When people think of a brand, they usually think of a logo and a tagline—a company’s voice is often overlooked. But in modern marketing, your voice (or your clients’) helps cut through the digital cacophony. So what is a brand voice, exactly? Simply put, it’s the personality and emotion infused into a company’s communications. Mailchimp’s Chief Communications Officer, Kate Kiefer Lee, is our resident authority on the subject. Not only has this communications expert helped shape and refine Mailchimp’s brand voice for over 10 years, she’s also the co-author of Nicely Said, a practical guide to writing with style and purpose. In this Q&A, Kate talks about the evolution of Mailchimp’s distinct brand voice, the importance of empathetic communication, and some key business opportunities for 2021.
You’ve been with Mailchimp for over a decade. Can you tell us a bit about your career at Mailchimp and how you’ve seen the brand evolve over time?
When I started at Mailchimp, we had about 30 employees and I was a one-woman team. I spent a lot of time working cross-functionally to define our brand, create style guides, and experiment with humor and tone. Over time, our brand has evolved and matured, our teams have grown, and now we’re in scaling mode. We have an incredible content strategy team that works with writers and designers inside and outside the company to express our brand’s voice in the world. Now I lead our Communications and Corporate Citizenship teams, so I don’t work directly on marketing content anymore, but it’s so fun to watch from the sidelines and help out where I can.
How would you describe Mailchimp’s brand voice and what sets it apart?
Mailchimp is an entrepreneur’s sidekick. We take our customers’ businesses seriously but we think work should be fun, so we try to inject humor where we can. Our voice is conversational, and we educate people without using jargon.
Why is brand voice important and what are the keys to crafting one?
A brand’s voice is its personality. It helps attract people to your brand, create connections, and build trust with them. Brands aren’t people, but you can think of it in the same way as an individual’s personality: What makes you like someone when you meet them for the first time? What makes you trust them over time? What do they do and say to make you feel supported or understood?
To create a strong brand voice, you need to know your audience. Stay focused on your company’s mission and vision, and speak directly to your customers.
Create a simple style guide where you articulate your brand’s voice. Make a list of adjectives that describe your brand’s personality. I like to make “this but not that” lists too, where you say things like “We are smart but not academic” to get a little more specific about your brand’s communications. Don’t overthink it at first—just get something on paper and iterate over time. If you’re starting small, this doesn’t have to be a huge production. Some of the best brand voice guidelines I’ve seen are one-page docs.
In your book Nicely Said, you mention the importance of empathetic communication—why do you think it’s so valuable? Do you see empathic communication trending, especially given what’s happened this past year?
Empathetic communication is really another way of saying “be nice.” Meet your customers where they are. Understand the challenges they’re facing and how you can help. Respect them and don’t overstep your boundaries. This has always been important, but I think more brands are thinking about empathetic communication these days, because 2020 has been a nightmare and people all over the world are having a hard time. The last thing we need is brands out there being rude to us.
Speaking of bad news, 2020 was chock-full of it. What are some of the opportunities for brands in this (pre-)post-pandemic world?
Brands have a big opportunity to build trust with their customers in 2021. Remember that your customers and clients are facing new challenges. Try to understand where your brand fits in and how you can help, and speak to people from that place.
The beginning of the year (especially this year) is a good time to review all your copy and make sure it’s relevant and appropriate. Keep 2020’s unique challenges in mind. Many small businesses are struggling to survive. When a business owner can’t pay the bills, something as simple as an automated credit card decline message or an abandoned cart message can be hurtful if it’s not written with care. Anytime you’re communicating with customers, ask yourself: Is this clear? Is it kind? Is it helpful?
Any advice for combating writer’s block?
If you’re staring at a blank document, first make sure you really have something to say. If you know what you want to write about but are having trouble getting the words on paper, try saying it out loud first. Pretend you’re talking to someone in your audience in real life, and record yourself. Go back and transcribe your recording later, and there’s your first draft.
According to this NPR article, punctuation trends are changing. These days, ending a text with a period can be read as passive aggressive, and even exclamation points have a bad rap! What are the current communications trends you love to hate?
Sometimes I think people expect everything I write to be perfect because I’m a communications professional. In reality, I’m a good editor when I need to be, but I don’t overthink my personal communications. My Slack messages and emails are super casual, and I rarely end text messages with a period. As long as it sounds like a human wrote it, I try not to judge anyone’s communication style!
Are you an emoji or non-emoji kind of emailer?
I don’t use a lot of emojis in emails, but my text and Slack messages are almost entirely emojis. I love the upside-down smiley face. 🙃