We’re in the midst of a digital transformation grey area and moving from connecting with customers through traditional one-on-one conversations to more impersonal digital channels. Traditionally, a brand has been represented by its people—the branch manager from the bank, the salesperson at the retail store—but now a website or app is the face of the brand in this digital age.
The Internet, more specifically the World Wide Web, was widely known to be founded by Tim-Berners-Lee in 1989 and has come a long way in the last 30 years since Netscape and AOL (“You’ve Got Mail”) were fun ways to exchange information and connect with family and friends. Imagine what the next 30 years will look like: a near total digital life is more possible than ever. Kids born in the next 10-15 years, growing up in the 2020 and 2030 decades, may exclusively use digital channels for everyday tasks and communication.
No matter if your customers are accessing your digital brand from a website or app, the manner in which you communicate is essential to not only differentiate your brand, but for effective onboarding and relationship-building for long-term retention. It must be human, personal, helpful and consistently carried out through all touchpoints to reinforce a single brand voice. The question to then ask is: “are you speaking effectively to customers through your digital channels?”
Before any content is written, the real fountain of differentiation comes from the brand itself. What is it about the culture of the brand that needs to be reflected in the messaging? What are your customers like? Are they nationwide or localized? If you are a local bank located in Topeka, chances are your customers’ values, culture, aspirations, and tone of voice will vary greatly from a commercial bank in New York City—the same category but two different brands completely.
Here’s what we do: First, we create a brand voice document that does a deep dive into what the brand represents: their values, what they do differently from the competition, the makeup of their customer demographics including their profile, income, education, and what types of industries they work in, and most importantly—what their goals and aspirations are.
From there, it becomes the “bible” for connecting messaging and content (and creative as well—but we’re specifically talking about content here). The bible is the repository of brand attributes that we can draw upon to steer the content and messaging ship to differentiation.
With a solid brand voice document, you have an understanding of the messaging and content that needs to be written. If you’re a professional organization, the tone of voice may need to be more professional/straightforward over a retail or sports venue, but there’s no reason to make it unbearably stiff. That may have worked for companies back in the day but millennials and Gen-Z’ers (soon-to-be captains of industry) want to be talked to, not talked down to or sold to. They want to trust you, like they would a friend or family member.
Here’s what we do: As a complement to a brand voice document, we write a creative brief that captures the creative needs. In the creative brief are keywords that define the essence of the brand. Keywords can range from “modern” or “sophisticated” to words like “irreverent,” “cutting edge technology,” and “locally-focused” that make them special to the company. Consider listing out the keywords of what makes your brand unique.
With the keywords and the brand voice document ready, a picture starts to emerge of the tone of voice that needs to be employed with customers to position the brand in a differentiated way.
Here are some tips to consider when implementing the tone of voice in your content:
Remember Pitfall!, the arcade game from the 80s where you steered Pitfall Harry away from the crocodiles and scorpions? Think of the “same old same old” like a pitfall. It’s easy to fall into and it’s never a good end-result.
You owe reinvention to your brand and customers. Times change, generations change, communication changes. So must the way you talk to customers. Don’t fall into safe territory and mirror what others are doing. You’ll only wind up sounding like others and not standing out from them. It’s easy to imitate when auditing the competition, but don’t do it—be an explorer and strike out on new ground.
With the brand voice document and the keywords in place as your bible, the path may be clear, but writing in a unique tone of voice falls into the territory of artistic license from a writer. There’s no manual for clever, irreverent writing, like there’s no manual for being a great painter. Always partner with the right resources to ensure the tone of voice is right for the brand and differentiated from the competition.
A former client once told me to “lead with the need” in developing content. Of course, I thought I had all the right answers back then and this wasn’t so, but it’s proven to be right over and over again. This former client remains a friend today.
It’s one thing to be irreverent or clever in your tone of voice and move away from the “same old same old” in your writing, but it’s also critical to lead with the need when communicating the value proposition. Leading with the need means putting the need over the product/solution/service benefits. It’s a simple formula:
- Understand customer needs and pain points first. What is it that they need or what is keeping them up at night that the product/solution/service will address?
- List your product/solution/service benefits. Presumably, this is done already, but if not, this is the time to do it.
- Match the solution to the needs.
So for example, let’s say a customer’s need is managing cash flow for a small business and you’re a credit union with a business cash flow solution. Instead of leading with the benefits, consider leading with the customer need in the messaging.
That means getting inside the customer’s head and understanding their pain points. Think about it: if they’re having trouble managing cash flow, they’re probably worried about meeting the demands of everyday business needs like payroll, rent, day-to-day working capital, etc. So leading with the need in this case would mean leading with messaging that speaks to what their pain points and needs are over product features, like “Great 1.75% rate!” for a business line of credit. Features and benefits can follow.