Build a Brand Voice That Matches Your Ambitions

A strong voice can empower your members and help you manage difficult messaging moments. Now might be the perfect time to build one from scratch.

By Eric Goodstadt

A couple of decades ago, a brand could continue to live on for months with just one clever slogan on TV or in a print ad.

But in the modern era, your organizational voice is a living thing. It has a pulse, which needs to run through your entire association—and keep up with the rest of the world, in real time. And, thanks to social media, it’s instantly within reach of your members 24/7.

The problem is that voice-building doesn’t always get the attention it deserves because there’s always something bigger out front—always some fire to deal with that’s more important.

The uniqueness of the current moment, however, could be an opportunity to fine-tune your organization’s voice. Many organizations, associations included, are struggling to respond to the pandemic and the broader cultural movement around Black Lives Matter. And during this once-in-a-lifetime period of restricted budgets and disrupted schedules, the essence of your brand—your voice—suddenly matters a lot more than ever to your membership and to the public.

Build Your Voice From Scratch

Using the voice of one of your rock-star marketers might seem like an expedient solution for creating a distinct voice for your association. Just one problem, though: The second that rock star exits stage right (i.e., decides to find another job), you’re suddenly missing a voice. It’s simply not sustainable. Whereas building a good voice from the bottom up, while it may take time, is more than just a way to sound clever. It’s a reliable barometer for brand safety, a funnel for content ideas, and a point of view that you can totally own, which spreads across different topics with ease.

And by building from the bottom up, you can account for tonal changes—something you can’t do by just winging it. There are times when a fun tone just won’t work, and your organization’s voice needs to account for that.

If, for example, your organization struggled to find the right tone during the recent Black Lives Matter protests, an inflexible brand voice might be the reason. (To be fair, a lot of organizations were similarly challenged, as a recent Morning Consult survey shows.) The result is a moment when your voice wavers a little, unsure of what to say next.

With the right framework—say, an effective social governance policy that helps guide your responses on Twitter and Facebook—you can deal with these moments effectively.

Best part? This kind of framework can help improve your messaging everywhere.

One great example of an organization that has developed an authentic voice is the email marketing service MailChimp. Its in-depth content style guide covers things both broad for “voice and tone” (it says it has a plain-spoken voice, with a dry sense of humor and a goal “to demystify B2B-speak”) and incredibly specific (it has four different styles for its technical guides, and they vary by target audience).

And it’s flexible, too. As MailChimp puts it: “Our voice doesn’t change much from day to day, but our tone changes all the time.”

This flexibility allows MailChimp to do things that few brands of its nature can. For example, the company has significant original content offerings that include podcasts, original series, and acquired content. The one thing that’s pulling it all together? That authentic voice.

The result is that MailChimp is in control of its defining characteristics. And because the company put in the work upfront, everyone in the office can contribute, not just a star player.

The Potential of an Authentic Voice

The problem for many organizations, including associations, is that they don’t put in this work. It takes time to get it right, and it requires a process to understand how to distill a mission statement into a voice that empowers an entire staff.

But it’s worth the time—especially now, when the primary way that your members interact with you may be with likes on your social channels rather than a handshake at your annual meeting. If your team can hone the elements of your brand values into the right formula, you might find that your messages resonate better.

The right voice should feel like something every member of your organization might actually say—it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t deserve a shortcut.

Eric Goodstadt, president of Manifest, has more than two decades of experience in the agency world, serving clients in diverse sectors—including associations, nonprofits, and Fortune 500 companies.

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