Does your brand have schizophrenia?
Do your tweets sometimes feel like they are coming from from your 90-year old grandmother in the morning and your bratty kid brother at night?
Do some posts sound like a soothing Tom Petty song one day and a Nickelback chorus on another?
If so, don’t fret. It’s perfectly normal.
These days, brands are encouraged to have distinct voices based on their channels and audiences. Let’s look at how and why this happens, and how to ensure you are maintaining a strong brand strategy even if you have a flexible voice.
I’ve been pointing to some major consumer brand variations in recent presentations. Cases where visuals and messaging don’t mesh with what we see on more traditional channels, or levels or snark and sass only visible on social platforms. Some of my favorite’s include:
This strategy goes against the traditional brand strategy process of the last fifty years, where the values, mantra and messages come from the central core strategy and continue to be manifested across media channels:
The team here at ChatterBlast is often responsible for manifesting a brand’s voice online and shaping its persona, but we don’t usually build the entire brand strategy. So I wanted to speak to an expert in the wild world of brand strategy to see if my suspicions are correct. I tapped my long-time friend and AirBNB buddy Michael Green, whose professional career has been spent solely in brand strategy functions for some of the world’s most iconic brands:
Walk me through the traditional brand strategy process.
The honest answer is that there isn’t one way of ‘doing’ brand strategy. Some approaches are more quantitative in approach, others more focused on creative inspiration vs. the math and modeling of the business case. What all brand strategies have in common: developing the interrelated purpose, position, personality, and values for a brand that will differentiate it from the competition in the marketplace, while focusing the employees of an organization towards a common goal — so everyone knows what success looks like. This generally involves a variety of activities: leadership/stakeholder immersions, analyst and expert interviews, primary + secondary consumer insight gathering, audience segmentation, competitive intelligence and white space definition, and quantifying the relative value of the different strategic opportunities. That, and a lot of coffee, heated debates, and reheated delivery meals.
How has that process changed, if at all, with the advent of social media?
It’s changed the process for developing a strategy — and complicated the activation of the strategy. In terms of creating the strategy, it’s made things a lot more interesting. Social listening tools allow strategists to understand the voice of current and potential customers, over time, simply by paying attention to the incredible amount of feedback they share on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms. These are now critical drivers for infusing the customer POV into the future strategic direction. Companies can also recruit their followers on social media to participate in focus groups, surveys, and ongoing communities to gather even more targeted insights at a point of time, and over time. Increasingly we’ve seen that the C suite is hyper-focused on the voice of the customer (as they should be!), and social media is helping that to happen more often, more powerfully.
Now, the complicated part: social media content, by nature is delivered more often, faster, and by teams that generally have less formal ‘oversight’ by a centralized brand or marketing function. You can be sure that a CMO will review a national TV ad concept before it goes on air to ensure it ‘fits’ the brand voice; but with social media posts, not so much. Especially at larger organizations, you’ll have entirely different teams providing daily content for different digital + social media platforms, under a ton of pressure to produce engaging, timely, and shareable content quickly. As a result, the unifying brand ‘voice’ unfortunately often gets lost.
Is it okay for brands to have multiple voices? One for broadcast media and one for social media?
As a brand guy, I’m never going to say that it’s totally ok for a brand to have multiple voices. The best and most valuable brands develop a powerful emotional connection with their customers, and one of the ways they do that is by delivering on expectations consistently. You’d never date someone who showed up with a new personality every time you met up — it would be confusing, exhausting, and damage your trust the relationship.
That being said, the reality is that brands often DO have to flex their voice depending on the platform. Snapchat audiences generally skew much younger, so connecting emotionally requires a somewhat different tone + content vs. broadcast media. And a brand’s goals for social media might differ by platform (awareness, engagement, conversion, etc) so the voice might reflect that as well. In a perfect world, there would be one voice….but the world isn’t perfect.
What advice can you give social media managers when it comes to upholding a brand strategy online?
The most important thing is to figure out what the most critical elements of a brand’s voice are — and ensure all communications embrace those attributes. If you are a liberal + irreverent brand, make sure that everything is liberal + irreverent, even though the tone might flex given the demographics of a social media platform.
Onboarding + ongoing training of new employees is absolutely critical in getting this right. Employees can’t reflect your brand voice in their work if they don’t understand it. They need to practice. They need to be reminded when things seem off-brand, so they can course correct.
What are some of the risks/rewards to having a bifurcated brand voice strategy?
One risk is that you’ll confuse customers who engage with you on multiple platforms…and confused customers generally buy less stuff, spread positive word of mouth less often, and are more open to competitors’ marketing efforts. Another risk is that you’ll confuse employees. Employees who understand unified brand expectations make independent decisions, create stronger integrated marketing programs, and feel confident and empowered. Confused employees schedule lots of meetings, punt decisions, and feel paralyzed. They make companies less money.
The benefit is potentially optimizing the KPIs for specific platforms — but this needs to be balanced with the long-term erosion of brand value. Like I said earlier, the best bet is to commit to a few critical ‘must do’ personality attributes, but allow for a bit of flex that doesn’t damage the integrity of the ideal brand voice.
So, next time your brand voice feels off, refer to some of these tips and don’t be afraid to stretch your point of view on social.
Michael Green is a Vice President Customer Strategy & Solutions at C Space, focused on Customer Inspired Growth. He’s been developing marketing strategy for nearly 20 years at FutureBrand, Sterling Brands, Microsoft, and T-Mobile, in partnership with a variety of organizations, from Fortune 100 multinationals to pre-revenue startups.