Contrary Brand Voices - Do They Work?
Creating a brand voice is easy. Creating one that makes a difference is much harder.
Most brand voices sound like each other. In the vast world of the Web, that's like speaking the same words as the person next to you, at the same volume. A listener will have trouble telling you two apart.
Which is why differentiation is key to brand voice effectiveness. How different should you be though? Can you go too far?
What is a brand voice?
Let me back up a second. One-sentence definition: A brand voice represents the business' personality to its target audience. It provides a metaphorical "sound" to the experience of your website.
<img style="float: right; max-width: 150px;" src=https://bear-images.sfo2.cdn.digitaloceanspaces.com/chris9-1688566957-0.jpg alt="Freddie, Mailchimp's Brand Mascot />
How do most brand voices "sound"? Friendly, happy, and welcoming. The idea is to encourage the reader, to ease concern, to reassure them that they're in the right place.
Example: Freddie from MailChimp.
The MailChimp brand voice uses a very relaxed, little-bit-quirky voice for their digital experiences. Freddie is their longtime mascot/symbol. Even if you've never used Mailchimp, chances are you've seen Freddie.
While Freddie has a unique voice, other brands often copy the same "sound."
What is a 'contrary' brand voice?
Essentially, it's a brand voice that isn't friendly/happy/welcoming.
Examples could include sarcastic, acerbic, crude, bossy, or high-energy
SARCASTIC: "You could buy this unit from another distributor. If you like paying about $5,000 more for the exact same model."
BOSSY: "You won't find a better deal on this equipment. It doesn't exist. Don't waste your time; call us to start your order now."
CRUDE: "Grinds as hard as...well, you know."
(Notice I didn't say things like "condescending" or "mean." There's a reason for that. I'm sure you can understand why these would repel readers!)
Can this work at all? Yes. I've done it.
Successful Contrary Brand Voice: "The Forklift Boss"
Years ago I worked on a website for material handling equipment distributor. At the time it was a small company, with less than 50 people, run by one guy. I'll call him "Mark."
Mark is an extremely strong-willed person. He demands control of the room whenever he enters, walks with a swagger, speaks over others, and directs the course of all his conversations. Surprisingly though, he doesn't do it out of arrogance. It's more of an, "I'm directing how things go so none of us waste time" attitude.
I likened him to a 'high school football star who kept the persona.' (Turns out he never played football though!)
Mark had worked with his customers for years before talking with me. So they already knew him, knew what he was like, and either tolerated it or liked it. Through our discovery meetings, we decided...okay, he kind of insisted...that his new website should sound like him.
- Bold and direct.
- No BS, and we'll call that out explicitly.
- No patience for games or indecision.
- This is the product, this is the price, you already know it's better than our competitor, so here's where you sign.
You might think this is rude. It should turn people off, shouldn't it? Well, it really depends on who you're talking to.
When/Where Contrary Brand Voices Can Work
In general, contrary brand voices work where a contemporary brand voice doesn't work.
- Backing up a company's existing perception
- Within an industry which places low value on happy/friendly customer relationships (they do exist!)
- When it strengthens the company's position in high-competition industry
- When it matches target audience internal communications
- In a stale industry where an irreverent voice will cut through the noise
Mark's industry already knew how he communicated. Turns out he wasn't alone either...many of his customers used the same blunt, in-your-face communication style.
Once we launched the new website, comments started trickling in. Mark himself would send them to me...emails saying things like:
"This website is hilarious!"
"It reads like Mark talks!"
"It's like I'm dealing with Mark without even calling him!"
The brand voice worked phenomenally well. Not only did everyone match it up to his company, it catapulted traffic. Within 90 days of launch we saw traffic nearly triple, and search rankings jump a full page.
He did so much business in the following 3 years that he bought 2 other companies, more than doubling his team and his reach. The contrary brand voice couldn't take full responsibility...but it played a huge role.
A brief second example: Since Mark's site I've only created a contrary brand voice for one other business. I label it contrary because it took a different path from competitor sites, which all tried to sound VERY dignified, high-falutin', puffy-chested...you get the idea.
Instead, this business took the approach of an old college buddy checking in, wanting to share a tool he'd used and liked. Very chummy, to the point of breaking a few grammar rules.
"Hey guys! How's it going! No, the subway's behind me!"
Did it work? It sure did! They tore a chunk of market share off at least two competitors within 4 months.
Your Brand is Unique. Don't Make it Sound Like Everyone Else.
I'll be the first to admit that a contrary brand voice won't work for everyone. It can, and likely will, hurt some businesses if their audience won't accept it.
If you know your audience well (and you should), efforts to create a brand voice get much easier. They will tell you what kind of voice to use...happy & friendly, blunt and bossy, or something else.
Have you encountered a contrary brand voice? What do you remember about it?