Brand’s Voice… it’s not what is said, it’s how it’s said that matters

Everyone in brand marketing understands the importance of clearly defining and living your brand tone-of-voice but I am not sure many brands stay true to their personality. In some cases, let the creative teams win and run a muck. As blogger Harriet Cummings says “A tone of voice is not what you say, but how you say it. This encompasses not only the words you choose, but their order, rhythm and pace.” Some brands tone-of-voice are just down-right boring or nonexistent, and others change their voice daily depending on who is controlling it or where it’s being used. It’s so easy to fall for fun and humorous creative, but by not matching your brand’s tone and voice, you could be diluting your brand’s hard-earned equity.


Rob Marsh, copywriter and author of the blog Brandstory says “very little attention is paid to brand voice—the words, phrases, and characteristics that set a brand apart take a back seat to the more “important” visual aspects of the brand.” The reason why is because defining and living a brand tone-of-voice is damn hard. It is especially hard when many people are involved in producing various communications, each having a different point-of-views of what the brand voice should be. If done right, the brand tone-of-voice can be distinctive, recognisable and unique. In life, sometime it’s more important on how you say something than what you say. As American author Maya Angelou once said, “People don’t always remember what you say or even what you do, but they always remember how you made them feel.”


A brand’s voice, when consistent, can tell consumers a great deal about the brand, especially its attitude and overall personality. To be successful whatever the brands tone-of-voice is, it must be consistently delivered everywhere. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld says that most people aren’t aware of the many different tones they project. But with a brand you can build a brand image from a consistent tone that accentuates its brand values and personality. Nigel Edginton-Vigus, Creative director at Blue Hive advertising agency says many large brands are schizophrenia with their tone-of-voice. You can go from a friendly and chatty physical brand experience a cold and cluttered online experience. “It’s like finishing this amazing love-making session and you lie back content with bliss and your partner turns to you and says ‘affirmative you now have been logged out. Thank you.’”


To illustrate the importance of a brand’s voice, I have selected three brands in the men’s shaving industry who demonstrate three different voices.


The Designer Shave Brand’s Voice


The first one is Harry’s, an online low-cost provider of high quality men’s shaving products. Harry’s was founded by Andy Katz-Mayfield and Jeffrey Raider, two bright millennials who shared a passion “for simple design, appreciation of well-made things, and a belief that companies should try to make the world a better place.” Not surprising, Jeff went on to become co-founder of the trendy online eye-wear retailer Warby Parker. Harry’s website states “Harry’s was built out of respect for quality craftsmanship. Simple design, modern convenience and most importantly for guys who think they shouldn’t have to overpay for a great shave.”


Viewing Harry’s website or their lifestyle blog-a-zine Five O’clock gives you an immediate feel of a New Yorker Magazine layout. Their tone is calm with subtle, dry, sophisticated humour, yet very easy going and approachable. It’s confident and smart without the hassle or aggression. You feel clean and positive about the experience.



The High Performance Shave Brand’s Voice


The next example is the mammoth Gillette brand worth $20.4 billion and part of Procter & Gamble that controls 70% of the global blades and razor market. When you think of Gillette, you think of technologically advanced superiority shaving – so how complex can “the Best a Man Can Get.” Their tone-of-voice reeks of masculinity, confidence, precision and calculated. Every time I shave with my Fusion Proglide razor with the new Flexball technology, I think I am driving an Audi RS 7 Quattro with a V-8 engine, adaptive suspension, and all-wheel drive system. Foot to the floor, the best I can get. Plus the maintenance cost to boot.



Off and on, the Gillette brand shifted into a new gear with a tone-of-voice that didn’t fit the brand. Maybe they are trying to be more human, like their competitors. The problem is, it doesn’t feel like the Gillette brand I grew up with. When did the Gillette brand start becoming funny?


The Cheap and Cheery Shave Brand’s Voice


I am sure everyone has seen the youtube video of Michael Dubin co-founder of Dollar Shave Club ranting about how F**KING GREAT their one dollar blades are. The Dollar Shave Club, a subscription based razor company’s tone-of-voice is funny, cheeky and makes fun of Gillette. They quickly tap into every man’s feeling of getting ripped-off with the high cost of razor blades. Their underdog brand has no flashy models or famous sports stars. They’re just down-to-earth, humble, witty and supported by an unbelievable price. Today, buying a pack of razors isn’t cheap. A pack of eight blades can set you back $35 to $40 dollars. The Dollar Shave Club taps into consumer frustration. “Dollar Shave Club wants to speak to you in an everyday voice,” Dubin said in an Adweek article by Tim Nudd. “Using a celebrity is not who we are. Tonally, it’s important to remind people, here’s a guy who’s just like you, finding a solution to a real problem.”



The Final Brand Voice


Who would have thought a simple product like a razor blade could be as complex as it concerns their tone-of-voice? But like a human, a brand’s attitude and personality is complex. Many brands leave the tone-of-voice to be driven and cultivated by the creative folks and designers, but in actual fact, it’s everyone’s responsibility working for a brand to emulate the brand’s attitude, personality and with its customers. It even becomes more important when more employees are communicating with customers through social channels. Every brand needs a voice and tone guide to ensure employees are consistently projecting it. The guide forces the brand to clearly define what is its tone-of-voice and gives the brand a benchmark to judge future content. Maybe this would have helped Gillette from making the “first real suit” commercial. I don’t think so.


If you can’t describe your brand’s voice and don’t see it in any of your communications, it might be time to start building your brand’s voice and tone guide. Click here to view some examples and tips to help inspire you.


Remember it’s not only what you say, it’s how you say it that matters.



Is Your City Sticky Enough To Be A Brand?

In a globalized world, every city has to compete with each other for its share of the world’s talent, resources, tourists, investments, businesses, respect and attention. Cities compete for funds, talent and fame. Those cities that have the stickiness to build a strong brand definitely have an edge to stand out against the 4,036 other cities in the world (Source: reddit user Fingolas).

Branding a city is a daunting task but some cities have been successful. Think about it. Your product is a massive moving and breathing sea of people and services. Some in sync and others working against the grain. Talk about a quality control nightmare. Building a city brand isn’t about slogans, advertising campaigns and visual logos (for some cities this is a good start). It’s about understanding the essence of what makes the city tick and what attracts people in the first place.

The Big Issue – Aligning City Hall

The biggest challenge in building a city brand is the number of stakeholders involved in the process, which makes it crucial to have a clear strategy and defined goals. Alignment of all stakeholders’ around a vision is essential in building an effective, long-term city brand. Sicco van Gelder an expert in city branding says that the stakeholders need to come together in partnership. “Creating such a partnership is the first step in changing the way the city operates, because it simultaneously crosses divides such as those between town and gown, government and business, arts and sports, and commerce and culture, the public and community sectors.”

A City’s Eye-Candy


The physical and functional aspect of any city can be its geography, landscape, physical environment (such as its location, harbor and waterways), transportation, and physical attributes. Or symbolic buildings such as the Eiffel tower, the White House, Big Ben, Sydney Opera House and the Roman Colosseum. Or iconic symbols like a wooden sign on the side of a hill (Hollywood) or a white cross (Rio de Janeiro), or an orange bridge (San Francisco). It doesn’t hurt if a city has a few thousand years behind it or an iconic architectural structure that everyone wants to take a selfie with. But not every city has the luxury of time and forefathers who had more money and resources than common sense. The physical image and iconic architecture is the mental picture of the city’s brand but it is the unique experience that creates the brand story. The physical and functional attributes are just eye-candy to get the consumers’ attention or a least get in their photos.


A City’s Coolness


The coolness factor can’t be underestimated in building a city brand with or without city eye-candy. Richard Florida, Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and author of numerous books on the subject of “creative class” says that we can’t underrate the importance of the Creative Class within a city. The Creative Class is defined as scientists and engineers, architects and designers, artists and entertainers and gay people. It is these people who create new ideas, new innovations, and new companies that help build a vibrant city. Forbes publishes an annual List of America’s Coolest Cities that is based on the amount of entertainment and recreational options, the ethnic and cultural diversity and the abundance of young people. We all know that cities with lots of university/college students is a happening place. Coolness is generated by word-of-mouth and media, especially movies where a blockbuster film can take a landmark and make it an emotional memory for life. New York City has hundreds of these moments. Check out NYNY greatest film scenes. It doesn’t need to be a blockbuster movies, TV series (like C.S.I. and Miami Vice) and major events such as the Calgary Stampede, SXSW, or Olympic Games hosting can have a huge effect on the city’s image and ultimately its brand.


A City’s Brand Promise


A city’s brand depends on much more than where it is located, its climate or natural resources. It’s the human capital and history that shapes the experience, and provides the brand promise through food, shopping, museums, art, theatre, music, social activities and cultural events.


Unless you have a city that has an unprecedented brand promise like Las Vegas, the task of building a true city brand is almost impossible. City branding can be big business – in 2013, the Big Apple (New York City) had over 54.3 million tourists who ate, slept, shopped, and needed to be entertained. If each person spent a thousand dollars (cheap in Manhattan) they would generate over $54 billion. Cities continue to look for their elusive brand promise to help create the stickiness to stand out from the competition. Brand strategist Günter Soydanbay says not every city is New York, London, or Paris; nor should it try to be.


Most Cities Fail At Branding


No surprise, branding consultancy k629 database indicates that most city branding efforts fail (86%) within a year of introduction. Bill Baker, city branding guru says too often city branding fails because they try to become a consumer product, all wrapped-up in a nice advertising campaign. “Many consider that branding is purely a function of marketing communications and they do not take into account the behavioral, organizational and community-wide implications that successful place-branding can bring.”


The City of Toronto VS Austin


With all these barriers, it hasn’t stopped the city of Toronto from trying to build a vibrant brand with the sound of music. In a 2012 study commissioned by Music Canada it was found that Toronto is one of the greatest music cities in the world, and yet, it could be doing much more to maximize the economic benefits of this fact. “The music cluster strategy is an important step forward to helping Toronto claim its rightful place as one of the best music cities in the world,” says City Councillor Josh Colle. It was discovered that Toronto had more music assets than Austin, Texas but Austin leverages their assets to account for almost half of their $1.6 billion economic output. This is three times more economic activity compared to Toronto’s music industry from a city that is a third the size of Toronto.


To solidify the music focus, the initiative “4479” was launched. “4479” stands for 44 degrees North and 79 degrees West the map coordinates for Toronto. The website states that “4479 is an initiative to unite the people for whom music and Toronto intersect, around the idea of celebrating the extensive musical assets in the city, and promoting the growth of this vibrant economic sector.” Who knows, this initiative might catch fire and Toronto could be the northern version of Austin, Texas. Let’s hope their conductor knows as much about rallying people as they do about music.


A Sticky City Brand


A city brand isn’t an advertising campaign, slogan or logo. It’s the feeling and excitement that you experience the moment you step off the airplane, train or vehicle. It’s the rush you get when you broadcast to your family and friends – I’m here! Ever city should understand what it stands for and what is that one insight that stick’s into people’s minds. This is the essence of the city brand. If there isn’t one thing or moment sticky enough then you need to make one. Start with eye-candy then create a vivacious and lively city from the creative people within. If this happens a brand will be easy to see because it will be all around you – living and breathing. Yahoo from Calgary!




What does a red cup have to do with branding?

Full Stop – red cups are part of the Starbucks brand experience. As a matter of fact, over 60 million Starbucks cups are served each and every week. From the beginning of November until the end of December, Starbucks will be serving 480 million red holiday cups to help celebrate the festive season.


Eighteen years ago Starbucks launched their first holiday red cup – a duration that has created great expectations beyond a simple disposal coffee cup. Has this red cup replaced the advent calendar? With all the controversy so far this season you need to wonder.



Over the year’s Starbucks red cups has celebrated the holiday season with snowflakes, doves, reindeer, snowman, vintage ornaments, poinsettias, and Christmas trees, but this year they opted for a minimalist design of a two-tone red cup with no images. This brilliant long-term campaign has taken some of Coca-Cola’s best Christmas ideas and put them on a cup. Check out Time’s magazine for the evolution of the Starbucks red cup over the last seven years. This year’s red cup sans holiday icons has become blasphemy for many Christian’s organizations or an opportunity to create a controversy to garner media attention.



“In the past, we have told stories with our holiday cups designs,” said Jeffrey Fields, Starbucks’ Vice President of Design and Content. “This year we wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.”


Customers See Red


Former Arizona Pastor Joshua Feuerstein wrote in a Facebook post “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus,” that went viral with over 14 million views in the last five days. This extreme view has stirred up the media and the social channels. Even Donald Trump has entered into the picture with the suggestion of boycotting Starbucks. Obviously he doesn’t have any Starbucks shares in his portfolio.


Starbucks issued a statement Sunday explaining that they are trying to create an environment that encourages “customers to tell their Christmas stories in their own way” and “to create a culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity.“


Jay Parini, a poet and author of Jesus: The Human Face of God said on CNN.com that Starbucks red cup is an attempt to remove even the most secular side of Christmas by “strip[ping] all texture and mythic potential from contemporary life – seems beyond absurd, perhaps even dangerous, as it points in the direction of total blankness, a life lived without depth, without meaning.”


Or from Starbucks point of view it’s about creating your own texture and mythic potential without being spoon feed of what you should think or believe.


What 480 Million Red Cups Mean


There are a couple learning’s we should all take from this event.


First, colour does matter, (check out my article on colour), red is a very strong and vibrant colour that can stimulate high emotions – just ask a raging bull. In 2011, Coca-Cola changed their sacred red Coke can to white to celebrate the holiday season and were punished by retailers and customers who became confused by the change.


Second, customers own your brand. Before you change any representation of your brand make sure you understand what your customers’ think. Product packaging is sacred ground for loyal customers. If Apple changed their earphones from white to red what do you think would happen? Maybe nothing or maybe all hell might break loose.


Third, by providing ambiguity with a blank red cup and letting the customer fill the void leaves too much room for misinterpretation or anti-brand advocated to take advantage of the situation. The brand must own the space (physically & mentally) and direct the conversation.


I am happy that I don’t drink coffee and have to endure this tragedy on a daily bases for the next six weeks. However, I did hear that Starbucks has started using cup sleeves with snowflakes on them. Maybe this will appease the detractors.


The great thing is brands continue to have the power to inspire, create conversations and be news worthy without changing anything inside their cup. And as we see here, some brand loyalists will always see the cup as half empty and others as half full. Cheers.