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Chapter 3: Reverse Engineering your Brand Voice

Chapter 3: Reverse Engineering your Brand Voice

What you’ll learn: In this chapter, you’ll learn how to give your brand a personality that cuts through the noise, connects with your buyer personas, and leverages their pre-existing opinions.

“Writers acquire their technique by spotting, savoring, and reverse-engineering examples of good prose.”
– Steven Pinker

The year is 2002 and pre-Batman Ben Affleck thinks that he’s reached the high point in his career. He’s starring in a movie called Paycheck. In it, Batffleck was hired by companies to research competitors’ products. But he wouldn’t just research them, he’d take them apart, examine them, and figure out how his client could make a product that was just as good, if not better. This process is called reverse engineering.

The first step in reverse engineering is getting your hand on the product. Imagine that you get a can opener to reverse engineer. Now your job is to examine the can opener and understand it. You use it to see how the components work together. You take it apart and see how each piece was made. After doing this, you have a rough idea of what the product is and how you could build it.

The next step is seeing how the can opener interacts with other products. Can it open every size can? Does it double as a bottle opener? Looking at this will give you a better understanding of the potential uses of it and whether or not it’s compatible with existing products.

Finally, you need to envision the effect this product will have on users. How will they use it in their daily life? What benefits will it give them? How will they feel toward that product? Is it the type of product that they’re going to use for a short time and then throw away or is it something that they’ll give maintenance and care to?

After these steps, you have an understanding of what the product does, how it works, and the effect it has on users. You can also see the skills and components you’ll need to acquire to build the product. This is the beautiful thing about reverse engineering, you start with a complete product and work your way backward. There’s no time wasted tweaking and testing. There’s none of the frustration involved in creating it from scratch.

The interesting thing is that reverse engineering doesn’t just work with physical products. It can also be applied to the way that we market our brand. It can help you create your own brand voice.

In this chapter, you’ll work on imagining your final brand voice. Thinking about its key qualities and how it will affect users will make different details about your brand voice clear. This will save you from wasting endless hours experimenting and tweaking. It’s a better way to create your brand voice.

Frankenstein Your Brand

“Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful.”
– Frankenstein

If giving your brand a voice seems weird to you, then hold on, it’s about to get freaky.

To reverse engineer your brand voice, we need to turn your brand into a living person. Just think about this question for a second. If your brand were a person, who would they be? Try describing them. The answer will push your brand voice to the next level in terms of realism and completeness.

Reverse engineering requires you to look at a completed product and then work your way backward. When you imagine your brand as a person, it’s easier to understand and makes sense to you. This gives you a clearer vision of what your brand’s voice will sound like.

In marketing, the term for this persona is a “brand avatar.” Let’s explain it this way, in Paycheck, Ben Affleck played the role of a reverse engineer. Now his character in that movie wasn’t a real person, it was a made up character (sorry to shock you). That character was invented by a writer. The writer made up the character’s personality, how they’d dress, their actions, and how those actions would reflect their personality. They made a character that would have the audience’s support. One that would make them say, “I’d do that same thing”. Because by having that strong lead, a single character everybody can support, moviegoers enjoy the film more.

Making a brand avatar is just like creating a character (think of Mr. Clean or Smokey the Bear). But instead of titillating moviegoers, your goal is to embody your brand’s core values. This means that if your brand is known for reliability, the way that your brand avatar communicates and acts should reflect it. If your brand is known for innovation, then your brand avatar should act and speak in the same way that an innovative person would.

Your brand avatar should also care about what your brand cares about. For example, if your brand is focused on finding environmentally-friendly processes for doing its work, then your brand avatar should also care about the environment. This avatar will essentially become your brand. Once you’ve created it, you can start to reverse engineer it.

The Line-Up of Common Brand Avatars

“While most large brands engage in social media today, many find themselves overwhelmed by the number of conversations taking place without proper resources, training, or tools. Brands manage an average of 178 social media accounts.”

You might be having trouble imagining a brand avatar. But, don’t worry. This section will review some common brand avatars and how they fit into different industries. Hopefully, you’ll get the spark of inspiration that you need.

I define my brand avatars by choosing a profession or archetype. Generally, it’s one that represents your brand avatar’s communication style and that your buyer personas already look up to. For example, if your target market looks up to scientists, then you might create a brand avatar based on a scientist. This brand avatar will focus on the wonders of scientific discovery in a way that you already know is appealing to your target market.

Now, we’ll look at different professions that are commonly used as brand voices. Check out their top qualities and see if any of them line up with your brand.

The Evangelist

Real-world example: Oprah
Top qualities: Cares about your well-being, is looking for ways to turn traditional methods upside down, practices what it preaches
Example company: Dailyburn
Communication style: Passionate, excited, loves to hear and share customer stories, focuses on creating change
What companies can use it: Any company whose focus is getting consumers to adopt a better lifestyle or way of doing things

When I talk about an “evangelist,” I don’t mean somebody miraculously healing people on stage with a headset microphone. I mean someone who tries to bring people around to a new way of thinking or acting. Oprah is a great example of this, she brings new ideas to her fan base to help them achieve a better lifestyle.

Brands that adopt the “evangelist” avatar try to bring consumers around to a new lifestyle. For example, a service like Dailyburn might adopt the evangelist avatar. They help people maintain a routine of exercising everyday. They want their customers to lose weight and achieve their fitness goals. Dailyburn has to motivate people by showing them that using their service will make their lives better.

Thinking of a real-world evangelist, like Oprah, will help these brands decide how to communicate. For example, Oprah cares about her fans and about their happiness. She listens to, reasons with, and sets goals for them. Then she gives ongoing support and reminders. Any business that works in fitness, health, or lifestyle would do well to adopt this same voice.

The Tech Guru

Real-world example: Steve Jobs
Top qualities: Pushes the envelope, integrates itself into consumers’ daily life, is focused on the future
Example company: Google
Communication style: Logical, practical, uses comparisons and use cases to describe products, has a dual focus on tech design and user benefits
What companies can use it: Tech and software companies, obviously

When I talk about a “tech guru,” I don’t mean the nerdy guy selling chairs at OfficeMax. Instead, I’m thinking of someone at the forefront of their field. For example, Steve Jobs was a great “tech guru.” He wanted to push technology to its limit and was looking 10 or 20 years into the future. Because of that attitude, and because of the way that Apple communicates, they’ve acquired and maintained a very loyal customer base.

Companies that use this avatar, will generally work in hardware or software, but some might use technology as the engine to drive real-world services (e.g., Amazon). Google is a great example of a company that uses the “tech guru” avatar. They focus on providing better solutions and testing products and ideas that are years ahead of their time. The way that they communicate their value is by focusing on integrating your digital life and the benefits users will receive.

The Sidekick

Real-worldish example: Robin of Batman and Robin
Top qualities: Makes your life easy, is there when you need them, never takes over, helps you achieve your goals
Example company: MyFitnessPal
Communication style: Gentle motivation, guidance, suggestions, here to help
What companies can use it: Companies that provide consumers with on-going support

Who wouldn’t like to have a sidekick? If it weren’t for Robin, Batman would’ve died in the 60’s. If it weren’t for personal assistants, executives would be unorganized, uncaffeinated, and underperforming. The “sidekick” avatar is the perfect choice for brands that support consumers without taking over.

Think of our example company, MyFitnessPal. You’ve probably had this app on your phone while you tried to shed a few pounds. The key is that MyFitnessPal, doesn’t tell you what to eat or how to work out, instead it gives you reminders, helps you track your weight loss/fitness goals, and simplifies food journalling. It’s always there when you need it to be.

When this avatar communicates, it focuses on what it will help you do and not what it will do for you. It wants the customer to always feel like the one achieving the goal. They talk about how your life will be streamlined using their product or service. This endears the brand to the customer and makes them appreciate it more.

The Consultant

Real-world example: Gordon Ramsay (minus the anger)
Top qualities: Excellent listening skills, focused on innovative solutions, wants to take away the customer’s problems
Example company: Web design firm
Communication style: Wants to learn about you, offers alternatives instead of roadblocks, puts a priority on adaptation
What companies can use it: This avatar is great for brands that provide custom services/products, or that are actually consulting firms

We all know what a consultant does; they go into a business, find ways to improve it or achieve a specific goal, and then help the business to change. Gordon Ramsay’s show, Hell’s Kitchen, gives us a rough idea of what a consultant does too. Except, we don’t want to be as angry as he is.

A great company for this avatar is a web design firm. The successful design firms don’t just provide one website for all of their customers. Instead, they listen to their clients to understand their needs and challenges. Then they dream up a design that fits those needs. They communicate this value to customers by sharing case studies, personal stories, and advice with their target market.

If your business provides custom work, whether it’s software, video, design, writing, or actual honest-to-goodness consulting, then this might be the brand avatar for you. It’s the one that I personally use for my writing business and it’s worked great so far.

The Professor

Real-world example: Bill Nye “The Science Guy”
Top qualities: Wants you to learn and improve, is a good teacher, stays aware of the customers’ knowledge level, performs its own research and shares the results
Example company: Google Adwords
Communication style: Shares lessons through stories, relies on statistics and research, offers encouragement and reminders
What companies can use it: Companies that provide tools that help you work at a higher level and educational companies

The professor, is easily illustrated by one of my favorite childhood TV personalities: Bill Nye. Now, even though he’s a Pluto-killer, he’s also a great teacher. On his show, he didn’t just tell you the facts so that you could memorize them. He made you figure them out for yourself too, he’d show experiments, ask questions, and tell you to try them out for yourself. Brands that choose the professor avatar should do the same.

If you’ve used Google Adwords, then you know it’s an advertising platform, but it’s also a nice representation of the Professor. The site isn’t just a form where you enter in your ad text and keywords, it contains guides, research tools, and whenever you stray off course a helpful reminder pops up. Google will also have a training call (great example of an all-encompassing brand voice) with you to explain best practices and help you improve the ads that you’ve already set up.

The Professor might be right for you if you help users to achieve their goals without taking over the process for them. Software companies and online platforms that provide users with tools might want to adopt this avatar. Educational companies could also use this avatar very effectively.

The Provider

Real-world example: Whoever raised you
Top qualities: Reliable, hardworking, won’t leave you in the lurch
Example company: FedEx
Communication style: Focuses on quality instead of competing on price, wants you to know that it will always be there, shares stories of how it supports customers
What companies can use it: This is perfect for companies that provide necessary products/services in crowded markets.

The Provider is the one who puts food on the table, covers your basic needs, and doesn’t need a “thank you”. They’re just doing their job. They’re hardworking and reliable. Maybe this brings to mind a family member or friend that was always there when you needed them.

A good example of this brand avatar is FedEx. They provide a basic service that everyone needs, and they’re up against serious competition. To stay relevant, they can’t just compete on price or speed, so they add in their own variable. They focus on their reliability, the care they put into their work, and the effect that it has on their customers’ lives. They show their fleet of well-maintained trucks and paint a picture of a carefully prepared package being lovingly shipped to an expectant family member on the other side of the country. This shows that they’re there to support you when you need it.

The Provider is a great avatar for businesses that provide necessary services that the consumer can’t or doesn’t want to do themselves. This could range from a coffee shop that always has breakfast ready to a bolt manufacturer. There are lots of coffee shops and bolt manufacturers, but when you apply a voice that makes your brand seem more reliable, caring, or quality-focused than the competition you’ll rise above the crowded sea of competitors.

The Artist

Real-world example: Claude Monet (AKA the water lily guy)
Top qualities: Is excited about pushing limits, has their own style, wants the best quality materials, wants to excite their customers
Example company: Field Notes
Communication style: Passionate, connects products with meaningful emotions, focuses on the details that make their product unique
What companies can use it: Companies that create products for beauty and utility

The artist is the guy you go to for something new, fun, or beautiful. To them, a product or service isn’t about efficiency or profitability, it’s about creating something that’s really amazing. They want people to react, generally in a positive way, to their work. Our real-world example for this brand avatar is Claude Monet. We know him as the impressionist artist who painted hundreds of paintings of water lillies. Why did he do that? He was experimenting because he wanted to capture the light on the water in the most compelling way. If he felt like his paintings weren’t good enough, he preferred destroying them to putting sub-par work on display. He is the stereotypical artist.

One brand with a similar style and brand avatar is Field Notes. They make little pocket-sized notebooks, but it’s not just that. Each special edition requires thousands of hours of design. They use complex, and at times convoluted, processes to achieve the look they want. When they release it, they tell the story of the work they put into it, the materials used, and what inspired them. This resonates with people and helps them to view the products as unique, collectible pieces of art.

If your brand offers products with an artistic touch, then this avatar might be for you. It’s also perfect for restaurants that take an experimental or quality-based approach to their menu. They can use this brand avatar to highlight their motivation, ingredients, and techniques. This can be a big draw for customers who want to experience something unique.

Which Avatar Is for You?

“Since people trust other people more than they do brands, all you have to do is make your brand seem a little bit more like a person—you have to humanize your brand.”
– Jayson DeMers

Maybe one of these avatars jumped out at you. If so, try tweaking it to fit your business.

But, you don’t have to take this approach. A brand voice is all about highlighting what makes you unique. Creating your own brand avatar will help capture your company’s individuality and make it more appealing to your customers.

To create your own brand avatar, let’s do a little exercise. Get a piece of paper and write out exactly what your company does (what product and to which customers). Which profession or societal role best describes what they do? Is your company an artist, consultant, or something new?

Next, we need to determine what qualities leaders in your industry would have. For instance, what would clients expect from a top consultant? Maybe someone who’s confident in their solutions, an excellent listener, able to rally people behind new initiatives, and always positive in their search for the solution. How would this consultant talk with their clients? How do they make their customers feel? And finally, what benefits does a consultant provide to its customers?

I don’t want to shock you, but if you actually got out a piece of paper and wrote down your answers, then you have a brand avatar. You know the profession, qualities, communication style, and benefits that your brand exemplifies. You’ve successfully reverse engineered your brand voice!

But, the work isn’t over quite yet. There’s a lot of little details involved in a brand voice. In the next chapter, we’ll figure those details out together.

Revenge of the Enzo

Enzo takes all of his research and starts thinking about an avatar for his accounting firm. He wants to choose a communication style that his buyer personas are already used to and like.

He looks at the different options and decides that the provider is the right avatar for him. He chooses it because his firm:

  • Provides an ongoing service that his clients don’t want to worry about.
  • Wants clients to feel like they can rely on his business whenever they have an accounting need.
  • Offers a better quality solution than accounting “chains” or smaller firms.

Using the table for the Provider avatar, he finds a few details about its communication style.  He knows competition is stiff, but he’ll be able to stand out once he finishes his brand voice.

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