Author: Cari O’Brien
For years, website optimization strategies for digital marketing tended to focus solely on gaming the search engines to show up high on results pages: Find the right keywords or phrases, write copy incorporating those phrases into your pages, and you’ll probably rank well enough to bring in the traffic you desire.
But, search engines and digital marketing best practices have matured—ranking well is now only part of the equation (remember, you don’t just want people to go to your site, you want them to convert).
You need your audience to click through to your content; you need to keep them engaged. Once engaged, you need to move them from website visitor to customer.
One of the most successful ways to do this across all steps is to create clear, consistent brand messaging. After all, if you’re not creating these kinds of experiences for your potential customers, your competitors will.
In this article, we’re going to discuss how to create brand messaging to boost your web content for increased clicks and conversions. Specifically, we’re going to cover:
What’s past is prologue: A brief history of SEO content
The early days of search marketing were a bit like the wild west, where anything went and most tactics—questionable or otherwise—worked at claiming top rankings. SEOs went after whatever could rank. The content had to follow suit, incorporating whatever those keywords were in formulaic ways.
For instance, in 2008, I recall receiving strict instructions from my employer about which keywords needed to show up where, how many times they were to show up, the different ways to format said phrases, and so on and so forth.
There was little room for creativity and limited focus on branded voice. I found myself having to convince clients to approve content that sounded spammy, was overly structured, and had zero personality.
Thankfully, Google got smart and began cracking down on thin content, illicit SEO techniques, and more. Google updated its algorithm to reward quality content, starting with its Panda and Penguin updates and leading to more recent changes like the Helpful Content Update.
This focus on quality content means you need to do more than simply identify and incorporate keywords and phrases that matter to you. You need to deliver content based on a holistic strategy. Your content needs to be reader-focused, delivering value to help the reader answer their query or resolve their problem.
Moreover, with all your competitors vying for your audience’s attention, your content needs to sound unique. You need to stand out. That’s where branding comes in.
The role of branding and how it impacts search
To stand out online, you have to stand for something. You must have a clear message that’s all your own.
With a well-defined brand, you can maximize the performance of your SEO content thanks to these three benefits of branded content:
Personality in content attracts attention in search results.
Valuable content gets more social shares.
Branded copy creates a stronger connection with website visitors, leading to increased conversions and greater customer “stickiness.”
Remember that a brand is more than a logo. It’s more than a tagline. It’s the combination of visuals and words you use to communicate who your company is to the public.
That said, branding isn’t exactly how you present yourself—it’s how the public perceives you. Your best bet in shaping that perception is consistency in branding across all channels, from video to web content and phone conversations to email marketing. To create this consistency, you need to get clear on the messages you want to communicate to your audience.
The brand messages you need to communicate to your audience
There are three critical brand messages you need to define to best connect with your audience: brand story, brand values, and what I like to refer to as “superpowers.” In addition to a detailed explanation of each of these components, I’ve included three real-life examples so you can see how and why these messages work.
01. Brand story
Storytelling has gained a lot of ground in content marketing, and for good reason. Research has shown that a compelling story increases oxytocin and cortisol levels in a reader’s brain. This, in turn, pulls in the reader, taps into their empathy, and keeps them engaged to see what happens next.
If your brand can tell a story that taps into your audience’s minds and hearts, you’ll build a valuable, long-lasting connection. You’ll not only have a hook to pull them in, but you’ll encourage them to keep coming back for more.
To be effective, your brand story needs to be the living, breathing backbone of your business. It needs to incorporate your company’s history, mission, and vision. This will require you to go beyond facts, dates, and basic “what we do” statements.
Like any good story, your brand story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Let’s review what each part of your story should include before looking at a few brilliant examples of brand stories in action.
Your company has an origin. This is your “why”: why you started your business, what problem you were looking to solve with it, and why your company needs to exist to address that problem.
Here, you share the “what” and “how” of your company. This section covers the nuts and bolts of your business, including a description of your products or services and how you deliver them. It also begins to incorporate the “who”: your staff, partners, customers, and anyone else who has a role to play.
As a business in progress, you won’t ever actually end your story. Instead, you will paint a future for your company. Share that future with your customers and, most importantly, help them see the important role they play in it.
Your brand story is your foundation. Get your foundation right and you’ll be able to create search-optimized content that grabs attention and keeps your audience engaged.
Brand story example: TOMS Shoes
Blake Mycoskie founded TOMS on one simple idea: to give away a pair of shoes for every pair purchased. This idea grew from his personal experiences traveling to Argentina, where he saw innumerable children running around barefoot. His personal passion turned into a global brand, allowing TOMS customers to build philanthropy into their everyday lives.
Now, thanks to its expansive growth and continued success, TOMS is able to give one-third of its profits to grassroots efforts. TOMS also paved the way for companies to follow its novel “One for One” philanthropic business model.
Brand story example: Airbnb
Airbnnb started out as three roommates turning a small space in their apartment into a bed-and-breakfast by simply filling up an air mattress and welcoming strangers into their home. From that seemingly absurd idea grew a community and business built on connecting guests and hosts, and ensuring that anyone can “belong anywhere.” This idea gained traction quickly, catapulting Airbnb to new heights and successes.
Brand story example: GoldieBlox
GoldieBlox became an overnight sensation after winning a free SuperBowl commercial spot. Why? Because it offered a new way of thinking about shopping for gifts for girls. This thinking came from its founder’s personal experience of being the only woman in an engineering program—an experience that immediately connected with myriad women across the US. The GoldieBlox website says it best, “it became clear that Debbie wasn't just starting a company - she was starting a movement.”
02. Brand values
Are you clear on your company’s brand values? If not, now’s the time to get clear, because consumers’ purchase decisions rely more and more on principles and values.
“66% of consumers in the U.S. make purchase decisions based on values.” — Ipsos Global Trends Report, November 2021
The consumer preference to support brands with values that reflect their own means your company should clearly (and frequently) share its values across all channels (i.e., your website, display ads, newsletters, social media posts, etc).
Your values are what drive your mission and purpose. Recall what I said earlier: To stand out online, you need to stand for something. Your values are what allow you to stand out.
Brand values exercise
If you’ve not yet defined your values, here’s a simple exercise for you and your team to complete together (shared here with permission from a previous business coach of mine).
Step one: Brainstorm. Ask yourself and your team the question, “What matters most to our business?” Write down all the words and phrases that everyone shares. This is simply the information-gathering stage.
Step two: Keep going. When the room gets quiet, take a few minutes’ break. Encourage folks to get up, take a short walk, get a beverage, whatever. Shake up the situation to get the brain moving in a different direction. Then, come back together and ask the same question again. Write down anything new that comes to mind.
Step three: Turn inwards. Now’s the time for everyone to review all of what’s been shared. Sit quietly for five-to-ten minutes, consider everything already shared, and seek to fill any remaining gaps. My coach liked to play music with a positive message to help get the brain working in yet another way. Do whatever makes sense for your team during this time.
Step four: Ask for additions one more time. See if, after that introspective period, anyone has anything new to add to your list. If they do, add them. If not, that’s ok, too.
Step five: Cluster your words and phrases. Work together to consolidate similar items together. This will help shorten your list, which is imperative before you hit step six.
Step six: Narrow your list to your top three-to-five values. Why so few? Because you and your team will need to know these values inside and out moving forward. Focus on making your list meaningful and manageable.
Here are a few examples of brands with clear values and a commitment to transparent communication about them.
Brand values example: Bombas
Following in TOMS’s footsteps is Bombas, another clothing brand focused on the one-for-one model: give away a piece of clothing for every piece purchased. Randy Goldberg and David Heath, founders of Bombas, first focused their company on socks, as they heard that socks were the number-one requested item at homeless shelters. The passion for helping the homeless connected with customers, growing Bombas into a company that now also offers other clothing items of great need, including underwear, t-shirts, and slippers.
Brand values example: WeWork
It’s no secret that WeWork has come under fire in the past. But, it’s making a strong comeback, in large part due to its recommitment to its core values (“Do The Right Thing; Give Gratitude; Strive To Be Better, Together; Be Human, Be Kind; Be Entrepreneurial”).
These values can be seen in the ads it puts out, the welcome customers receive when walking into one of their many locations, and the way it embraces its employees. This is a great example of a brand making its values public and then ensuring it holds itself accountable to those values to build trust with its customers.
Brand values example: Marriott International, Inc.
Marriott is another brand that does a phenomenal job of showcasing and defining its values (“We Put People First, We Pursue Excellence, We Embrace Change, We Act with Integrity, We Serve Our World”). One of the most wonderful ways it puts its values into action is by showcasing the stories of its employees.
Marriott refers to its employees as “the heart of the house,” and highlights the many ways the individuals behind the business are what make Marriott so successful. That builds brand loyalty like no other.
Share your values
Remember to share your values with your company and audience. Then be sure to live those values in person and online every day. This will place you in a prime position to make authentic connections with your customers.
Authentic connections lead to real conversations, which lead to conversions. To help those conversions along, you’ll want to pair your values (what you stand for) with your competitive advantages (your “superpowers”). Let’s dive into those next.
The fact of the matter is, you are not your competition. The best way to showcase this is to define and communicate your competitive advantages; what I like to call your “superpowers.”
Often referred to as your market differentiators, unique selling propositions (USPs), or unique value propositions (UVPs), your superpowers encompass a combination of several elements that make you unique. For instance, they can include a mixture of any of the following:
Expand beyond this list; it’s really just a starting point.
You have certain attributes that fully distinguish you from your competition. And, if there’s something you have that overlaps with a competitor? Well, if you own the conversation and you frame it well, then you own that superpower in your audience’s minds (e.g., Patagonia isn’t the only philanthropic clothing brand, but it’s likely the most well known).
Identify your superpowers and you’ll have your key competitive advantages ready to use in your brand promise, position statement, elevator pitch, and throughout the rest of your marketing copy.
Superpower example: Warby Parker
Warby Parker’s superpowers lay in its focus on affordability and ease of buying a new pair of prescription eyeglasses. Based on the beliefs that eyeglasses are too expensive and that everyone deserves to see, Warby Parker disrupted the market. It did so through two of its biggest USPs: You get frames for as low as $95, and you can test out five different frames at home for five days for free before making a decision. This company also follows TOMS’s lead—every pair purchased equals a pair donated.
Superpower example: Whole Foods
Whole Foods started as a single organic food market focused on selling products that met strict “standards for colors, flavors and preservatives.” Today, Whole Foods is a national chain known for its broad array of organic foods, responsible sourcing, and sustainable practices. Its solid foundation in organic food and partnership with Amazon make Whole Foods a go-to national retailer for consumers.
Superpower example: Canva
In 2013, Canva upended the graphic design world by creating a platform that makes it easy for anyone to design and publish anything, anywhere. From pre-created templates to thousands of designs, images, fonts, elements, and more, Canva is a fully-packaged tool that comes with both free and paid offerings. The ease of use, from signing up for an account to creating a brand new design, sets Canva in its own category.
You are uniquely you. Your business is uniquely yours. Take some time to lay out your superpowers. With them in hand, you’ll be able to confidently answer your audience’s question, “Why should I choose you?”
The brand attributes you need to define and follow
Two brand attributes work together to bring your business to life: voice and tone. They define your brand’s personality and drive your approach to content creation. Let’s talk about what each is and how to define them for your company.
Put simply, your brand voice is your brand’s personality. It’s what allows you to start building a connection between your company and your customer. Remember, connections are what drive conversions.
To define your brand voice, brainstorm with your team the many personality traits that your company expresses. Is your brand witty? Courageous? Empathetic? Bold? Sarcastic? Helpful? Sophisticated?
If you’re uncertain about which characteristics best define your brand, run through the exercise listed in the brand values section (above). If possible, include external stakeholders in this conversation, too. For instance, you can survey your current and past customers to understand how your brand voice comes across to individuals outside your company.
Brand voice example: Mailchimp
Mailchimp has a well-defined voice, which focuses on being the “experienced and compassionate business partner,” educating through “off-beat humor and a conversational voice.” You hear this voice shining through in all its content, from its marketing emails to its step-by-step instructions in its resource center. A big driver of Mailchimp’s success in maintaining such a consistent voice is its well-defined content style guide that it shares with all its content creators.
Brand voice example: Panda Planner
Panda Planner’s voice, which originates from its founder and his personal journey, is supportive, engaging, and compassionate. For small companies, it’s quite common to adopt the voice of its leader. This goes to show that even solo and small ventures can create a unique voice simply by looking to its key people for inspiration.
Brand voice example: SPI
Spend any time reading the copy on the SPI website or its email newsletters (or listening to any of its podcasts), and you’ll quickly identify the unique attributes of SPI’s voice: service, gratitude, and heart. This voice has been with SPI since its founder’s humble beginnings as a podcaster. Pat Flynn has since built an online empire, growing his team and expanding his company’s offerings. Through it all, this core voice has remained steadfast and true.
Approximately 95% of customer purchases stem from emotional decisions (not logical ones), according to Harvard Business School Professor Gerald Zaltman. This means your marketing must tap into the emotions of your audience to connect and convert.
That’s where tone comes into play. Tone is the combination of your writing style and the emotions you want to evoke in your audience. In concert, these two help to craft an experience and an environment that draws in audiences and makes them more comfortable with your brand.
How you write and the emotions you target require you to first understand your primary audience. For instance, baby boomers require a different content style and emotional approach than Gen Z’ers. Get clear on your ideal customer and you’ll quickly be able to identify how to approach your writing style and which emotions to target.
The best way to understand this is to see it in action. Here are a few examples to help you clarify your brand’s tone.
Brand tone example: Dove
Dove stands out as a brand that has set a new standard for tone in marketing. Through its messaging, Dove connects with its audience via a tone characterized by confidence, inspiration, authenticity, and sincerity. This comes through in its copy and imagery, fully embracing what it is that makes each woman beautiful. In a world where beauty has traditionally been narrowly defined, this message connects strongly on an emotional level, affirming women for who they are and not selling what they should be.
Brand tone example: Nike
A brand’s tone will often change based on the situation at hand. Nike, however, has found a way to bring a consistent tone to all of its marketing campaigns. That consistency centers around encouragement: From its “Just Do It” campaign to its approach to ads during the Coronavirus pandemic, Nike consistently pushes its customers to keep going. This encouragement is often paired with messages of inspiration and support featuring famous athletes, breaking barriers and connecting customers with their sports heroes on a more personal level.
Brand tone example: Southwest Airlines
Heart is at the center of Southwest; it shines through in its messaging with its customers, employees, partners, investors, and the broader community. Southwest put its tone on display in its publications when COVID-19 first became a worldwide pandemic—you can see it in full force in this letter from Southwest’s Vice President of Marketing and Digital Experiences, Bill Tierney.
Heart isn’t the only aspect of tone that builds connection and loyalty with Southwest’s customers, however. Southwest also embraces personality and individuality, which is evident any time you board a Southwest flight and hear from an attendant. Humor and heart: these are absolutely two key tone attributes that help Southwest stand out from its competition.
How to incorporate brand messaging for the greatest impact
Your goal is to infuse your brand through all your messaging, because consistency is key. This means incorporating your brand messaging in a variety of locations, including your:
Metadata (title tags, meta descriptions, alt text)
This may feel overwhelming due to how many different touchpoints you potentially have with your audience—thankfully, it’s not as challenging as it sounds. Define the handful of items we’ve covered here, pull them all together into one brand guide (Mailchimp’s content style guide is a great example), and share that guide with everyone on your team. This will ensure a cohesive approach no matter who’s creating content or where that content will live.
Let’s look at a few companies that have successfully created a consistent brand across myriad locations, enabling them to build strong connections with their customers.
Apple’s tagline to “think different” and its emphasis on quality and creating experiences have impacted all aspects of its marketing: You see it in its advertisements. You feel it in the packaging of its products. You experience it every time you open your MacBook or unlock your iPhone. It also shows in its employment practices and its commitment to inclusion and diversity.
Regardless of how you interact with Apple, you immediately understand what makes it stand out from the rest. When you consider the many ways your products, services, or messaging can show up for your audience, ensure that they consistently employ your tone and voice guidelines to create strong brand recognition.
From “Have a Coke and a smile,” to “Share a Coke,” to the holiday campaigns featuring polar bears or Santa Claus, Coca-Cola’s brand has consistently centered around the ideas of joy and bringing people together. It’s also the perfect brand to watch from a multichannel marketing perspective.
Take, for example, the advertisements Coca-Cola ran during the 2012 Super Bowl featuring its iconic animated polar bears. The polar bears also took over the company’s Twitter account and had a website all their own that was a “live feed” of the bears watching the game.
“It all started with a mouse.” From quoting Walt Disney in articles to paying homage to the first movies that made Disney a household name, it’s clear that one of Disney’s core values is never forgetting where you came from. At the same time, innovation is at the core of all Disney does, from its “imagineering” department in its theme parks to its animation styles in its movies to its toys that draw in fans of all ages.
This balancing act of envisioning and planning for the future while honoring its past is something Disney does exceedingly well. In addition, Disney’s attention to the most minute details is what has garnered great acclaim across its products, parks, services, and leadership practices.
All in all, Disney is the epitome of a brand to emulate when it comes to strong, cohesive marketing that crosses (and encompasses) all channels.
Infuse your brand voice and tone into your content to better connect with audiences and increase conversions
To be successful in organic digital marketing, you need to accept one truth: It’s no longer enough to optimize your content solely for top search rankings. Now, you must also optimize your content for customer connection.
Remember, strong branding breeds strong connections. Strong connections set the stage for increased conversions. The higher your conversion rate, the more people you’ll be able to serve.
In the end, you’re in business for a purpose. You’re here to serve that purpose to customers who need you. Connect with those customers through search-optimized, brand-focused messaging.
Cari O'Brien is Founder and Chief Word Nerd at Custom Content Solutions, a digital content agency. She’s the creator of the Connection Copywriting Method and the online course, Write That Site. She’s a frequent speaker on branding and copywriting. Twitter | Linkedin