Nothing hits you harder than watching your favorite brands go from funny and hilarious to serious and sometimes even boring on social.
This was a realization I hit a few weeks ago, while following up on a brand I dearly loved for their wit and humour, when discussing their products. Now they talk about their products like every other sales development rep in my LinkedIn inbox.
“But why?” is a question that I’ve been grappling with, and after a lot of reflection and digging, I have some answers
Let’s be honest—no one really thought about brand voice for the early years brands existed on social media. It was a mixture of marketing and testing (still is, honestly!) and just showcasing the products and services you had while being in the moment. Starbucks started out just posting pictures of coffees from their customers, and Levi’s had blurry images of customers looking at jeans in-store.
Now, we’ve exacted social media marketing into a science, with goals, metrics, content plans, and scheduling platforms—all very good things, don’t get me wrong, but it has absolutely killed how brands communicate, in different stages of their existence on social media channels. Social media managers are fed the idea of a posting cadence, a structured design, and insta-grid posts (oops, aren’t these out of trend now?) to maximize “growth” and “engage audiences.”
Take one of the best brands on my radar: Ecosia. What made their content hit right was the unpolished, raw images from their projects across the world—no design, no fluff, just facts. The brand voice was casual, even funny at times, but never far from their core service: planting trees through browser searches.
But take a look at them now and you’ll see a more designed, careful approach, and the brand voice has undergone a subtle change to a more serious, less humorous tone.
My own tone here might suggest disappointment—and I’ll be honest, I miss the memes—but at the same time, this is the consequence of becoming a bigger brand, having an even wider reach while being in a space full of impact.
And this is a theme that seems to follow every single brand: the bigger you get, the more serious your tone gets. There could be several reasons for that.
One of the best parts of doing an MBA was learning about all the different startups that were cropping up across Europe and North America, and the incredible VCs funding them—and altering their brand voices permanently.
Investors and stakeholders play a really big role in how and what brands communicate, especially since many of them now pay close attention to a brand’s engagement on social. Part of accepting the bag means accepting that the brand has to “grow up”: it has to match the industry vibe and get to grips with the involvement of people beyond the founder(s).
Companies wanting to woo an investor have to be doubly careful to not come across as callous and overly-playful, so brand voice adapts to attract the “right” investors with deep pockets.
Nothing will switch brand voice faster than crisis comms.
Had a slip up? The internet will be sure to remind you of it til the end of time. Pepsi is still dealing with the fallout from that god-awful commercial starring Kendall Jenner a few years ago.
Some brands will fold under the pressure and end up changing how they communicate with their customers under the fear of being held accountable/heavily scrutinized yet again. And quite honestly, I can’t blame them; it’s a terrifying world to be alive in as a social media manager with everyone feeling they could do your job better, could have spotted the mistake sooner, or would never have made a mistake to begin with, so you’d rather communicate in a stingy, straightforward way where things can’t be misinterpreted.
As a social media manager myself for a slightly bigger brand, I can honestly say that I do take the time to double check the news, read the room, and decide if the post I have to send out today is truly worthy of air time.
Anything that could remotely cause controversy goes through PR.
This is probably one of the biggest reasons why: Social advocacy is becoming more popular, and a big part of pushing that initial engagement and impressions on posts is getting your employees involved—an excellent idea in theory, but the consequence is the brand voice tends to become more inward-looking, talking about the brand as if it were already known far and wide (especially for smaller brands) and mirroring the internal communications.
Sure, Gary from accounting loves that you used an inside joke on an external channel, but your customer has no clue what you mean and looks more confused than convinced. There is definitely a fine balance that has to be struck, and finding that can be really hard.
Some brands need it; their target audiences can change rapidly, and so should their tone to keep pace, build trust and communicate the value they provide. But some brands really don’t need it—they become constrained by fear, influenced by investors, employees, and even competitors at times.
But let’s take a step back and look at the reality of the social world right now: it’s fast, the focus shifts from “Little Miss” memes to climate change advocacy in the blink of an eye, audiences expect humor and excellence in under 280 characters, customers want beautifully-designed visuals but also unposed, candid pictures, and your mom will pretty much never understand what you do for a living (but supports you anyway).
Considering all the above, brand voice is bound to change—sometimes for the better, sometimes just to test the waters. When you, as a social media manager or marketer, realize that your social channels aren’t performing as well, ditch the metrics and “share of voice” for a minute and look at your brand voice.
Brand voice changes are here to stay, much like Instagram pivoting to video, and we just have to keep on top of it by firmly placing it within the social media audit cycle. Really examine whether your brand is communicating the values it’s built on, and be ready to go on an adventure in adjusting the voice once more.
Shwathi Srinivasan @shwathi.srinivasan
Hi there! I’m Swati, a social media manager by day, serial snacker all the time. Let’s talk social media ideation, creation and strategy. (And bring snacks)