If you’ve been writing fiction for more than ten minutes, (you have, right?) you’ll be familiar with the concept of voice - the idea that, to get noticed, every writer needs a distinctive way of writing and telling a story. As an alumnus of Undiscovered Voices, I probably have a certain amount of form in this area. A more recent (but no less pervasive) idea is the concept that an individual author can be seen as a brand in the marketplace, and be marketed as such. At face value, it’s tempting to want to separate the two, to see it as case of art vs. commerce. But actually, voice and brand are closely linked.
When a reader picks up a book with your name on it, they will already have formed an idea of the content. This comes from several places – the cover, placement in the shop, reviews, online chatter, advertising (if you’re lucky enough to get some) and previous books. Then, they will most likely open the book and read the first page or so. This is where voice is vital – it must reinforce the impression they have gathered from the supporting material, but also surprise the reader in some way. The amount of surprise it needs to generate depends on the author brand you have built up and the kind of books you write. A reader opening up a Maeve Binchy novel would expect a very different experience to someone with a David Mitchell book, for instance.
But now I’ve discovered that it isn’t just flesh-and-blood writers who need their own distinctive voice. Every brand does.
For the last month or so, I’ve been working in the marketing department of a major UK consumer brand and, contrary to my expectations, I’m really enjoying it. Although it isn’t a publisher, I’m starting to gain more sympathy for those sales and marketing people who I may previously have cast as the bad guys. I’m also discovering the delicacy of writing needed for brand communication. People expect to be talked to in a certain way by the brands they’ve come to trust, and that style needs to be maintained across TV adverts, print and online. If I need to write a bit of text for a brand website, I have to consider the audience for that material and the tone that the brand adopts. I also have to consider economy, because nowhere is economy of writing more important than in marketing. Never say in twenty words what you can in five!
A brand voice is not very different to an authorial voice. Except it doesn’t come from one person, but hundreds. Luckily, I have a brand department who will check anything I write and approve it, so I don’t have to worry that I’ll type something inappropriate that will become a cause célèbre on Twitter. Yep, just like writers, companies monitor everything that’s said about their brand on social media and react accordingly.
Brand voice has a huge effect on how we react as consumers. I noticed a card on the doormat from the Royal Mail about an undelivered parcel. Previously, these cards had a very utilitarian bit of text as a title, the kind of gruff statement that implied it was my fault for being out when the postman knocked. But now it has three friendly words at the top: “Something For You.” With those three words, the Royal Mail are changing the way they communicate with me as a brand, emphasising that their job is actually to bring me nice surprises rather than junk mail. I’m already feeling better about that long walk to the sorting office.