It's Time for Brands to Find Their Voice Again

Three ways to rediscover a critical brand asset

So many brands today sound exactly the same. And that's because the advertising industry has mostly abandoned one of the most powerful assets a brand can have: a distinctive brand voice. Pick up almost any brand style guide, turn to the tone voice section, and I bet you'll find some variation of these attributes:


All that's missing from this insipid list is "useless." Who would intentionally craft a brand that's rude, pessimistic and phony?

Another "tone of voice" steer that pops up a lot in brand guidelines is this classic:

"We're like that trusted, smart friend who always gives you great advice."

Sorry, that's not a brand voice—that's a content strategy. 

Everyone speaking in the same CLEAR and OPTIMISTIC tone giving HELPFUL, FRIENDLY ADVICE is making the work less effective. As Amy Kean observed, to their detriment, brands are all parroting the same vapid marketing speak. And this mind-numbing sea of sameness is obviously the opposite of what strong brands do. Because how a brand sounds is just as important as how it looks

But there are a few brands that still understand how effective a tool brand voice is. And they're getting noticed for it. Take Oatly.

Oatly is milk made from oats—it's a bit of an oddball product. So they leaned into that weirdness and struck an irreverent, playful, somewhat sarcastic tone. And it's worked. Whether it's your cup of tea or not, it certainly stands out. And it's pretty hard to argue with these results.

Now I'll toot my own horn a bit—or I should say, David Abbott's. 

When I was leading creative at The Economist Group, I was determined to bring back AMV's great "white out of red" campaign in social and digital. I couldn't think of a reason why the iconic brand voice Abbott created for the brand—distinctly British, witty, and confident—wouldn't work just as well as Instagram posts or banner ads. And sure enough, it did.

So how does one avoid the robotic pablum that's taken over the industry and create a fresh brand voice? Here are three things to try.

  • A former ECD of mine, Cameron Day, had a particularly ingenious method. To create a brand voice, he combined two familiar, but distinct, personalities. A good example of this is the brand Cam came up with for a gourmet grocery store: "Dr. Seuss meets Dr. Frasier Crane." So imagine a person who is deeply knowledgeable about fine foods—but delivers it with a dash of whimsy. Here's what that sounded like. Delicious, yes?
  • Let's go back to that helpful friend, the one always giving you good advice. To give that imaginary confidant a real voice, you have to ask yourself questions such as:

    Is your friend a man or a woman? 
    Is she from New York or New Orleans? 
    How old is she?
    Does she have a sense of humor? And is it the smart kind or a bit juvenile?

    In other words, you have to imagine an actual person. Brands are like people, and what makes people memorable and likable works for brands, too.
  • Replace that milquetoast tone of voice list with attributes that will give the voice some real character. And keep the list to two or three, not five. Doesn't a brand that strives to be "irreverent, playful, and sarcastic" immediately seem more impactful than a brand that's just "clear, friendly, and genuine"? Of course, you can't just force random attributes on a brand. You have to unearth something about it that makes the voice seem inevitable. This is harder for some brands, to be sure—especially in certain categories—but it's worth the effort.

Finally, I'd argue that brand voice is especially important in an era in which the business is more and more reliant on stock photography. If everyone is using the same pool of imagery, one way to stand apart from the pack is to give your brand a unique voice. Don't settle for FRIENDLY.

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John Long
John Long has held creative leadership positions at Ogilvy, The Economist Group and Huge. He is currently executive creative director at LG's in-house agency, HS Ad.

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