If your brand voice doesn’t work in a crisis, it doesn’t work

Mike Reed, Co-Founder & Creative Director at Reed Words examines the nature of communicating during a crisis, believing that if brands have something to say, even if it’s serious, they should do it in their own voice.

Mike Reed

Co-Founder & Creative Director Reed Words


Communicating during a crisis is hard. But ditching your established voice just makes it worse.

Switching voices is like switching logos.

Brands thrive on consistency. No one changes their logo or brand colours to ‘fit the mood’. And for good reason: those assets make them recognisable, and trigger all the associations they’ve worked so hard to embed in the brand. 

Voice is the same sort of asset. Once you’ve established a brand voice, you need to stick with it.

The danger of a crisis is that it creates a sort of panic. Brands worry that their voices can’t match the conditions, especially if those voices are light-hearted or chummy.

So, they drop them, retreating to the apparently safe ground of generic corporate language and/or platitudes. Whatever seems least likely to offend in hyper-sensitive times.

But that’s a trap. It means you’ve given up a key element of your brand. In visual terms, you’ve turned your logo grey. Your typeface is now Times New Roman.

People stop paying attention to brands like that. And their attention is much harder to regain when the crisis abates.

If you have something to say, even if it’s serious, do it in your own voice. You’ll need to find the appropriate tone, sure. But don’t turn into someone else.

Mike Reed

What do your audiences want?

This should always be the key question and doubly so now. Bland formality might feel safe for you, but offers little to your customers, or potential customers.

What do your audiences want, and need, at this time? If you’re normally lighthearted, look for opportunities to stay cheerful, even make jokes. People like a laugh, arguably now more than ever.

If you have something to say, even if it’s serious, do it in your own voice. You’ll need to find the appropriate tone, sure. But don’t turn into someone else. 

That might sound obvious, but even the most established brands can slip. Look at the recent tweets from McDonald’s, announcing its initial reopenings.

The bright, friendly voice has been replaced by corporate waffle: ‘pleased to confirm’, ‘following our operational test’. This is not the McDonald’s I know and McDonald’s is founded on the idea that it’s the same everywhere.

They could have said: “Good news! You’ll be able to order delivery from these restaurants from 13th May.” Or “Veggies – we hear ya. We’ve added the Vegetable Deluxe and Veggie Dippers to our limited menu.”

Same messages, much more McDonald’s.

If your brand only works in good times, it doesn’t really work.

Mike Reed

Stay true to you

What do you do when you have to deliver bad news? We get asked this a lot. But shit, to coin a phrase, happens. And your voice has to be ready for it. If your brand only works in good times, it doesn’t really work.

In the days before COVID, you’ll remember, KFC ran out of chicken. That’s about as bad as things can get for a chicken restaurant. They must have been tempted to issue an announcement like:

“KFC wishes to apologise to customers for the recent issues with our service. Due to circumstances beyond our control, supplies of fresh chicken were disrupted and our restaurants were forced to close…”

The usual non-apology apology: blame-shifting, lots of passive voice, formal language to pull the shutters down.

But they didn’t do that. They ran the now-famous ad that opened with:

“We’re sorry. A chicken restaurant with no chicken. It’s not ideal.”

It even had a sweary joke.

They must have been nervous about running it. But they stayed true to their voice, and turned a disaster into a victory.

Stay human

It’s worth noting that, as well as sounding reassuringly like the KFC we know, they also allowed their humanity and vulnerability to show.

These qualities are the antithesis of the faceless corporation. They reminded customers that KFC is a business made up of people. People who’d had “a hell of a week” but were working hard to turn it around. That’s not just true, it’s smart. We find it much easier to forgive people than PLCs.

If you turn into someone else when things get tough, people will find it hard to trust you.

Mike Reed

Stay in your lane

Showing your humanity and empathy is great. But again, beware the lure of the cliché. Some enterprising soul has already cut together a string of coronavirus TV ads to show how lazy and generic brands can be in times like these.

No brand sets out to be lazy and generic, of course. They no doubt felt the pressure to Say Something Meaningful, fast. So, they grabbed at what was easiest. But what’s easiest is rarely original, thoughtful or brand-specific. And it risks looking unpleasantly exploitative.

The easiest way to avoid this fate is to resist the pressure in the first place. People don’t need a car company, or restaurant chain, to tell them ‘We’re all in this together’. But they’ll appreciate a brand that offers clear, useful, relevant information in its own voice, sensitively deployed.

If your brand can’t adapt, it has to change

If you turn into someone else when things get tough, people will find it hard to trust you. And that effect will last long after the tough times have passed. You risk undoing years of hard work building the brand you have.

A considered, well-managed voice should be able to adapt to good times and bad, without losing its essence. It’s not always easy, but it should be possible.


Not sure where to start? Join our free webinar this Thursday, where we’ll share the secrets you need to create, refresh or manage a brand voice.

Guest Author

Mike Reed

Co-Founder & Creative Director Reed Words


Mike Reed is co-founder and creative director at Reed Words one of the world’s few fully-fledged brand language agencies. Mike has been a copywriter for more than 25 years, in which time he’s founded two agencies and won a clutch of awards, including D&AD Pencils, a Cannes Lion, Design Week and Dieline awards and an LIA statuette. As well as leading the team and working directly on projects, he speaks at conferences around the world and leads creative and training workshops.