Field Notes

How Words Build Brands

illustration of a person with a computer head trying to talk to a human - designed by Infantree

We’ve all encountered websites (or newsletters or blogs) that seem to forget we’re human. They use long, serious-sounding words. They think that more words will serve us better than the right words. And they read like the product of a squabbling committee rather than a single considered source.

If you met one of these websites at a party, you’d probably nod along politely and duck away as quickly as possible.

The problem with this style of communication is that it lacks a relatable brand voice—a way of talking that expresses the company’s personality and helps form a human connection.

Developing a distinct brand voice is a way to survive the crowd. There are a lot of voices out there, and your brand voice helps people remember your brand. Ideally, your voice is consistent and personable. It communicates what sets your company apart from your competitors. It makes people feel like they’re hearing from a friend.

Together with design and photography, brand voice is an essential part of your brand identity.

We’re not talking only about what your brand says but how—the style of words and flow of phrases. An activewear brand might use snappy directives straight out of a fitness class, while a software company uses techy language focused on features and performance.

Getting it right isn’t like plucking a color from the Pantone book. A compelling brand voice is found from within, not imposed from without. We love how Mailchimp’s Chief Communications Officer, Kate Kiefer Lee, describes it as “an honest reflection of the people behind [the] company or website.”

This means that at Infantree, when helping clients find their voice, we get to know the people on both sides of the conversation first. We hold interviews to understand an organization’s employees and customers. We ask questions to get at these groups’ attributes, associations, and avoidances. For some clients, we host an archetype workshop to help them discover a symbolic persona (such as the innovator, angel, or engineer) that captures the way they behave and speak.

We also look at how the competition talks about itself: What sparks a smile? What makes our eyes roll (or glaze over)?

Then, to give the company’s voice some boundaries, we come up with a series of “this but not that” phrases (a practice borrowed from Kiefer Lee). These phrases pair a positive trait to embody with a less desirable extreme to avoid. We might plot a financial firm as “authoritative but not arrogant,” for example, or a dog food company as “quirky but not off color.”

When we finally face the blinking cursor to write a homepage or mission statement, all of this input helps shape our output.

Recently, Infantree embarked on two similar projects at the same time, which gave us a chance to test our brand voice chops. We were tapped to create new websites for two different foundations. One is a brand new family foundation led by a vibrant and personable couple. The other is a 100-year-old community foundation that’s highly trusted in their region.

We created both sites from scratch—navigation, design, words, everything. Drawing from a similar lexicon, we endeavored to make each brand voice appropriate to the world of philanthropy and yet unique within it. We interviewed their people, absorbed how they talk about themselves, and translated the company aura to everything from the about page to error messages.

In the end, the family foundation took on a voice that’s relatable, optimistic, and a tiny bit playful. The community foundation sounds informed and confident, yet accessible.

Just like the people behind them.