What does “Independent George” have to do with brand voice?

What does “Independent George” have to do with brand voice?

Stick with me for just a minute. And let me tell you about how George Constanza puts his finger right on one of he biggest dilemmas that face brands and the copwriters who support them.

First, let’s step into George’s world, just for a second. It’s one of his greatest rants … the one where he really puts his POV right on the line:

First there’s Independent George – the bawdy one, the one who goes to the coffee shop, the gleeful, unrepentant liar. This is the real George, the essence of the fundamental Georginess we all love.

But, at the same time, there’s also Relationship George. He’s the responsible one – the one who is reasonably effective at keeping in check all those things that make George so unmistakably George-like.

I was watching that scene the other day and it hit me. I’ve been a party to that very conversation … and more than once. OK, so it wasn’t actually about relationships. No, those conversations were about words. Copy. Brand voice.

So, what exactly does George’s famous rant have to do with brands, brand voice and copywriting? Quite a bit, actually …

Think about it. Many brands are leading the same kind of self-loathing, schizophrenic existence as George … when it comes to presenting themselves to their two key audiences, prospects and customers, that is.

Many brands are okay letting “Independent George” talk to prospects. They’ll be off-the-wall, maybe a little bawdy … they might even lie a little (you know, just a teensy little “ironic” lie.) That’s what it takes when you’re “out there”, competing with all the other attractive and available brands.

So they’re OK with being fast and loose, fun and funny … just the kind of brand you’d like to hang out with … if, like the market researchers ask, you could invite a brand over to your dinner party. OR, better yet, if you could go out on a date with it.

And for a few brands, Independent George is the only guy their customers will ever meet. Those brands probably don’t worry much about nurturing a Relationship. They are on a constant first date with prospects … and both parties seem to like that. (This would be the rare brand that doesn’t have a strong emphasis on customer management.)

But many brands – okay, pretty much EVERY one — DO have to worry about what happens once that initial thrill of the courtship is over… Including, I’m betting, yours.

Maybe you’re in financial services, for example, and you’ll need to speak with your customers on a regular basis – maybe when the news is not quite so good. Or you’re an Auto Insurer, who’s going to need to bill your customers every few months, and/or talk with them when they may not be in the best of moods …

…maybe you’re a life insurer, and you may need to speak with someone who has just filed a claim. Back in my days as a copywriter, I had to write that letter. It’s not easy, no matter whose voice you use. Fortunately that client had a great customer voice – one of the best – that they applied consistently in both customer acquisition and through their service channels.

Most marketers worry — really worry — that Independent George will kill Relationship George.

Some marketing folks I know are so petrified of Independent George that they are okay with killing him rather than letting his freewheeling bawdiness enter the room when a customer might be there.

Look, I’m not saying serious and sober can’t be your brand voice. I’m not even saying that boring (okay, predictable) can’t be your brand personality. That might be your PERFECT brand voice. Whatever the best voice is for your brand, make it authentic and stick with it. Don’t give customers whiplash looking around for the fun and engaging brand they first fell for.

Now, about executing strategy …

Some organizations fear the potential conflict between acquisition and relationship marketing SO MUCH that they have completely different teams take care of customer acquisition and customer management. (Most typically and external agency on acquisition and the internal team on relationship.)

This model, at its most extreme, calls for these groups to work in complete ignorance of what each other is doing. Sounds crazy, right? Well, I’ve seen it first hand. I bet you have too. Customer management is much too serious a business to leave it to those crazy “agency folk” And in-house teams are thought to be too limited to really step out of the box and do what it takes to acquire new customers.

Here’s what can result from that. Going back to the relationship model again: You met this great guy (brand) who is funny and crazy (engaging) and you can’t help but be caught up in all that charisma (you buy what he is selling.) Then, once he realizes that he “has you”, he changes. And it’s a difference you can’t help but notice. He’s overly formal, sometimes stiff … he acts as if that crazy courtship never happened!

Suddenly he’s Jerry, trying NOT to be funny. Who wants that?

Think of the brands that get customer voice right. Really right. Do they have a different brand voice depending on whether you are a prospect or a customer? No, because they realize that you are ALWAYS a prospect.

ING Direct (now Capital One 360) built a ridiculously successful franchise by not making a distinction between its acquisition and service voices. And they were dealing with something “serious” … people’s savings! They realized, though, that their brand was built on being refreshingly non-banky … and made sure whatever they said reflected that. And they made sure that everyone in the organization got that … from the person writing the direct mail to the person coding 404 Error messages.

To close: 5 Ways to Make Sure Your Two Georges Can Co-Exist

1. Have the same people write the acquisition and customer management copy.

2. Make sure everybody understands and can articulate what your brand voice is … and is not.

3. Don’t change personas mid-stream.

4. It’s okay to express shades of your persona based on circumstances … but there should be enough connective tissue that a customer won’t wonder where that brand they fell in love with is hiding.

5. Give your best writers and best creatives the challenge of applying your acquisition voice to your trickiest communications — like collection notices. Have it be an evergreem project … when you find the right solution, share it across the organization to show everyone that your Independent side rally can co-exist with your Relationship side.

Will this struggle ever go away? Of course not. It’s just the kind of healthy tension that got you into this business in the first place! But … once everyone acknowledges that there is something worth discussing here, the sooner you can get to a better place.

After all, a George divided against itself CANNOT STAND.

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