REFERENCE, YOU’RE READY FOR YOUR BRAND VOICE GUIDELINES!

Ask yourself the following questions:

• How would you describe your brand? Use adjectives.

• What adjectives do your customers use when they talk about your brand? Are you in sync?

• How would you NOT describe your brand? What adjectives would make you WEEP if you heard your customer use them about your brand?

• What personality do you want for your brand? What kind of tone do you want to use? How do you want to communicate?

• If your brand were an individual, who would it be? Map out their person’s traits, habits, behaviors. I create a complete profile of a person and map out their day. The more specific you are, the better.

• What are words you use a lot? What are words (language) you don’t use?

• Do you have copy or tone quirks that make you special or stand out?

• Are your sentences long or short? How do you use punctuation? Are you about visuals/emojis?

How do I use this in real life?

1. Perception is EVERYTHING. Write a few documents in your brand voice. A letter, an Instagram post, the About page on your website. Show it to people. Ask them what they think.

Are you making the impression you want to make?

You can also use a site like UsabilityHub.com to test your messaging in front of real people and see what works.

It’ll take a few tries to get it right and that’s OKAY. We’re looking for PROGRESS not PERFECTION.

2. Use the guide as the foundation for all the copy you create. Remember, consistency is key. But also remember this: even though your brand voice should be the same across all platforms, you might have to tweak it and tailor your content so that it works for the platform. And by platform, I mean social media, email, television, paid advertising, influencer campaigns, press releases, etc. Every platform is a little different so you have to exercise nuance in your copy to account for typical behavior on the platform and what customers can expect from you.

Know that if you’re talking to everyone, you’re talking to no one. Be specific, don’t be afraid of having a point-of-view. When you try to attract everyone, your voice and story become generic and vague because you’re trying to appease the masses. Ironically, when you’re specific on your difference and the customer you’re serving, you’ll attract the right people to you and this is what the game is all about.