The Importance of a Strong Brand Voice
By Chris Warren
A television commercial that premiered this month for the Atlanta-based pest control company Orkin had an unusual genesis. In the spot, the company's iconic Orkin Man makes a house call and is greeted by a woman who doses him with hand sanitizer before allowing him through the front door. Once inside, the Orkin Man encounters an immaculate home: The furniture is gleaming white, everything in the cabinets is packed neatly in Tupperware. "She can't understand how pests can get in the home when there are no germs or dust or anything," says Kevin Smith, the CMO at Rollins, Inc., the parent company of Orkin.
The Orkin Man assures the woman that, based on his knowledge of science, he can rid the home of pests. As the spot closes, the Orkin Man leans on a counter, earning a dirty look from the homeowner. The idea for the campaign, which includes the "Neat Freak" ad, didn't originate in an agency, but was the result of an actual story one of the company's service technicians related to the marketing team. This was no coincidence: Orkin's marketers routinely do ride-alongs with the 3,800-plus technicians who interact with customers every day.
Those interactions are a key tool in refining and consistently portraying Orkin's brand voice, which Smith describes as straightforward, highly informed, and down-to-earth. "It's presented by the Orkin Man, a trustworthy, unflappable problem-solver whose expertise is backed by science," he says.
Orkin's need to have a strong and consistent brand voice for all of its marketing efforts is particularly pressing. The company estimates its competition includes at least 19,000 competitors, many of them small pest-control businesses. "Being able to stand out in a sea of people doing the same work is really difficult," Smith says.
In other ways, Orkin's challenge is the same faced by all brands. Having a brand voice that makes a distinctly strong impression across a fragmented media and communications landscape is arguably as difficult and important as it has ever been. "Because you are speaking with consumers across so many different channels, if you don't have clarity and consistency, your message can be confused with some other advertiser's message," says Susan Cantor, CEO of Red Peak, a New York–based brand strategy and design agency, whose clients include Intel and the electronics company Acer, Inc.
Know Your Brand and Your Customer
In her work helping brands develop their voice, Katie Hooper always emphasizes that simple is better than complex. "Marketers tend to dramatically over-complicate their approach to a lot of projects," says Hooper, VP of strategy and the managing director of the Baltimore office at HZDG, an integrated creative agency headquartered in Rockville, Md. That is why Hooper's process for developing a strong brand voice has two essential ingredients: Deep-dive investigations into the brand's DNA and a clear understanding of its target customers. For brand research, Hooper and her colleagues interview company executives and employees. "We engage them in human conversations," she says. "They talk to us about what they're most proud of when they're at work. We try to emotionally understand their experiences and identify the unique aspects of the brand."
A better understanding of target customers can be gleaned through interviewing potential consumers and poring through secondary research about the marketplace and the perception of the brand in it. Combining insights about the brand's DNA and what the customer wants and needs provides plenty of fodder for developing a distinct brand voice. For example, Hooper and HZDG have worked extensively with the company Next Day Blinds, a manufacturer of blinds, shades, and shutters. In visiting the Next Day Blinds factory and talking to employees, it became clear that this was a brand that prides itself on its craftsmanship. "You walk through the factory and you see Band-Aids on a lot of fingers because they do so much by hand," Hooper says.
By contrast, Hooper learned that Next Day Blinds' target audience didn't share that same passion and looked at the purchase of home décor as not much more than a pain point or afterthought. So to develop the brand voice — meaning not just language, but images and icons and photography — the challenge was to evoke an emotional response in the company's target audience. That starts with a redefinition of what a purchase of blinds or shutters really represents; instead of a pain point, it's part of the celebration of major life milestones, like a marriage or first home purchase or children going off to college. "All these key milestones in life are celebratory moments and we felt we could insert our product in there," Hooper says.
But in doing so, the brand voice had to evoke what was unique about the company's philosophy of craftsmanship. Surprisingly enough, the inspiration for the brand voice was the local food movement. "The way we articulate the passion of Next Day Blinds to our target customer is that we are the farm-to-table of home décor. That was an understandable construct people could understand," Hooper says. "When I talk about a disruptive way to characterize the brand voice, that is what I talk about. You understand farm-to-table and how you draw the line if you care about healthy good food made with passion. Maybe you should care about this as it relates to home décor."
Ensuring a Consistent Voice
Developing a distinctive brand voice is meaningless if it's not translated consistently across social media, advertising, and every other marketing channel. To do that requires a written guideline or manifesto and plenty of training. Simplicity is key. "It has to be simple guidelines with dos and don'ts and lots of examples," says Stewart Devlin, chief creative officer at Red Peak. "You have to have a number of pointers so that when people do write about the brand or use visuals it's easy to judge if they're on-brand or off." Training and an easy-to-understand manifesto are particularly important when a company is global and many different employees and agencies will be delivering messaging in the brand's voice.
Ensuring brand voice consistency can also mean focusing on easy-to-overlook details. For example, Red Peak worked with Intel to develop its own proprietary font. The motivations for changing the font included a desire to make it easier to read on mobile devices and less robotic looking. But it also was a way to communicate consistently across a wide range of languages. The font Intel had been using was only available in the 26-character Latin alphabet, which meant that a different font was needed for marketing materials in Chinese, Arabic, and Russian. Changing the font meant visually communicating with a single brand voice.
For its part, Orkin has a number of tools to help it make sure that its brand voice remains consistent. Because the company works with a variety of agencies that develop materials for the brand, Orkin has a content council that meets every quarter to review all of the content produced. "If we have something new, that allows us to put a filter on it," Smith says. The company also has a brand standards manual. Not surprisingly, it is largely devoted to the behavior and actions of one guy. "It's a manual for what the Orkin Man can do, how to handle humor, and how he should talk," Smith says. "We talk about how to make him approachable and what he can say and do, and that's all based on what we observe with our actual Orkin men and women in the field."
Photo credit: Courtesy of Rollins Inc.
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