Eric Eisenberg on the power of a great brand voice
Part of establishing a brand is unearthing its unique voice and the personality that it projects out into the world. The way it speaks, behaves and looks.
When it comes to brand voice development, Eric Eisenberg is a seasoned expert. An executive creative director, brand strategist & storyteller, and award-winning copywriter, Eric is currently a partner at the Marin-based creative agency Active Ingredients helping food companies create high-impact brands and drive growth with great digital experiences. We spoke with Eric about his approach to brand voice development and the role of brand narrative in that process.
Todd Anthony: I have the sense that you’re somebody who has always enjoyed the written word. Did you write a lot as a kid?
Eric Eisenberg: Not until I was a senior in high school. My English teacher gave us rigorous writing assignments, and I remember struggling through one in particular. My dad noticed and offered to help. He was a lawyer at the time and a very good writer, and something just clicked when I was sitting with him working on that paper. After that, writing felt very natural and just made sense. Later I studied Creative Writing at Skidmore College, and that’s where I realized I actually liked to write.
When was the first moment that you became aware of this thing called brand voice?
I first thought about brand voice as a concept when I was working for a naming agency called Lexicon Branding here in Sausalito. I don’t think the term “brand voice” was a thing yet. Or at least I wasn’t aware of it as a thing. But it was a concept I was hyper-aware of even though I didn’t put a name to it.
Early on in my Active Ingredients career, I came upon a brand voice guide some agency did for Mailchimp, and I was like, “Damn, this makes so much sense.” The more brands expand where they speak—TV commercials, magazine ads, emails, social media, blog posts—the harder it is to maintain voice consistency. And this guide was a way to ensure that.
So what would you say the relationship is between writing and brand voice?
If I gave 5 great copywriters an assignment to create an ad for a new trail running shoe without any context, they’d probably come back in 5 different voices. One might sound tough and talk about hammering technical terrain. One might sound more spiritual and talk about finding your flow over roots and rocks. All 5 ads could be really well written, but it’s likely that none of them would hit the voice that expresses what really differentiates the hidden brand.
I like to think of a brand as a person. A person’s voice is shaped by what they believe in—the unique thing they stand for.
I call that a narrative because I see it as the foundation for all storytelling. Some call it an identity, some call it an essence, some call it a North Star. Whatever you call the main expression of why you exist, that’s what has to drive your voice. It works the same way with our own voices.
Can you give me an example of a company narrative?
Take Patagonia. They’ve made it clear they’re in business to save our home planet. That’s their driving narrative, and it comes through in their voice loud and clear because the way people perceive the world influences the way they speak. Your narrative should strive to be so true that it drives business decisions as much as it drives your voice.
And keep in mind that having a strong, guiding narrative does not mean you’re always going to be talking about why you exist. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, doesn’t talk about saving our planet everywhere he goes. A narrative informs your perspective, but it doesn’t inform everything you say. Oftentimes, it’s best when it creeps through naturally. Almost subconsciously.
How do you ensure that a brand is able to project the voice in an authentic, natural way when a lot of it, as you said, could potentially be somewhat subconscious?
Right, it’s not always easy to capture a voice, especially if you as the writer don’t share the same perspective. The more you can empathize with a brand narrative, the closer you’ll get. Oftentimes, you’ll need to make it relevant to your own life. You’ll need to get into character. If you’re not feeling the character, not walking in their shoes, you’re left to write from a logical, conscious place, which often comes off sounding generic. The more you can empathize with the brand, the more your subconscious can help, and the more natural you’ll sound.
I think the essence of what you’re saying is that when you feel something, you are better prepared to project it out to the world. And feeling the authentic story puts you in a better place to communicate in the brand voice – consciously or subconsciously.
It sounds a bit like acting, right?
Very much. I actually took a couple of acting classes in college and did some playwriting. One of the principles I learned is that if you want to express your character’s pain, you have to feel that pain yourself. But if you’ve never experienced pain the way they did, you have to draw it from somewhere else in your life. If your character is grieving a lost parent, but you’ve never lost a parent, you can’t know exactly what that feels like, so you’ll need to draw that pain from a different source—say, being dumped by your first love.
So would you say the brand voice guide needs to be focused on how to ensure those who write for the brand are able to get in the right mind space to feel it?
100%. Brand voice guides have to include your brand narrative. Writers need to understand and feel your story in order to capture the voice. I know great food writers who are proud carnivores at heart. They could wax about the magnificence of bacon for hours. If I gave them a writing assignment for a plant-based cheese brand without enough context on what’s driving the brand, they’d probably have a hard time feeling that in their bones, and the writing will suffer. Describing the narrative in a voice guide allows writers to find a way into that mind space and make that story relevant to their own lives.
By the way, there are some truly mind-blowing plant-based cheeses out there.
It seems to me that brand voice is an undervalued thing in marketing. Would you agree?
I think brand voice is very undervalued because while the concept of a brand itself is intangible, a voice is tangible. It’s an expression of the brand that people can feel, so it can make an emotional connection. The purpose of a brand voice guide is to help brands strengthen that connection and communicate in a consistent way.
When marketing is focused squarely on a product’s key talking points—the “reasons to believe”—it often comes at the expense of good storytelling. And the power of good storytelling is its ability to take someone out of this rational, logical space and put them into more of an emotional space.
People make their buying decisions based on their emotions.
Exactly. There was a commercial that ran a while back for a popular SUV. This SUV is jamming off-road through the forest, blasting over rocks and through creeks. Beautiful mountain scenery. At the end of the commercial, it pulls into a driveway and a woman gets out, pops the trunk, grabs the groceries, and walks into the house.
Most of the commercial has you in this emotional space. But then it pulls you out of that space just to tell you something that you already know. Consumers are more intelligent than they’re given credit for. Rounding the math, 1% of people buying an SUV plan to go off-road, and 99% will take it grocery shopping. There’s no need to spend 8 seconds of a 30-second ad to tell me what I already know. That’s 8 seconds of missed emotional connection. The car could have pulled up at a campsite and shown the hatch open with kids running around instead. Then you hit on that notion of “great car for families” while keeping the emotion intact.
It all comes down to good storytelling and trusting in the emotional connection it makes. I think the greater world of marketing is finally coming around to understanding that good, authentic storytelling from a consistent voice can be a huge strategic asset.
How do you begin a brand voice development project for a company?
First and foremost, we need to get to the heart of that narrative. I recently developed a brand voice for a client, but right out of the gates I saw that their existing brand narrative wasn’t right. It read like it was born from focus group results rather than a real, honest story. So I recommended we hold on the voice work until we could address the narrative first.
Was the client open to stepping back and starting with a narrative instead?
They totally were. And I gotta say, doing that created a sense of excitement for everyone involved. The client was now fully invested because they were forced to rethink the stories they’d been telling themselves about the brand. Once we had the new narrative, they felt like they suddenly understood the brand for the first time and could speak about it in new ways. This work often has a real effect on how employees feel about their day-to-day work—about the pride they feel for their company.
What else do you think about and consume before you start developing a brand voice?
The competition, for one, to figure out how you can differentiate. I also look at all the emotional associations around a brand—positive and negative. I want to know all the visceral feelings that come to mind around the brand. What people think of the taste, the texture, the overall experience. What comes to mind when people see the packaging. What the logo reminds them of. What their expectations are when opening it. What people are saying on social media. All that stuff.
By then I usually have a back-of-the-napkin idea of where the voice likely needs to be. My subconscious has been hard at work the whole time and I’ve made some emotional connections. I’ve learned to trust that, but it’s important to go deeper to get all the nuance.
How do you handle the interview process with the client stakeholders?
I think it’s important to interview all the key stakeholders involved, or you could wind up backtracking later on. And I like to talk to everyone independently at first. I look for the common ground between them, and find any spots where they diverge and work through those. If you don’t have full buy-in from the stakeholders, it’s going to be tough to land on a voice that can stand the test of time, because as soon as the “most important person in the room” disagrees with something, all your work becomes irrelevant.
Why do you prefer to talk to the stakeholders independently rather than as a group?
There’s usually a hierarchy in groups and people get self-conscious. When I can get someone one-on-one, their guard is down. They know they’re being recorded and transcribed, but they still feel more free to speak than if they were in a room with their colleagues. They’re less afraid to just blurt something out—more apt to hold something in. I want them to blurt.
Okay, so after the information gathering you put all the information together, is that right?
Yep, after the interviews, I bring the group together, share my findings and pressure test them with a few exercises to make sure we’re being as objective as possible. Sometimes we talk about archetypes—the most common personality constructs. That can be a useful tool in understanding who the brand is and where it’s coming from. Through it all I try to remove subjectivity from the process so our decisions are based on strategy, not opinions.
As I’m putting it all together I find that ideas for headlines, messages and voice traits start popping in from the subconscious, so I always keep a working doc open to capture those ideas. They usually wind up becoming an important part of the material I work with.
Then it comes to nailing the voice traits that will bring the client’s narrative to life. But I really think of these more as personality traits. As if the brand were a person. What are the emotions and attributes that will help me bring this person to life? It starts as a big, long list and I whittle. Then I add and whittle some more. This is when it starts to feel like you’re shaping a giant piece of clay closer and closer to the heart of the voice.
The goal is to land on 3-4 distinct traits that work in combination with no crossover. Listing more traits than that starts to round off the edges of your brand personality and makes it really tough to write for.
So the voice traits need to be distinct from each other so that they actually add value to the brand.
Right. And in an ideal world, they would also act as guardrails for each other. Like the project you and I worked on together where we landed on the voice traits “trustworthy” and “ingenious.” If you get too ingenious, it can strain the notion of trust. And if you’re too honest and straightforward, then you might start pulling away from ingenious.
Okay, so you’ve developed the voice traits and got buy-in from the client. What’s next?
Then I tell the client I’m going away for a while to write it all up. During this stage, I do a little storytelling for each voice trait so that the person reading it will really understand how to use it. And I’ll usually write sample headlines and hero messages, several product descriptions, and even social media copy in the brand voice that the client can pull from directly, or just let it inspire new ideas.
Then I put the voice guide together and try to make it as clear and easy to use as possible.
What’s one brand voice project that you’re particularly proud of?
I probably can’t go into detail because much of this stuff is confidential. One that I remember fondly from years ago was a brand narrative and voice revamp for Lindsay—the biggest olive company in the country. When we first started to work with Lindsay it felt like a commodity brand. Their packaging and consumer website had a buttoned-up, food service vibe. Then they did a visual rebrand and became more vibrant and consumer-friendly, but they still weren’t telling a story—only that they stood for “fun and flavor.” As in, when you add Lindsay to your favorite meals, you’re adding fun and flavor. It was a low bar for a really good brand.
So we challenged that notion. We thought about the power of the olive, where people used it—all the unique moments. What excited consumers and Lindsay employees, and so on. And we realized that the brand stood for a lot more than this diffuse notion of “fun and flavor.” It stood for the “Bite-Size Moments that make life special.” And it was like a light bulb for them.
That realization opened up an entire platform for storytelling, and it revealed a voice that felt like it was screaming to come out for years. The new voice felt younger. It felt curious. It felt honest. And because it was based on something real that they could sink their teeth into, it immediately inspired all this content around this new world of “moments.” We created entertaining guides and consumer campaigns focused on unique moments and events, fun new recipes, new relationships with chefs, mixologists and other influencers, and even a comedic video series around different bite-size moments that featured Lindsay. It was a natural platform for good storytelling in a new vibrant voice, and people suddenly connected with the brand in all these new ways.
One of the challenges of developing a brand voice is operationalizing it. What would you say is a good approach to ensuring that a brand voice is executed in a consistent way across all touchpoints?
Even experienced writers aren’t always trained in the art of brand voice, so ongoing training can be really effective. You kind of need to… not police it, but act as a guide to make sure the writing is consistent with the voice, and that the voice is expressing the narrative. And of course, every writer needs a copy of the brand voice guide for starters.
When a brand narrative is right there’s a sense of inevitability to it. Like, “Yes! I never thought of it that way… but I’ve always thought of it that way.” That realization can be really powerful for the people behind the brand and act as an organizing force for a company. Ideally, it should be powerful enough to inform every decision that company makes.