If you’ve kept up on The Lexicon Gazette, YOU ALREADY KNOW
I am a challenging person to watch movies with.
I whisper loud questions during action sequences.
I yell warnings to the characters when they’re in danger. (To date, I have saved exactly none of them.)
And worst of all? I’m a pause-splainer.
The minute that the plot starts to drift away from what actually happened, the remote will materialize in my hand and I’ll bring the movie to a screeching halt so I can explain, “ACTUALLY, she only ALLEGEDLY had an affair with the count, and that rumor was almost certainly started as propaganda to justify her later execution,” while my poor husband downs another fistful of popcorn and tries his best to look interested.
On a probably related note, I am rarely allowed to be in charge of the remote in my house.
I can’t contain myself. When a story is based off a real person or (god forbid) a BOOK I’ve loved for years, it makes me itchy when a filmmaker decides to start taking liberties with its main character.
So, the first time that a client told me, “I just feel like it doesn’t sound like me. I’ve never said that in my life. ” I bit my lip and nodded sympathetically. I get it.
If you’re the main character in your brand’s story — shouldn’t every word of your copy sound like you wrote it yourself?
Well, no. Your copy may not always sound like you, and there’s a strategic reason for that.
Brands are cohesive and dependable. Humans are messy.
As entrepreneurs we’re told that our business should come FROM us. We can’t take a single step into our inbox without bumping into somebody reminding us,
”Show the HUMAN behind the brand.”
“Let your personality shine through in your marketing!”
“Remember that YOU are your business' major selling point.”
They aren’t necessarily wrong. Any brand aspiring to form a long-term relationship with its audience needs to be built from something that’s real.
But it can’t be TOO real.
As consumers, we are a paradoxical mess.
We want the brands we buy from to FEEL human, but we don’t really want them to BE human. We’re delighted when Target makes us feel like we’ve just walked into Joanna Gaines’ living room, but we would feel zero sympathy if our throw pillow fell apart because the manufacturer took a mental health day.
We don’t have the luxury of building brands that represent our raw, unfiltered, multi-faceted, messy selves. Instead, we do a tricky dance of using our humanity strategically.
Just like a filmmaker will (annoyingly) take the facts of someone’s life and massage them into the version of the story that will draw the biggest crowds to the box office, your brand personality uses your identity as source material. Then it amplifies and builds off the parts of you that are most likely to connect with your ideal audience.
We crave humanity in marketing, but demand perfection from our investments.
All brand voices are designed. Even the personal ones.
Martha Stewart doesn’t only speak in comforting quips about decor.
Goop doesn’t sound remotely like Gwyneth Paltrow.
Even Bill Nye carefully chooses a version of his intellect that we can all understand.
This isn’t an entirely a marketing construct. Every human has more than one mode of communication.
It's called code switching. The way you talk to your toddler isn’t the same way you talk to your employee. And you probably talk to your parents differently than you talk to the parents of your significant other.
We naturally tailor our voice
to match our audience.
And on a far bigger scale, so does a brand.
The ones who do this well? Are wildly successful.
Iconic brands have distinct identities
As much as I hate to admit it, a movie filled with nothing but direct quotes from Marie Antoinette would probably be boring. By leaning in to specific aspects of her personality, a filmmaker is able to make me connect with her in a way that I might not otherwise be able to. But Marie Antoinette isn’t a brand. You know who is? Wal-Mart.
Have you ever visited the Wal-Mart Museum? I have. Twice.
It’s called the Walton’s 5&10 and it’s located in Bentonville, Arkansas. Aside from the old-timey gift and candy shop, the real gem is just down the hall, past a display case full of old uniforms and a station where you can print out your very own Wal-Mart name tag — a dream that none of us realized we had.
Moments after stepping inside, I realized that aside from the museum’s stated goal of safeguarding the touchstones of Wal-Mart’s culture (lol what), its really just a fancy love letter to Sam Walton, the empire’s founder.
He’s everywhere. You can sit in his favorite barber’s chair, put your hand on his famous Ford F150 pickup truck, and see his actual office — meticulously photographed, torn down, and rebuilt inside the museum so that it looks exactly the way it was left the day that he died.
And his values — good service, frugality, open communication, plain talking, and fair dealing, made Wal-Mart the watershed success that it is. And yet? Wal-Mart’s messaging sounds nothing like him.
Here's a quote from the man himself:
“I would like to be remembered as a good friend ... that's important. I have such a strong feeling for the folks in our company. They have meant so much to me.”
And, just by way of comparison, here’s some recent copy from Wal-Mart:
“Big savings, little time. All you want and more is here until it’s not. These savings last just one week! Get ‘em while you can.”
Clearly: there is little to no resemblance between how the founder of Wal-Mart spoke, and the brand voice that they’re currently embodying.
In spite of that, aspects of his personality are still clinging to and differentiating the franchise:
- The commitment to making everyday essentials affordable.
- Their extremely liberal return policy
- The uber-casual, everyday American tone.
- The friendly(?) greeters, tying each business into their local community and starting your shopping visit with hospitality.
This seems like an appropriate time to mention that I avoid Wal-Mart as much as is humanly possible, because I don’t enjoy the experience of shopping there, and that much sustained fluorescent lighting gives me anxiety. But while I’m not Wal-Mart’s number one fan, I’m also not immune to the lessons their brand has to offer.
And the biggest lesson?
The best parts of your brand will come directly from your story, your passion, and your identity.
Your humanity is your source material
Your brand is a character.
For someone who has poured their heart and soul into their brand, all of this might be a little depressing.
Instead of seeing your business as (at best) a carefully constructed façade, or (at worst) a prison where your fully-realized self goes to wither, let me offer you this reframe:
The idea that we are synonymous with our businesses is personally and professionally limiting.
Trying to embody your brand is the true angst behind every multi-passionate creative who feels like their business is a box they have to fit themselves into. It isn't. It shouldn't be.
While it’s important to celebrate the business you’ve built, and appropriate to be oh-so-proud of it — you have much more worth than can be found within the four ideological walls of your brand persona.