A global voice for global growth

As businesses move from having global footprints to global enterprises unified through global operations, the role of brand has evolved within organizations.

And with people’s ability to access content on-demand anywhere in the world, global brands must meet a new set of expectations to successfully drive growth for these businesses.

CMOs are pulled between the agility required to create and manage a single strategy and experience globally, and the precision required to meet the demands of each individual market. On one side, brands need a single, consistent point of view to compete on a global level. To own a differentiated position requires a consistent experience that will build the right equity across markets. But brands must also answer to the market-specific drivers essential to creating relevance and building relationships with their customers locally. The perils of a one-size-fits-all approach are well documented.

As we continue to see many brands work to find the right balance, one area of the brand experience seems to be the flashpoint of this challenge: Brand Voice. And it shouldn’t be a surprise. Brand voice is not just the writing style and creative approach to communications. It’s the foundation for establishing a relationship with audiences. As an expression of personality, voice is essential to the human emotional connection that brands want to create. It’s at the heart of the global brand experience and fosters the connection between brand and audience needed in each market, but carries the added degree of difficulty of being dependent on each local language.

To help resolve this dilemma—and determine an actionable approach to creating a truly global voice—Interbrand conducted an analysis of brand voice in global markets. With many global brand managers and local marketing managers feeling ill-equipped to create and evaluate content in the context of  brand strategy and voice, they are not confident in their efforts to properly support the brand and generate revenue in all markets. Essential to answering this challenge was determining how language and culture impact the connection created through brand voice.

Our hypothesis

First, we considered how voice contributes to Brand Strength and the seemingly tug-of-war relationship between the value of relevance and of consistency.

At Interbrand, we define relevance as the ability to match, or deliver on, current customer needs, desires, and decision criteria. It is the foundation for the role a brand will play in their lives. And so, brand voice, as one of the key ways to establish an emotional connection and express brand personality, is essential to delivering that relevance. By establishing the right emotional connection, brands can expect specific emotional and behavioral responses. This is how the relationship begins.

To keep the relationship growing, we look to consistency—delivering the brand across all touchpoints and formats, not just communications. For brand voice, this works in two ways. First, it creates recognition. Audiences can identify a brand according to its choice of words, as readily as they can identify a brand according to its imagery or sounds. Second, a consistently executed brand voice in market sets an expectation for future interactions with the brand. For example, a potential customer who encounters a brand’s communication will draw conclusions about what it would be like to interact with the brand directly. That means when this customer goes to purchase from that brand, he or she will have an expectation that must be met in the product design, retail environment, service delivery, etc. So, a brand’s voice must be consistent with the rest of the experience.

With this in mind, we asked, “What form of consistency would be valuable for a global brand voice?” Given the challenges we have heard from clients, and what we know to be true about language and culture, we knew that literal translations relying on the exact same words or writing tactics—while technically consistent—would not be experienced by audiences in the same way in different markets.

Ultimately, what we hypothesized would be most valuable was consistency in the definition and the response to brand voice. By defining consistency for voice in terms of the desired impact (emotional response) and outcomes (behavioral response), we believed brands could allow for flexibility in execution, tactically in the writing itself, to ensure a relevant expression.

Our approach

We designed the following pilot to assess our hypothesis and determine the implications for creating, managing, and measuring a global voice.

Two factors framed our selection of brands for review. We needed brands that already had a discernable voice in the global marketplace. And we aimed to have representation across a broad variety of factors so we would be confident in the applicability of our conclusions across different global brands. We considered brands from the 2012 Interbrand Best Global Brands list to ensure a significant global presence both as a brand and a business. We also wanted to select brands from different countries of origin to counter any potential cultural bias. Additionally, we wanted to look at both traditionally B2B and B2C brands that represented different categories. Ultimately, we arrived at two brands: a French luxury fashion brand and an American shipping and transportation brand.*

Step 1: The voice

Our first step was to audit the touchpoints each brand had in market to determine the brand voice they were using. We identified four markets (U.S., France, Brazil, and Japan) and had native verbal identity experts from each market audit current communications in the local language. It was important to have native speakers perform this task, as they would be able to assess not only the stylistic choices that comprise the voice, but also the word choices and cultural associations that contributed to the creative execution.

Once each independent audit had been completed, we brought together the findings to determine if the local executions and the voice analysis for each market yielded the same or similar results. Each audit defined the tactical/stylistic writing choices, a core voice principle that determined the overall effect of the voice, and the associated attributes. By comparing these audits, we would see if there was a consistent voice in the marketplace, as well as understand what, if any variations there were in the execution.

Step 2: The context

With this assessment in place, we needed to understand independently what the cultural contexts were for local audiences. Specifically, we wanted to understand the associations audiences were making with the attributes the voice was designed to communicate, as well as the emotional connection the voice was intended to support. By using a semiotics-based cultural analysis, we could determine what was relevant to audiences in each market.

Our analysis was based on two inputs. First, we conducted a survey in each market to ascertain the words, codes, and cues associated with the attributes and qualities identified for each brand’s voice. This provided us with a clear baseline for common cultural understanding, which we then augmented using our Brand Playback methodology to listen to customer conversation. The semiotic analysis provided us with a defined cultural-linguistic lens that captured the specific context in which the voice was heard in each market.

Step 3: The response

To determine the effectiveness of each brand voice, we once again used Brand Playback to listen to audience conversations and ascertain if the response to each brand’s voice matched the brand’s intended expression/meaning. The associations determined within the context of a cultural lens informed our search criteria when we listened to conversations in the category, including brand-specific conversation, to give us insights on the emotional and behavioral response. This would provide us with the information needed to determine both the relevance of the voice and the success of its execution, as well as its impact on helping the brand differentiate within its category.

Creating, managing, and measuring a global voice

Through the analysis of existing voice execution across markets, we were successfully able to determine the through-line from the defined voice, to a cultural-linguistic lens for each market, to the local variation in execution and response. As a result, we were able to set criteria for executing on voice in each local market/language to deliver consistently on the voice and achieve the desired response from audiences.

In addition, where we saw audience response deviate from the desired response, we were able to connect it back to a missed opportunity based on the cultural lens for that market. This allowed us to develop a specific set of recommendations to better align local execution with the global voice through that lens. So this methodology not only establishes a clear approach to creating and executing a global voice, but also managing and measuring it in each market.

Definition

The first key step to creating a successful global voice is the way in which it is defined. Many brands have historically been defining their voice directly from a set of personality attributes. We experienced challenges with this approach, but its limitations are only magnified when considered in the context of global execution. Personality is, by design, meant to capture inherent qualities. While innate human characteristics can provide a valuable foundation, brand voice must be about defining the experience—how these qualities are expressed. And, culturally speaking, how human characteristics are expressed in local cultures can vary significantly.

For example, one of the brands we examined wanted to be a strategic partner to its customers and wanted its voice to express the brand’s insightfulness and show how this is part of the brand experience. Given this intention, the brand would need to understand how different cultures understand what it means to be insightful: both how it’s expressed and how people respond to insightful content.

Our analysis showed that the nature of being insightful and speaking in an insightful way has some commonalities and key differences across cultures. Generally, insightfulness is about being sharp, perceptive, and having deeper understanding. It is expressed through the sharing of new perspectives or unexpected discoveries. But, depending on the market, these ideas may be more relevant when expressed with a sense of immediacy (in the context of the present), or oriented toward the future, suggesting a more macro or long-term vision.

By moving away from an attribute-based approach, we can provide more actionable guidance on expression. Creating a universal concept or voice principle moves the focus to the perception of the qualities the voice should evoke as well as the intended response.

Perception

Appreciating how desired qualities are expressed and perceived in each culture (both in terms of commonalities and differences) is one of the key inputs to the market-specific cultural lens for brand voice. But to make this actionable for voice, the expression needs to be clearly connected to the language in which it will be articulated. This is where semiotics can be such a valuable tool in development.

A semiotics-based analysis connects word choice, symbols, and narratives in each language to local cultural values. While it has been previously reserved for more academic applications, in the context of brand voice it is highly valuable in providing the guidance for the flexibility needed for relevant local expression. By first looking at these concepts outside of the world of brands, we were able to arrive at an agnostic cultural understanding, which, combined with category expectations, provide the context in which audiences hear brand voice.

Experience

We found, when tracking branded conversation, the analysis in each market can measure both global consistency and local relevance. We were able to see the level at which a brand was succeeding in customizing the execution (based on the cultural perception lens), and could also assess efficacy by examining audience responses to the brand voice in that market. By looking at the language that plays back in audience responses, we could evaluate the effectiveness of the content in that language and validate whether a brand is executing on the voice and building the right relationship globally.

Going back to our example, given that there are differences in the way insightful people express themselves, it makes sense that there would be differences in the way they are perceived. For instance, depending on the language and culture, a person or brand that’s insightful would be described in terms of their creative talent or their intellectual prowess. So if the voice is successful, in some markets audiences might talk about the brand in terms of being imaginative, and, in other markets, how smart or perceptive it is.

With this level of clarity, brand voice can be managed more effectively at the local market level, providing the flexibility needed for relevant execution. Further, the impact on local audiences can be measured more accurately when execution is informed by more specific insights, as opposed to broad, global criteria that may contain cultural biases.

A case of successful connection

One of France’s oldest and finest houses of couture, this luxury fashion brand carries its heritage of elegance and grace a la française across markets. Like others in the category, the brand must manage positive and negative associations rooted in the conflict between the desire for ownership and the potential judgment around superficial consumption. As the brand continues to move into new and emerging markets, it faces the challenge of connecting with audiences where it cannot rely on heritage to make it relevant or distinctive in the category.

An analysis of the voice globally shows evidence of a consistent definition. The brand’s voice succeeds in creating an emotional connection building its narrative around the pride in and passion for craftsmanship. Lyrical language, evocative metaphors, and subtle wordplay bring a sophisticated poeticism balanced by a more modern, irreverent sensibility. All of the elements culminate in the voice’s ability to transport its audiences into the richly sensorial world of the brand.

As we looked at each local market experience, we saw largely successful executions relative to each culture’s perceptual lens and noted that audience response was appropriately aligned to the voice and the relationship it was building. Of course this was strongest in France, its home market, where the poeticism plays on cultural symbols of light and dark executed with a more untraditional, unexpected syntax. And the craftsmanship narrative is connected to cultural values of beauty, love, etc. Audience response reflects the close cultural tie to the luxury category savoir-faire as expected, but the brand is also given credit for its modernity and relevance to current style and self-expression that differentiates it from competitors.

Looking at the execution and response in the U.S. and Japan illustrates the importance of local flexibility. In the U.S., this voice has an additional advantage. Poetic language is culturally associated with intelligence and sophistication, which results in audiences connecting the brand to the substantive rather than the superficial. This, combined with the use words that represent substantive values such as love and inner beauty, as well as the American belief in deserved rewards, ensures a relevant emotional connection. Structurally and syntactically, the brand successfully integrates the shorter rhythms of English to create a poetic expression that is culturally accessible for American audiences and particularly important for a foreign brand in the U.S.

Conversely, in Japan we saw a weaker, albeit still positive, response to the brand voice. We see this as a missed opportunity with the local execution on the voice. In this culture, poetic language can be associated with artifice if it is not shown to reveal deeper beauty or meaning in a story. Current executions of the voice focus the narrative on the sensorial aspects of the craftsmanship. While this is culturally relevant to connect with audiences on the basis of luxury-level quality, it does not achieve the desired emotional connection. By re-centering the narrative on the craftspeople who create these incredible sensorial experiences, rather than the materials themselves, the voice could capitalize on the cultural codes of having pride in others (vs. the self) and the poetic expression would reveal a deeper meaning associated with the brand’s passion for its craft.

Interestingly, this brand recently entered the Brazilian market, a relatively new luxury market with a long history of Francophile appreciation, and purposely chose to not translate communications into Portuguese. The brand created a pragmatic distance that might appear elitist and exclusionary on the surface, but that actually resonates deeply with its target audience in the region. However, as a new middle class with discretionary income is on the rise, we think this should be a short-term strategy. As a national conversation rises around the two meanings of “class,” cultivating this ongoing distance may prove detrimental, relegating the brand to being connected with the more superficial meaning.

A case of ‘lost in translation’

Review and analysis of a U.S.-based transportation, packaging, and supply chain company revealed the pitfalls of relying on the pragmatism of direct translation to deploy content and communications globally. While it’s easy to assume that the primary associations that might come to mind for a global shipment/logistics company are highly functional, the truth is the category elicits surprisingly high levels of of emotion. Unfiltered conversations among consumers and customers revealed a range of emotions across their journey—from the excitement of an order placed to the anxiety of waiting, to the frustration of a package lost to the satisfaction of receiving one. The role of brand voice has, therefore, an elevated importance in terms of building relationships, trust, and reassurance against the turmoil of the category.

In English, the brand voice comes through clearly as mentor to its audiences, providing an insightful perspective on their future. The voice uses confident, action-oriented language and an optimistic tone to highlight opportunities and frame brand benefits in the context of business critical impact. Leveraging the characteristics of this language, brevity and shorter structures create a sense of momentum and purpose to the narratives. However, looking beyond its home turf to Brazil, France, and Japan, the use of direct translations at various touchpoints results in awkward headlines and copy, leading to jarring experiences. This awkwardness, combined with elements of the brand’s confident tone, not only results in dissonance, but also misses opportunities to build emotional connections.

This is true even in markets like Brazil where, culturally, audiences have such low expectations of service brands that experience is not necessarily central to brand loyalty. Here, brand conversations were indistinguishable from category conversations. A culturally aware brand voice could play a significant role in shifting audience response, from apathy to engagement, creating a differentiated, more relevant conversation. Meanwhile, in France, where global players have a more visible presence, the brand comes across as overly serious. However, writing that establishes a sense of openness and sharing would better deliver on the intention of the voice and create a positive conversation around the feeling of anticipation that is naturally associated with the category.

The impact of literal translation is even greater on the success of the voice in Japan, where customers are used to truly personal, human experiences from local competitors. The brand’s confident tone is perceived as authoritarian and counter to the insightful narrative of a mentor relationship. And, given the high expectation for personal attention in this market, the voice lacks the openness that would effectively communicate the brand’s understanding of its customers.

The value of being heard

Harnessing the power of brand voice for global impact means thinking more holistically about how it is created, managed, and measured. Voice needs to be defined in terms of creative style and the connection it aims to create. This becomes the foundation for determining the market-specific nuances that must be taken into account to effectively execute the voice at the local level. Only then can a brand craft the right experience to engage with its audiences and evoke the desired emotional and behavioral response.

This perspective is only gaining in importance as experience continues to become a collaborative effort between brands and their audiences. Content must show a higher level of audience understanding to earn their engagement, which will, in turn, deliver deeper value as the brand experience is integrated into their lives. With a truly global voice, brands will ultimately create consistency and relevance that is valuable to both brands and audiences.

*Note: While Interbrand has worked with both brands, at the time of the project, no voice work had been provided to either.

Executive Director, Verbal Identity