How to develop a brand voice with examples

When it comes to brand communication for schools and universities, marketing teams will often focus on visuals. What is often overlooked is the brand voice. How your institution sounds and appears online and what considerations have been made to make sure it cuts through the digital hum.

Even if brand voice isn't a term you're used to hearing, you will certainly have seen it in action. A private institution with a focus on training high end hospitality graduates will talk much differently to a distanced learning university appealing to (mostly) mature part-time students.

While many organizations inside and outside the higher education sector get along fine without a defined brand voice, you can do so much more in marketing with one.

Below are five things to keep in mind when developing your own.‍

5 Tips for developing your brand voice

Brand voice is important if you want your school to be instantly recognizable online. Regardless of whether the first point of contact is through an online ad, social media post, your website or newsletter blast, the voice that speaks to a potential student should be distinctive and on-message.

1. Create documentation

In the same way your social media strategy needs to be visible and understandable for all members of your team, so does your brand voice.

Single person marketing teams may find it unnecessary to create formal documentation for a voice they know inside out. However, bringing something as intangible as a brand voice down to the ground level in this way makes things much clearer for any potential new team members, top management or to justify certain communication decisions.

Your brand voice document should open with what your school or university stands for; it's mission statement to the world. This will be the top of the umbrella all other communication will sit under. You should be able to identify a few personality traits in this statement already. If you can't find any or your mission statement is too generic, it's definitely worth rewriting it before going any further with your brand voice.

As well as personality traits, your brand voice documentation shouldalso include:

  • Common vocabulary
  • Brand phrases
  • Examples (lots of them)

It is important to be as clear as possible about how your communications should sound. Do this by providing each new guideline with concrete examples. These are not examples found elsewhere, but ones you create yourself to showcase the guideline in question.

2. Audit your current voice

If you want to know how you can improve your brand voice, first take stock and look at your current voice in detail. Consider making a spreadsheet of the most commonly used words and phrases in your copy.

With your website copy for example, take the text of your target page and paste it into a Word document. Then use the search function to see how many times a certain word is used. If there is frequent use of words you feel are converting, be sure to include them in your documentation. Likewise, if overused words like 'passion' or 'future-ready' keep popping up, it's likely your brand voice is lacking some cutting edge. Collect a few examples from each of your online channels to get a really clear picture of what your current brand voice sounds like.

Have you found your brand voice is inconsistent? This could be because multiple writers are contributing to online communications, or you're trying to talk in the voice you think your audience wants to hear. It is always better to make decisions based on data (regardless of how small the numbers may be). Take a look at your top performing social media posts and newsletter texts. Identify any brand personality traits, word usage,branded hashtags, or copy length they have in common.

Performing both these tasks will give you an excellent snapshot of what your brand voice is right now. It's also a great way to identify key words to build upon or discontinue. From here you can begin brainstorming more brand personality traits you want to establish.

3. Develop marketing personas

One of the most popular ways to develop a brand voice is through marketing personas. A marketing persona is a one-page document detailing the specifics and general character traits of your ideal student by study level;interests, social media platforms, aspirations, concerns, income (or parental income), and so on.

By having a clear idea of who you want to talk to by channel, you will have a much more fluent way of talking to them in your communications. As you build out your audience personas, make a note of common words and terms you want to adopt as a brand.

Keep in mind that in further education and higher education especially we should be careful not to talk down to younger audiences or try too hard to sound like them. After all an educational institution or digital platform needs to convey a certain level of trustworthiness. Jumping on social media trends for engagement is acceptable if done well, but it requires timing, relevancy to your product and tact.

Top tip: Don't try to maximize opportunities outside your main business. Social media trends are like busses, there will be another one along before you know it.

4. Know your tone

How is this different from voice? Your brand voice is what you want to say, and your tone is how you say it. This should be made very clear in your brand voice guide.

Your tone should vary by audience and scenario. For example, responding via social media to a disgruntled student who missed out on course registration will have a different tone to announcing a new program offer on your website. However, both should be done with the same distinct voice.

5. Review and adapt

Developing a brand voice is not a one-time effort. It should be reviewed and refined at designated times, such as once a year or during major branding overhauls, and during major events that significantly alter your company’s marketing strategy. Language evolves and the words you used five years ago might not be en vogue today. Without a consistent check in on your brand voice, you risk sounding out of date or out of touch with current events.

Your brand voice guide should be an ever-evolving document. Set time aside once per year to fully audit your brand voice, make the necessary changes and communicate the new version to your wider team. Of course if there are any significant changes to your marketing strategy, product, programs or institution, the brand voice guide should be altered accordingly. Also take into consideration that language itself is constantly adapted and repurposed by each new generation. Be sure to keep tabs on what words are out of date or no longer authentic to your brand.

Examples of higher education brand voice guides

Creating a plan to improve your brand voice is the easy part, but what does a brand voice guide actually look like for higher and further education? Here are four institutions you can look at for inspiration.

University College London

University of Dundee

College of Lake County, Illinois

University of Guelph

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