As I lazily finished the last of my not-so-petit dejeuner I heard the distinct rattle and clunk of our letterbox, followed by a sudden whoosh of paper sliding through the slot and a satisfying thud as something hit the mat.
My pulse quickened.
No post on Sundays. So something hand-delivered. And it was the beginning of the month…
Could it be the low-res, haphazardly-typeset, poorly-stapled homage to Comic Sans and early 2000s ClipArt I was waiting for?
It was. Our village newsletter had arrived.
The pleasure I gained from perusing those monthly missives was decidedly perverse. Each issue was at once dire and magnificent, from the mind-numbing pedantry of the Parish Council meeting minutes and the churlish airing of neighbourhood grumblings (such as the ‘worrying spate of Hoover thefts’ at churches in the area) to charmingly eccentric reports from the local WI chapter and some truly excellent visual contributions from the primary school children (a lasting favourite being the Christmas card depicting a reindeer that looked more like a sausage dog and who appeared to be engaged in some decidedly compromising activity with Saint Nick).
So, naturally, I sat down to luxuriate in this latest bout of pleasingly idiosyncratic twattery. And as I was reading one particular ad stood out to me:
After I’d skimmed it with the standard blend of horror, glee, and bewilderment that most elements of the newsletter elicited, I mentally – and wonderfully patronisingly – summed it up to myself, “Bless them – obviously a small, family-run business, owned by guys who might know a lot about carpets but don’t know shit about marketing. It’s kind of endearing almost, they seem like sincere, earnest, no-nonsense people, but christ this ad is a mess.”
And that’s when it hit me. One of the biggest, and most significant, revelations of my career.
If my summary of the business was accurate, then the ad wasn’t a mess at all. In fact, it had more than done its job. It was actually an exemplary lesson in brand voice, because the way it was written had perfectly conveyed to me what the company was like.
I was so stirred by this revelation that, over the following weeks, I asked around the village about the company, trying to build up a picture of what they were like and how people felt about them so I could test the truth of my (quite frankly, world-changing) little hypothesis.
And person by person it became clear to me that it was indeed this company’s very lack of polish and marketing savvy that was exactly why they were trusted. Their customers – mostly people aged 60+ who’d lived in the area for a long time – were suspicious of smooth-talking ads with big promises. They valued this business precisely because they knew more about carpets than clever writing.
I’d been a copywriter for many years by this point, although only working specifically in the area of brand voice for a few months, and it suddenly became clear to me that while I understood a lot of the practicalities of crafting and outworking an organisational voice I had still fallen into the trap of labelling some voices as good and some as bad depending largely on whether or not I liked them and if they fitted my preconceived idea of ‘well-written’.
It’s easy to assume that a ‘good’ brand voice has to be cool or clever or funny – like industry favourites Innocent, or La Vie, or Tony's Chocolonely, or Nike. But the reality is that if this carpet company’s ad had been written in any of those styles they wouldn’t have gotten half the business they did.
Because at the end of the day the real goal for any piece of business communication is that the information you share not only clearly explains what you’re offering but also shows what you’re like and builds a connection with your audience.
And the way that ‘terrible’ ad was written absolutely nailed that on the head.
So now when I think back to the gloriously carefree Sunday mornings of my pre-procreation days I don’t just remember the lie-ins and the tidiness and the under-appreciated joy of being able to eat a whole sandwich in peace.
I remember the simple but astoundingly-helpful lesson that an effective brand voice doesn’t always sound the way you think it’s going to sound.
Want more world-changing revelations about brand voice? Sign up to get my editorials dropped into your inbox every month.