Are your brand guidelines helping or hurting you?

brand guidelines
Brad, we’re not using Oxford commas anymore. Check the tablet.

One voice to rule them all…

If I had a dime for every time a brand manager said, “We’d never say that,” I’d have enough money to pay a junior copywriter for a better metaphor. But no one ever gave me a dime. So, you’re just going to have to deal with that lead (or more accurately “lede” for all my journalism homies).

Unless you intended to visit a website about intelligent design, you likely know that Intelligent Demand is a modern marketing agency. We work with many established brands. Those brands invariably have a file entitled “BrandGuidelines.pdf” that they send our way when we start our relationship. And, like clockwork, those massive documents include a section about the brand’s tone.

The purpose in defining a brand’s voice (tone, words used, communication style, point of view, etc. ) is obvious. You define your brand’s voice, so customer- and prospect-facing messaging is authentic, compelling,  consistent, and relevant. This is a vital step in defining the brand.

But it’s a starting place, and unfortunately, many brands treat these short paragraphs like gospel. Too often, the very thing that should be used to guide a conversation (the goal of content, after all) is used to shut a conversation down.

Dear mom, best friend, and coworker

Here’s an exercise. Imagine you were forced to write a single letter, copy it verbatim three times, send one to your mother, one to your best friend, and one to a coworker. How would you approach this assignment?

You can’t write “I love you,” to your mother in the letter because you don’t tell your best friend or your coworker you love them when you speak. You also wouldn’t address your best friend formally as you would your coworker.

In truth, you’d have to write three separate letters to avoid potentially alienating the three recipients. The variations in tone, vocabulary, and familiarity you have with different people in your life make up the heart of what’s known as a discourse community.

“Discursive Practices” and other sexy linguistic terms du jour

Anyone unfortunate enough to have an English degree (yours truly) knows the pains of having lost years of their lives learning about seemingly useless information like prepositional phrases, Marxist literary criticism (mine was on Chronicle of a Death Foretold), and, yes, discourse communities.

But the latter touches nearly every area of our lives (and that’s not just me being dialectical). Think of the words you choose when speaking to a client. How about your oldest friends or family (the ones that haven’t unfriended you due to your political Facebook rants)? Think about how war vets talk to others who have served vs. their parents—these are discourse communities in action, groups that adopt preferred ways to discuss things (also known as “discursive practices.” See how relevant my subhead was?).

And guess what? Your target prospects and customers are made up of very different people. Age, Sex, Location, Job Title, and Role might be common data elements that are tracked in a digital campaign, but each value says something specific about the person that demands consideration. When similarities can be identified, we group these people into segments. And in some cases, a segment of people who share certain traits might very well want to discuss things a specific way.

How do you address discursive practices as a marketer?

Let’s say you are the marketing director of a SaaS company that specializes in HR software, and the contact database in your SFDC is overflowing (thanks, list-purchase! Kidding). Yes, your customers and prospects are all searching for a similar solution, but it’s doubtful they all have the same reasons for the search. It’s doubly doubtful that the same exact message brought them all to the attention of your company or product.

A large group of your contacts might be women in their early 30s who own their own business. Another sizable group might be men in their late 50s who have around 15 years’ experience as executives of Fortune 500 companies.

Sure, some simple segmentation would allow you to speak to these two groups individually. You’d ideally create persona profiles for each group as well. Then what?

This is where the rubber (your messaging) meets the road (your brand guidelines), and it’s often where we marketers fall down. In many cases, the answer is to create a messaging map and related content plan, which tells us to focus, for instance, on our company’s “growth” message for the women business owners and “efficiency” for the older executives.

Super. So how do you deliver that message? Using the same tone and vocabulary, informed by your rigid brand guide? Do you think a 56-year-old man who’s spent over a decade in a large corporation speaks the same way as a 32-year-old woman who’s been running a successful, but small business since last summer?

There’s just no way. Snapshot to a decade ago: She was in college deciding whether to take the GREs; he was mansplaining in a boardroom to a group of frustrated peers.

Practicing discursively

Let’s try an experiment, something like our letter-writing exercise. You’re still our SaaS marketing director. Now, pick one (only one!) message below to speak to both the segments we identified above. Godspeed (…you black emperor).

  1. Say “Bye, Felicia” to the H in HR.
  2. Find us at the intersection of HR and OPEX.
  3. Superior HR software solutions for efficiency and growth.

Ugh, wasn’t that just awful. Some games are only intended for players to lose. Most marketers who are tasked with following brand guidelines are faced with similar challenges. And guess what? They choose #3, which means they effectively spoke to no one because more and more people (i.e., your prospects and customers) are developing an aversion to marketing-speak.

Ask yourself: Do you think indiscriminately applying brand guidelines across segments might have an impact on your engagement and conversion rates?

“For the last time, kid. I’m the devil. Stop asking me to say ‘hooah.’”

Enter the Devil’s Advocate

But, Theo, you say, any company willing to put “Bye, Felicia” into their marketing assets won’t be taken seriously by the other segments. The company must establish a consistent brand tone and personality, or it will feel duplicitous or too narrow. Wrong. You read that right. Wrong.

Imagine this: One of your prospects sees a display ad that has relevant messaging. After that, she immediately begins scouring the Internet for any messaging from you that might be for another audience—and there it is, in all its irrelevant glory. Though your solution is the right fit for their organization, do you really think they will give their money to your competitor because they’re worried your brand manager has a personality disorder? This world doesn’t exist. It’s nonsense. No one interacts with marketing like this unless they are marketers.

Prospects and customers want you to understand their needs, but those needs vary. Plus, just because you can speak relevantly to one group doesn’t preclude you from also understanding the needs of another group. You can do both.

What if someone from one target segment gets a message intended for another target segment? Marketers always assume prospects are paying such close attention to all the ads and touches they’re being sent. In fact, the opposite is more true—they’re trying to ignore them. Every once in a while, something catches their eye. And I’m willing to bet that shiny object is an example of someone finally speaking their language, not a soulless value proposition aimed at no one.

What’s your choice? Take a chance, and potentially say something relevant to 48 out of 50 people—possibly alienating 2. Or be safe—and ignored by 45.

The reconciliation of brand voice and discourse communities

“What we need to avoid is an originalist translation of your brand voice to strictly guide any word uttered in your collateral.”

Brand guidelines should do just that—guide. But your brand book isn’t gospel. When you stop treating it this way, you see engagement scores go up.

What we have to do is shift our thinking just a tad. Think about it this way—whether you speak to your mother, best friend, or coworker, you’re still you. There are consistencies in your vocabulary and tone, but you make strategic and intentional changes depending on with whom you are speaking. Is your brand doing the same?

This is no different. What we need to avoid is an originalist translation of your brand voice to strictly guide any word uttered in your collateral. Flexibility doesn’t muddy the waters; it turns your waters into a pool party where each of your friends get to do what she wants—one relaxing in the shallows, another having a beer in the shade, a few talking by the grill.

Yes, it will take a meaningful discussion with all the pertinent stakeholders and partners to begin setting up guardrails around who your discourse communities are and how your company will address them. But it’s better than continuously missing the mark with your audience.

Ultimately, relevancy, engagement, and conversion are at stake here. When you try to say the same thing, the same way, to everyone at once, you talk to no body in particular.

Transitionless call to action

If you want to talk more about discourse communities, content plans and maps, brand guidelines, or about how Chronicle of a Death Foretold was more an indictment of groupthink and western religion than the Vicario brothers, drop us a line, and let’s chat.

Intelligent Demand

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