How would you describe your closest friend? Confident? Thoughtful? Witty? Serious? When you know someone well, their personality is familiar. You expect them to behave in specific ways and notice when they act out of character.
By now, it’s common for brands to create visual identities that codify aesthetic elements such as color, typography, and iconography. But visual identities only tell half the story.
Successful brands include voice guidelines in their design languages. Why? A consistent, reliable voice is crucial to building trust—the bedrock of emotional connection.
For example, Uber’s voice is bold, direct, and passionate—traits well-suited for a global brand focused on efficiency and safety. Shopify, the e-commerce giant, describes itself as “a company built by real people who understand this business and care about helping others succeed.” The company’s voice is real, proactive, dynamic, and helpful, and the Shopify user experience feels like a chat with a friendly business partner.
Failure to establish voice guidelines can make user experiences muddled and alienating, especially when companies and products scale. Worse, brands without voice guidelines may struggle to connect with customers.
How to Create Brand Voice Guidelines
Voice guidelines tell writers how to express a brand’s personality in product and marketing copy. And while voice guidelines typically live with tone guidelines, they aren’t the same thing: Voice is consistent; tone varies according to context.
How can companies create their own brand voice guidelines?
Describe the Audience
A company’s voice depends on its customers. What’s their demographic? What are their goals and pain points? How do they speak? Qualitative user research methods are helpful here. Pore over user interviews and focus group transcripts. Read online reviews and social media posts. Analyze customer support calls.
The point isn’t to always mirror customers’ speech patterns (though this can be a good strategy for some brands). The goal is to define the relationship between the brand and its customers. Do customers need an experienced advisor? A patient teacher? A like-minded friend? When the relationship is clear, it’s easier to define a brand’s personality and, consequently, its voice.
Talk to Stakeholders and Review Company Literature
Even without documentation, a company is likely to have a sense of its brand personality. However, it might take some investigating to uncover its true identity.
Start by speaking to founders and senior staff: What are their insights? Review brand values and mission statements: What does the company stand for? If a company’s brand voice doesn’t connect to its values, it won’t feel authentic.
Additionally, review company content such as websites, white papers, and marketing collateral. Highlight aspects that are unique to the brand, and discard anything that could describe a competitor.
Compose Voice Guidelines
After researching customers, interviewing stakeholders, and reviewing company literature, it’s time to write voice guidelines using three simple exercises.
1. Define Voice Dimensions With a Voice Matrix
According to Nielsen Norman Group, there are four primary voice dimensions:
- Serious versus Funny
- Formal versus Casual
- Respectful versus Irreverent
- Matter-of-fact versus Enthusiastic
A voice matrix is a way to visualize the degree to which each dimension characterizes a brand. Create a voice matrix, and mark where the brand belongs in relation to each dimension.
2. Describe the Voice Traits of the Brand As If It Were Human
With voice dimensions defined, explore the brand’s personality further. Use customer and company research findings to compile a list of words and phrases that describe the brand as if it were human. Then, group similar words into a single trait. For example, “transparent, honest, and uncomplicated” could be categorized as “clear.” Aim for three to five voice traits.
3. Organize Voice Traits and Their Use Guidelines in a Voice Table
Once voice traits are determined, add further detail and structure by formatting traits and their descriptions, along with copy guidelines, in a voice table. Copy guidelines are straightforward rules that help writers know how to express voice traits in writing.
Circulate and Promote
Ensure that anyone who writes brand content has access to the voice guidelines. This could include writers, designers, agencies, engineers, support teams—anyone who might publish customer-facing content. Make guidelines easy to share, and add them to the brand’s visual guide. If there are approval workflows for publishing content, embed the voice guidelines to help maintain consistency.
Measuring and Maintaining Brand Voice
Even if executives and marketing staff endorse a brand voice, customers may find it insincere. Measure the effectiveness of voice guidelines by testing copy on actual customers.
User interviews and surveys provide the best insights, especially when they include questions that elicit emotional responses to brands and products. Quantitative methods, such as web analytics, reveal less about user perception but show if copy has a measurable impact on the bottom line.
Try to review voice guidelines quarterly, and update when necessary. It’s a good idea to appoint an owner who maintains guidelines for the long term and evaluates soon-to-be-published content for voice consistency. The same person can also determine if legacy content (old blog posts, landing pages, etc.) aligns with the company’s voice.
Define a Brand Voice and Increase Customer Loyalty
Every brand has a voice. Without guidelines, brand communications are bound to be unfocused and unremarkable. Companies with voice guidelines are better equipped for consistent interactions across the ever-expanding spectrum of customer touchpoints. Ultimately, it’s consistency that cultivates trust, increases loyalty, and yields lasting engagement.
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Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:
Understanding the basics
A company’s brand voice is its unique demeanor and communication style. In many ways, brand voice represents a company’s personality—those distinctive qualities that customers relate to on an emotional level. Brand voice is important because it helps boost a company’s credibility with its customers.
Defining a company’s brand voice starts with research. What is the company’s mission? Who are its customers, and what are their needs? After research, the process is iterative: ideation, testing, and refinement. The final step is to document the brand voice in a concise set of guidelines.
Brand values are overarching ideals, attitudes, and beliefs that guide a company’s actions—both publicly and behind the scenes. From a communications standpoint, brand values impact a company’s visual identity and influence all aspects of its customer-facing content.