If I had a nickel for every time someone brought up “brand voice” in a marketing meeting over the past year, I honestly think I’d be a millionaire. “Brand voice” is one of those concepts that’s easy to say, but hard to correctly put into practice. Over the past few months, however, it has occurred to me that a discussion about “brand voice” isn’t even the right discussion to have. We need to be talking about “brand voices”
There has been (and still is) entirely too much emphasis on creating a massive, omnipresent Voice with which a brand communicates to all consumers at all times; as if consumers would rebel and lose faith in the absence of this Arch-Voice to guide them along the dark paths of the modern world. This is absurd, and its silliness has become even more apparent as conversational mediums such as Facebook, Twitter, Quora, YouTube, and blogs increase in importance in a brand’s communication plan.
“Why is it absurd?” You ask. It is absurd because people do not speak with one Voice. I do not speak to my family the same way I speak to my coworkers. I do not speak to my clients the way I speak to either my family or coworkers. Furthermore, I speak to my close friends in an entirely different fashion than I do to any of the aforementioned groups. I am, of course, the same person with the same accent and same linguistic substrata regardless of who I speak to, but as I speak to different groups of people, I most certainly dress-up, or dress-down, or dress-sideways my Voice by altering my argot, rate of speech, use of idioms and/or profanity, and overall tone.
You all do the same thing. Everyone does. It’s not a linguistic accident, or evidence of underlying schizophrenic tendencies, but a necessity of human communication. As Stephen Fry says in his Language Podcast (which every person on this planet should listen to), “You slip into a suit for an interview, and you dress your language up too. You can wear what you like linguistically or sartorially when you’re at home or with friends, but most people accept the need to smarten up under some circumstances.”
At no point in my life has this shifting of my Voice been held against me as an indication that I am somehow insincere or of flimsy character. I very much doubt that a close friend even thinks about the very different way I communicate when hanging out with him versus when we are at a dinner with a larger group of people.
This shifting of one’s voice is not a new phenomenon. I’m talking about changing our styles based on our audience, but linguists often talk about a process referred to as “code-switching,” which is the concurrent use of more than one language or language variety in conversation. Not only do people change they way they speak depending on the situation, but sometimes may even change their register, tone, lexicon, and argot in the middle of a conversation.
I bring this to your attention because this type of voice-shifting is a common occurrence in human communication. It therefore stands to reason that a similar shifting would occur in a brand’s communication. Why would a brand speak the same way on Twitter that it does on the customer service section of its website? Why would a hotel feel the need to speak the same way on its Facebook Wall as its front desk manager speaks to a guest at check in? These are fundamentally different situations with different contextual requirements and expectations.
When a brand knows who they are, they don’t have to worry so much about an Arch-Voice. Instead, they should focus on developing contextually relevant brand voices for their various communications channels. You can dress down on Facebook. You can dress down even further on Twitter. Your voice can be more refined and polished on your website where it’s a publication mechanism, not a conversational one. The number and style of your brand voices (sort of like linguistic dress codes) will be up to you, and, most likely, based on your consumers, communication channels, and product/service offerings.
If you take this approach of situation-relevant brand voices, you will make better connections with your consumers on each communication channel, and, I would bet, you will run no risk of sounding fragmented or inconsistent.