Brand voice (sometimes known as tone of voice, brand language or *shudders* verbal identity) is a woefully overlooked aspect of branding and brand identity.
And I don’t mean woefully overlooked in a click-baity, sensationalist way. I mean it in an 80% of the Fortune 1000 companies in the US and two-thirds of all UK businesses have no formal tone of voice at all way.
Brand voice — that is, having a distinctive written style that’s consistent across all channels — isn’t something that most brands even think about.
And sure, some brands develop voice guidelines that collect dust on page 38 of their brand guidelines and some say things like “we want to sound human” (what’s the alternative? Orcish? Wookie?) but most (like a whopping 94% of voiceless businesses in that same study) have no intention of ever creating one.
Which is strange, as 80% of early adopter brands that have put in the work to develop a distinctive brand voice say that it has become as (if not more) important than their visual identity.
After all, it’s words that sell and connect with your customers, right?
Look at some of the brands that are doing well at the moment: Slack, Drift, Oatly, Mailchimp, Spotify…
These brand voices don’t just make sure they sound the same at every given opportunity, they also make sure that their brands stay top of their customers’ minds, stand out and connect with the right customers.
And the very best brand voices use the findings and learning of behavioural science to make sure they’re always communicating with their customers in a way that builds the know, like and trust factor at every opportunity.
But before we dive into behavioural science and brand voice, it’s important to understand how your customers make decisions.
So hold onto your butts, it’s time for some behavioural economics.
As marketers and entrepreneurs, it’s almost instinct to think that our customers buy according to rationality and logic.
Facts, stats and case studies are our bread and butter.
We imagine customers thinking about all of the options, seeking out all of the information available to them, weighing up the pros and cons and then deciding whether or not to buy.
And, until the mid-1980s, this “naive scientist” model was the dominant school of thought about human decision making. Every decision we ever make, no matter how simple or complex, was believed to be dictated by complete rationality after a nuanced thought process.
The truth, it turns out, is a little more complicated.
Enter Kahneman’s Two Thinking Systems Model
In his 2011 Nobel Prize-winning book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman completely changed the way we think about human decision making.
Instead of being logical, Vulcan-like decision makers, he proposed that we have two thinking systems: fast thinking and slow thinking.
Fast thinking is fast (duh), instinctive and emotional, while slow thinking is much slower (double duh) and more deliberate and rational.⠀⠀
For example, if I asked you to calculate 1+1, you’d likely say 2 before you’d even consciously added them up. That’s fast thinking in action. It’s immediate, instinctive and decisive.
On the other hand, if I asked you the cube root of 1728, unless you’re Charlie Babbitt, you’d either do some head-scratching or give up. That’s slow thinking in action.⠀
Why do our brains do this?
Well, for the same reason that 45% of our daily activity is made up of habit and autopilot behaviour; it wants to save energy.
As a species, we’re hard-wired to use the minimum amount of mental energy at all times and this mental laziness means that we rely on cognitive biases to make decisions every day.
(It also explains why we’re prone to less-than-rational decisions. So blame our lazy brains for the last few years of world events…)
Our decision-making process is a complicated web of mental shortcuts and biases that we use in specific contexts. These biases happen subconsciously and then present themselves as gut responses, emotional reactions or instinctive decisions.
In fact, Harvard Researcher Gerald Zaltman says in his book How Consumers Think, “when it comes to buying, 95% of our decision making takes place in the unconscious mind.
But back to brand voice…
Now we know a few things about the way your customers think, you can make sure your brand’s voice is built to work in harmony with — rather than against — the way your customers make decisions.
In fact, the very best voices (like the ones we discussed earlier) strengthen brands and immediately connect with hoards of the right customers by building on the principles of human behaviour.
- Create an impression of the brand as authentic and trustworthy
- Work to immediately separate the brand from your competition
- Talk to the brand’s ideal customers in a way that chimes with how they speak
This brand voice bullseye isn’t just about branding and common sense principles, it’s about making sure that your voice is tailored to talk to your customers in a way that is designed to work and inspire their subconscious (lazy) brains to say “yep, this is the brand for me.”
Here are three cognitive biases you can put to use to make sure your brand voice hits that bullseye.
Bias #1: The Pratfall Effect
The bias in a nutshell: if a brand or person demonstrates a flaw, people are proven to be more likely to like you and trust you. It makes you real and human and gives them something to identify with.
How you can use it:
When we’re thinking about our brands, we usually try to make everything about them as perfect and as polished as possible.
But in so doing, we often forget that humans aren’t perfect.
As your boy Alexander Pope said, to err is human.
In fact, a 2015 study by Northwestern University demonstrated that the brands making mistakes and not being perfect are actually considered more trustworthy than brands who seem perfect and faultless.
The team looked at 111,000 product reviews and studied what influence they had on purchase intent.
Obviously, as the product reviews got better, the likelihood of purchasing improved too. No surprises there.
But there was a tipping point around the early-to-mid 4-point-somethings where higher reviews actually began to reduce the chances that the customer was going to buy.
Why? Because early 4-point-something scores feel real and genuine, while 5 stars seem false and too good to be true.
The Pratfall Effect in action:
Remember last year, when KFC ran out of chicken? It was something of a PR nightmare, until they ran this ad:
In this situation, many brands would have issued corporate ‘we apologise for any inconvenience’ press releases.
Instead, KFC maintained their voice and issued a bold full-page ad that owned their mistake. It was conversational, took the blame, poked fun at itself and — best of all — won the customer over with charm and personality.
In fact, Jenny Packwood, Head of Brand Engagement at KFC, spoke about this last year, and said:
“So often when crisis hits, the easy and most comfortable thing is to retract into that safe corporate space where you do a terribly formal statement and everything sounds like it is written by a lawyer. We actively decided not to do that. We know who we are as a brand and what our tone is, and we stuck to it, which is light-hearted, honest, authentic, and a little bit irreverent.”
Takeaway: an honest and authentic brand voice — one that acknowledges faults and doesn’t strive for squeaky clean perfection — is more likely to appeal to customers, just like those good-but-not-perfect product ratings. Plus, it makes you seem far more trustworthy.
Bias #2: The Von Restorff Effect & The Saliency Bias
The biases in a nutshell: we’re hardwired to remember things that stand out. In fact, we’re more likely to focus on items or information that are more prominent and ignore those that blend in.
How you can use it:
80-odd years ago, Hedwig von Restorff (what a name!) discovered that the best way to be noticed and remembered was to be distinctive, unique and individual.
And yet, take a look at your competitors. Odds are, they all speak in much the same way. Perhaps your brand is a little guilty of it too.
If so, don’t worry. You’re not alone. A few years ago, a study found that 54% of all brands’ word choices were identical to their competitors.
But if you want your brand to stand out and stay top of mind, you need to make sure that you find a way to say everything in a new and fresh way. Otherwise, you’re just getting lost in the noise.
The Von Restorff Effect & Saliency Bias in Action
One of my favourite examples of Von Restorff in action is Oatly, the oat milk brand from Sweden.
Last year, they ran a £700,000 campaign in the UK that led with this copy:
This ad uses the Von Restorff Effect on two counts: they’re standing out from the competition of every other Tube ad with bold, distinctive copy and they’re also standing out from the other vegan brands that typically use softer, safer language.
And the bold voice isn’t just used here. It’s on social media, their website and their packaging too.
At every possible moment, Oatly is using its distinctive voice to stand out from the competition. And according to Inc, they’re set to use the brand awareness they’ve earned to disrupt a $16 billion industry.
(It also helps that their brand voice is funny. The Humour Effect — where we remember information that we’ve found funny — is another cognitive bias that lots of brands bake into their voice.)
Takeaway: Find a way to communicate your message in a completely different way from your competitors. Break from your industry’s monotonous group voice and you’ll stand out in an instant. If you can be funny when you do that, even better.
Bias #3: In-group bias
The bias in a nutshell: we tend to prefer people that belong to our “in-group”, tribe or social circle over people that aren’t.
How you can use it:
(This goes hand in hand with research that shows that we’re hardwired to like to people similar to us.)
Ahhh, good old narcissism.
And the language we use has always served a similar social purpose; to separate the in-crowd from the outsiders.
In fact, when we meet people in real life we subconsciously mimic their language in an effort to bond.
In sociolinguistics, this is called language style matching and the idea behind it is simple: the quicker we adapt how we speak to match the person we’re talking to, the quicker we make a connection with them.
In fact, FBI hostage negotiators use linguistic style matching to make an immediate connection with the hostage taker and dramatically increase the chances of a successful negotiation.
But in our increasingly digital marketing landscapes of online, one-sided conversations, we don’t have this opportunity to gauge how the other person talks and match it, so we’ve taken to A/B testing everything to see what works for our audience.
Instead, we should be actively learning how our customers’ talk and striving to mirror that language back at them. (This technique is called message mining and is the secret sauce of all conversion-focused copywriting.)
What’s that? You don’t think your audience has their own language?
In 2013, Professors John Bryden, Sebastien Funk (another incredible name) and Vincent Jansen discovered that different social groups on social media had developed their own languages to communicate.
We’re not just talking broad groups like football fans or foodies, but super-specific niches like fans of Justin Bieber, Twilight and dog-lovers too. Every group studied had all developed their own unique languages, different not just in the words they used, but how they structure sentences and spell words.
(I know you’re curious: Justin Bieber fans have a habit of ending words in ‘ee’ — like pleasee — apparently. Every day is a school day, eh?)
In-group bias in action:
Monzo, the challenger bank, is a perfect example of this.
They understand that their audience is going to be younger, savvier and more sceptical of banks with sneaky wording. So they speak like their audience, complete with emojis, sentence fragments and conversational tone from floor to ceiling.
(They also make use of the Von Restorff Effect by not sounding like your average bank.)
Their brand voice guidelines are pretty much perfect. Check them out.
Just after the introduction, you’ll find this nugget:
There’s an assumption that when we’re writing about serious things, we have to be formal. And looking after people’s money is about as serious as it gets. Suddenly banks start “requiring the appropriate documentation”, when really they just “need the right documents”. That kind of language is what we associate with professional writing, because that’s how it’s always been.
So, to make sure we explain things in a way everyone can understand, we use the language our customers use, even when things get technical. If we don’t, then can we really claim to care about them? Why should people trust us if we write stuff they can’t make any sense of?
I mean, what other bank would run an ad this informal and chatty?
Takeaway: Find out where your customers hang out online and learn how they talk. Watch the way they phrase things, the exact words they use, their cadence and tone and then find a way to write in a way that is in harmony with (but not a cynical mimicry of) their natural voice.
Of course, these three (well, five, I guess) behavioural biases aren’t the only biases you can put to work in your brand voice.
Innocent uses a wacky, quirky voice to cut through the noise and make sure you remember their brand over their competitors by using The Bizarreness Effect. (It’s similar to Von Restorff, but slightly different.)
Mailchimp and Slack use friendly, helpful and conversational voices to foster affection and familiarity with the brand and improve uptake at every turn, taking advantage of the Halo Effect.
And every single brand that sends out friendly post-purchase emails or adds bits of microcopy to your product packaging is encouraging post-purchase rationalisation.
The crucial thing is to make sure that you’re designing and honing your brand voice to work in harmony with the way your customers speak, think and make decisions rather than the way you’d like them to think. If you’d like to learn more, I’ve put together a free email course that covers this in more depth!
Because, above all else, a great brand voice comes from a deep understanding of your brand, your market and your customers.
And when you nail your brand voice, you become your customers’ first choice.
(☝️ If you found that sentence convincing, that’s because it uses rhyme-as-reason effect, a bias that makes us more likely to believe things that rhyme.)