James Duru

November 2023

Creating brand distinction: Leading with voice

Traditionally brands have been led from the top. CEOs, CMOs, Brand Directors have been the ones to call the shots and define the direction and future of the brand. Increasingly though, we’re seeing users, fans and communities around a business and its culture drive it forward, often in unexpected ways.

In this world of decentralised brands - where the role of organisation, marketeer, champion and advocate flip and change - brand voice is one of the most powerful tools in a brand’s arsenal. Helping to build authenticity, relevance and distinctiveness, it can lift a brand from the unremarkable to the unforgettable. It can codify culture, invite audiences into its own world and break down barriers to entry.

With a great voice in its toolkit, language becomes a way to shorten the distance between a brand and its audience. To more deeply engage cultures and subcultures and forge long lasting relationships with them.

It says, “We know you, we get you and we’re one of you. Let’s move forward together.”

That’s easier said than done though. Consumer bullshit metres are tuned to 100 and communities that evolve fast expect brands to move in sync with them. A few out of place words or phrases and the whole thing can come tumbling down.

At DesignStudio, we work hard to understand brands, their communities and cultures through novel and unexpected research. This approach helps us get under their skin in ways that help uncover insights, focus opportunities and spark unexpected creative outcomes.

So how do you nail an authentic and memorable voice? Here are three thought starters on how to use your voice to build powerful connections with your community.

Join the crew

See the Riot Games China case study

Whether it’s esports in China, ride sharing in Latin America or pre-loved fashion in Europe, every business and experience has a community around it. Meet them in their spaces and immerse yourself in their culture.

Uncover their shorthands, in-jokes and lexicon. Learn these patterns and weave them into your voice, have fun and give latitude for the weird, unusual and uncomfortable. Your voice needs some rough with the smooth. You’ll be remembered for it.

Over the course of our five year relationship with Riot Games, we’ve immersed ourselves in gamer culture all around the world. By living and breathing their community, we understand their voice, embrace their use of language and embed that personality in everything the brand has to say.

Look Under Rocks

See the Depop case study

Message boards, scribbled notes inside packaging, emojis in reviews and signs in stadia. Often you need to go deep into a community and spend time there to fully appreciate its use of language. Embrace looking in unexpected places to find the most potent, memorable interactions and conversations within a community.. These are the moments that become the fuel for a voice which steps outside the norm.

Our partnership to rebrand Depop led us deep into the cultures and communities which surround pre-loved fashion. We discovered weird and wonderful language in the profiles and interactions within the community, which danced between emoji-acronyms and expressive short hands of self identification. It was this that helped shape the brand’s strategy, ‘We The Unfollowers’ and its tone and voice.

Strive for vibe not formula

See the TapTap case study

Resist the temptation to create a set of water tight inarguable rules to define brand voice. Language needs to be expressed, not executed.

Your voice needs to shift with culture and the changing motivations of your community. Rigid rules will create a straightjacket of mediocracy which will be instantly forgettable. Instead, aim to capture a vibe and an energy; something which can be taught to your own teams.

For the international gaming community TapTap, we knew that over the top positivity and optimism was key for the brand voice. We also knew that rigid rules would kill the tone. Instead we crafted a set of “vibe checks” to help steer the TapTap team and writers to build a voice bubbling with personality.

These prompts are not definitive, nor are they the only way into the opportunity that voice presents. I hope they illuminate a different way of thinking when it comes to giving verbiage to your brand, community and experience. Remain open to finding your voice in novel ways and in unexpected places because it’s never been more interesting to use voice to stand out, to unite communities, represent culture or to see its impact in creative expression.