The difference between brand message, voice and tone

Do you write postcards for your university? What about emails? Event scripts?

If you’re a marketing VP or director and you’re looking to gain brand traction, you know every communication is an opportunity to build brand equity. If you’re an enrollment manager, you know the damage inconsistent communication does. If you're in public relations, you understand how valuable a consistent message is for good pitching and media relations.

The concepts of brand message, voice and tone are essential for anyone who writes for a university brand, which is everybody. 

Here’s a quick review of brand message, voice and tone: 

Your brand message is what your brand has to say.

You can’t make up your brand message as you go along, and you can’t change it every few years either. Your brand message has to be:

  • Engaging: Your prospective students won’t pay attention to you because you’re prestigious; you have to give them a reason to care. Make sure your brand is so good they can’t help but notice it.
  • Relevant: Your message must be important to your prospective students. If you’re pitching paleontologist degrees and there are no paleontologist jobs in town, your message won’t land.   
  • True: I cannot stress this enough: Ground your message strategy in truth. Your university must deliver the fundamental promise of your brand.

This isn’t stuff you can just wing it on. You need to understand your brand backward and forward to deliver on something engaging, relevant and true. Engaging with a consulting resource that can do market research, marketing strategy and marketing planning is an essential part of the process. D. White & Company can help you develop your brand's voice. 

Your brand voice is the general conception of what your brand sounds like.

Your brand voice should be confident, strong, unwavering and consistent. Imagine a friend who changed his or her voice every time they called you on the phone. You might … have, um,  reservations about that person.

We discussed brand message first because a clear brand message helps develop a strong brand voice. Consistent messaging does much heavy lifting for brand voice, but you still have to take the time to clearly identify how your brand sounds.

With much credit to Kate Kiefer Lee, who pioneered much of the modern web’s understanding of voice and tone, I found these rubrics helpful to create parameters for a strong, consistent brand voice. For example, your brand may be:

  • Smart, not stuffy
  • Irreverent, not inappropriate
  • Inclusive, not exclusive
  • Classic, but not traditional
  • Listening, not lecturing

These rubrics are especially important when you are training others on how to write in brand voice or holding training sessions (You need to be doing that, too, by the way).   

Your brand tone is how your brand uses its voice to communicate its message.

Think of your brand tone as the difference between how you speak to your spouse at a nice dinner versus how you might cheer for your favorite team at a game. You’re still the same ol’ you, and you have the same voice, but you’ve (hopefully) distinguished the appropriateness of both situations and pitched your tone accordingly. The same is true for your brand’s tone. You wouldn’t write an acceptance letter the way you would write a denial letter, right? Please, don't do that.

The key to good brand tone is empathy. You have to put yourself in your reader’s shoes, but, even more so, you have to feel what they might feel. Take time to review your audience before writing brand material (so, everything you write) and consider:

  • Who will read it
  • What else might be on their minds
  • What they might feel when they read it
  • How they might feel after reading it
  • Who else might read it

Here are two essential tips for nailing brand message and tone. First, always read your work out loud. Yes, yes, I know this might seem like it’s a bit strange, but take the time catch any underlying rhythms or tones that someone else might pick up on. Second, have someone else read it. I can't stress the importance of good editing. Find someone you trust and become editing pals. 

And here’s an interesting fact: Students don’t care what office any piece of communication came from. To them, it’s all just one big institution. So, if you’ve mastered these concepts, it’s time to take the show on the road and educate your campus community on how to be brand masters. It's hard work, but I promise you it’s worth the effort.

D. White & Company helps colleges and universities define their brand message, voice and tone, and holds training workshops on how to successfully implement them. Let’s connect and talk about how we can develop your brand’s resonance.