How to use personas to develop your brand voice

Generating a list of words that mean something to you, but will leave others clueless isn’t the way to go. A far better approach is to use personas to develop brand voice

We may not spend a lot of time thinking about it, but everyone we know has a unique speaking (and writing) style. Voices and styles vary in many ways, from cadence to word choice to intonation. It’s because of these differences that we speak differently to our grandmas than to the start-up CEO we’re trying to impress. And that’s a good thing.

Just as each person has his or her own “voice,” so too does each brand. As we explored in our recent white paper, “Defining Your Brand Voice,” organizations’ brand voices are often underdeveloped, even though they play a major role in how the brand is perceived in the market. Content becomes increasingly important as marketing departments double down on content marketing, and a renewed focus on employees communication for culture building. Defining a purposeful and consistent brand voice is more critical than ever.

Frequently, companies approach brand voice development by beginning with tone. Think lists of adjectives: friendly, helpful, serious, smart, clear, etc. Sometimes they further define these characteristics through contrasting words, such as “fun, but not silly,” or “helpful, but not overbearing.” In theory, this approach makes sense. But in practice, trying to nail down your brand’s tone through lists of adjectives and contrasting pairs is ineffective. The words describe qualities that any brand would aspire to—or that no brand would.

Once you understand the role of personas in developing brand voice, “Tune your voice to connect with your audience.”

Why personas?

Generating a list of words that mean something to you, but will leave others clueless isn’t the way to go. A far better approach is to use personas to develop brand voice.

Product development, customer experience, and marketing teams often use personas to build understanding and empathy for their audiences. Built on quantitative and qualitative data, personas can help teams stay connected to the people they are trying to serve.

Now consider that same persona concept, but with a twist. What if instead of creating a persona for your user, you created a persona for your brand? If your brand could be a walking, talking, breathing person, how would that person speak and write? Developing a brand persona can help you find that spot-on voice—both in terms of style and content—for your brand. A clearly defined brand persona takes abstract ideas and makes them tangible. This is particularly helpful for writers, because it allows them to create content that is consistently on-brand by asking themselves, “How would Mr. Brand say this?”

So where do you start? Both invented and real people can inspire brand personas.

Invented

An invented persona is a fictional character created for a particular purpose. The advantage to using an invented persona is that you can tailor them to suit your brand perfectly. It’s okay to loosely borrow from one or more existing people, but customization is the key.

When creating an invented persona, it helps to be as specific as possible. For example, rather than saying that the persona is “fun, but not silly,” try to define exactly how they are fun. Are they witty or campy? Humorous or cheerful? Is it a boisterous, laugh-out-loud kind of fun, or a smile-to-yourself-in-quiet-amusement kind of fun? Then round out the persona with demographic data, a name, a picture, and any other details that might help—for example, what authors or publications does your persona enjoy?

Be sure to document the persona somewhere readily accessible. The more clearly you can define your persona’s attributes, wants, needs, and concerns for reference, the easier it will be for you and others to adopt this persona in writing.

Real

If you find it difficult to develop an invented brand persona, look to real life for inspiration. Does someone you know, a celebrity, or a fictional character embody your brand’s values and voice? Let them guide you as you develop your persona.

The advantage to basing your brand persona on someone well known is that you might not have to work so hard to define and document the persona’s style. Everyone can imagine what you mean if you say that Teddy Roosevelt, Muhammad Ali, or Lisa Simpson epitomizes your brand voice. But picking a well-known figure also means taking on all of their associations. You might think of Muhammad Ali as proud and lyrical, but someone else might consider him boastful or indirect. That’s why you can’t just name a celebrity or character and call it a day. It’s still important to carefully define which characteristics of that person’s voice will be part of your brand’s voice.

You can also choose to base your brand persona on a real person who isn’t well known—your mom, your family doctor, or an obscure author. Just keep in mind that even though you know this person well, not everyone does. In this case, you must do the same level of documentation you would for an invented persona.

Avoid confusion

No matter how you develop your brand voice persona, pay attention to what it means to your audience for you to adopt that voice. A brand voice and tone that clashes with your audience’s expectations can breed confusion—and that’s never a good thing.

For example, if your audience is first time moms looking for advice, you might want to adopt a “mom voice” for a cozy peer-to-peer, “been there, done that” style. But maybe it would be more appropriate for your brand to adopt the tone of a reassuring, trusted physician guided by research and experience. Both tones are valid. It’s just a matter of selecting the one that’s right for your brand based on all of your other brand elements: your positioning, your essence, your architecture, and even your visual identity. For audiences to connect with your brand, they have to connect with your brand voice.

Continue learning about brand voice with the post, “Should plain language be part of my brand?”

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