Create Better Social Impact Messaging by Finding Your Brand Voice
Why developing a distinct brand voice is critical to successful messaging, useful tips to get you started, plus a free template with examples.
Social impact leaders spend a lot of time thinking about how to nail their impact story. Their goal is to more effectively persuade their supporters to care about their missions, take action, and help make a meaningful difference. But beyond the tempting messaging frameworks, team-wide offsites, and flavor-of-the-month storytelling workshops, is an often overlooked and underserved element of any effective brand messaging strategy: developing a strong brand voice for your organization.
Your brand voice is, simply put, not just what you say, but how you say it. And it turns out how you say it can leave a lasting impression — for better or for worse — with the people you care about reaching most.
We’ve helped many social impact organizations level up their brand messaging, and it’s pretty common for organizations to come to us with an inconsistent, or even non-existent, brand voice. Even if you spend your day thinking about messaging, branding, and communications, it’s not easy to develop a strong voice for your brand.
Through our work, we’ve developed a simple but effective framework for imagining, defining, and implementing a brand voice for our clients. In this article, we’ll break down the key concepts and give you actionable advice for developing your social impact organization’s voice, tone, and personality. We’ve also included a template you can use for reference if you decide to get this work in motion on your own.
Tips on Finding your Brand Voice
The path to finding your brand voice is rarely linear or straightforward. You may need to experiment, iterate, and try a few different approaches before landing on a clear expression of your organization. And even then, it will likely take time for your entire organization to truly settle in and feel comfortable and confident in your brand voice, especially across multiple team members and channels.
Below, we offer some best practices and guidelines that can help to get you started and make the process more structured and effective.
Start with Inspiration
A great way to break through the initial challenge and get some momentum is to start collecting examples of brands with a strong voice or message that resonates with you. Of course, you should ultimately strive to find your own voice. But like all good musicians, artists, or creatives, finding your voice can initially be guided by having a diverse set of inspiration to draw from.
Save yourself time by avoiding the temptation to scour the internet for official voice guides. A brand with a strong voice is self-evident across their marketing and communication channels. Find snippets of website copy, social posts, articles, or talks from brands that inspire you and collect them. They don’t need to be the exact right direction for your organization (remember, you are trying to create something unique for your brand) as long as they are clear and effective references. Look outside the social impact sector for inspiration, too. Some of the strongest brands are likely in a different sector, and that’s ok!
This process will help you dial in initial paths to explore when working to develop your own brand voice and see where there is alignment and misalignment within your organization’s stakeholders.
Example Brand Voice Template
Use this simple template to develop a distinct and memorable brand voice for your social impact organization.
Consider How You Want to be Perceived in Your Community
Another important framing for this work is considering how you’d like to be perceived by your community of supporters, partners, advocates, and peers. This will largely be determined by your niche and ecosystem — what type of organization are you, and who do you serve?
For instance, It would be inappropriate and offensive for an organization working on child sex trafficing to choose a humorous tone. It would be equally confusing for a grassroots climate activist brand to choose a brand voice that is overly academic and passive. An action-oriented, positive messaging approach might be more appropriate and inviting.
Consider who you must reach and connect with to move your mission forward. How would people in your ideal target audience perceive the tone of your organization, and would the language you use feel aligned with how they talk, think, and act?
The Four Dimensions of Tone & Voice
If you’re still feeling a little stuck on getting this work started, some research from renowned UX firm, Neilson Norman Group, might help get you moving. Working with a group of content strategists, they were able to distill many of the countless adjectives you may intuitively use to describe your voice down to 4 distinct spectrums:
Funny vs. Serious
Formal vs. Casual
Respectful vs. Irreverent
Enthusiastic vs. Matter of Fact
We will often start with these 4 pillars, and then determine if it makes sense to expand from here. Usually these 4 get us pretty close to defining a clear brand voice. Have key stakeholders within your organization chart your voice on a spectrum for each pillar and then come together to compare results.
The resulting discussion will often lead to valuable discourse and quickly identify any misalignment within your organization. When reviewing the results, it might be helpful to consider how your leadership team and key staff members speak and write intuitively. It would be inauthentic to develop a brand voice that is radically different from your authentic personality as individuals and as a collective. We often suggest that a brand voice should sound very similar to how people in your organization sound when someone meets them in person.
It’s important, however, to separate the voice of your organization from the voice of your Executive Director and Communications director. While your brand voice may be very personal, it can be a communications challenge to have everyone in an organization try to sound like the ED. And what happens when a new leader takes the reins?
Avoid looking to past and current behavior to guide your choices. Developing a brand voice is an opportunity to really elevate your messaging and take your storytelling to the next level. Just be sure that any large shifts you make to your brand voice are followed consistently in real-world interactions. It’s critical to develop a consistent brand voice across your organization (More on this later).
Once you come to consensus, you are ready to put the strategy into practice.
Formalize Your Brand Voice in a Messaging Style Guide
After all of this difficult work, you still won’t have a brand voice that is actionable. In order to create and maintain a brand voice across all channels and content creators, you need to get things out of subjective interpretation into actionable guidelines. Enter: your messaging style guide.
It’s important to include a distinct section for your brand voice in your messaging style guide. Doing so creates more clarity and instruction for producing content in your brand voice. We’d recommend including some context for the brand voice, why it matters, example language, and a language lexicon.
Train Your Team and Get Buy-in
The best messaging style guide in the world sitting in a dusty Google Drive folder somewhere won’t do much to develop a strong brand voice. It’s important to socialize this new strategy and playbook within your team.
Of course, the highest priority team members are those who create consistent content for your organization, so it’s logical to start with your communications team, your development or sales team, and your leadership team.
But today, your whole team are essentially content creators. Ideally, even emails to partners, internal communications, and any other organizational content aligns with your brand voice.
To get team buy-in, we recommend setting up a “brand voice presentation” to explain the context, importance, and instruction for leveraging your brand voice across your team. This should also become an important step in onboarding any new team members.
Having brand buy-in and a messaging style guide are critical to maintaining organizational culture regardless of turnover in staff or leadership.
Find Your Brand Voice to Stand Apart
We’re big believers in going bold and finding strategic ways to stand out and win in the attention economy. But time and time again, we see social impact organizations play their cards safe, sacrificing the opportunity to create a distinct and memorable brand voice because they are afraid they may offend existing donors or partners.
Of course, you must choose a brand voice that sits well with your audience. But don’t be afraid to push the boundaries, explore unexpected or nontraditional approaches, and develop a voice that you can own. Standing out requires creativity, courage, and commitment. Developing a strong brand voice is one of your best opportunities to do so.
Need help developing a strong brand voice, or building a solid messaging framework for your organization? We’ve helped social impact organizations like yours create a bigger impact through their branding and messaging. Let’s chat.
Get our insights delivered straight to your inbox
Impact Boom — On Communicating Social Impact And Connecting With Philanthropy Opportunities
Cosmic Founder and Creative Director Eric Ressler joins up with Impact Boom podcast host Indio Myles for a discussion about how to grow your social impact in the attention economy through effective impact storytelling, communication progress, needs, and organizational challenges.Published on September 14 by Eric Ressler