13 June 2022
Should your brand have an accent?
Clear communication is key, and it’s especially important in branding.
A neutral accent ensures your message is never lost in translation.
But could giving your brand an accent help you connect with your customers? In this modern age where social media is growing and audiences are overlapping, it might be something you could benefit from.
Let’s investigate the pros and cons of doing so and see if it’s right for you.
Playing with stereotypes
The public discourse around stereotypes in recent years is that they’re universally bad, but they’re actually incredibly useful: they help us navigate the world at speed, by taking our knowledge and experience of the world and using it to make a ‘best guess’ at what’s happening.
We’ll start by looking at one brand that effectively uses stereotypes of their national origin as a selling point.
Foster’s, an Australian beer brand, emphasizes the Aussie trope of beach-dwelling surfer ‘bros’ in British adverts, and sells far better in the UK than it does in Australia. Doing the same on home turf would likely not have the same effect – why?
There’s much to be said for the idea of ‘the exotic’, which can seem more exciting and draw your attention (we can recall ice cream brands using English-language voiceovers with Italian accents, to evoke gelato-sellers people may have come across on vacation).
So if you want to bring your culture or heritage to your brand, it might be worth giving it an accent. British-Indian brand Patak’s did this (and told their story) through this 2017 commercial.
Not all foreign accents are considered ‘exotic’, though, and it’s all to do with that country’s national image. A German accent in 1950 would’ve provoked a very different reaction to today, as Germany’s image has been rehabilitated in the many years since the end of the Second World War.
On the other hand, public perceptions of countries can sour, influenced by world events. Compare the Market (a price comparison website) chose to create Russian characters in the form of meerkats to promote their clever – and somewhat game-changing – campaign, ‘Compare the Meerkat’, on British and Australian TV.
And until very recently it’s proved successful, having run for 13 years and being instrumental in the saving of their business! In fact, the leading meerkat’s phrase ‘Simples’ became so popular it was added to the Oxford Dictionary.
But with recent global events, the question is – will they eventually ditch the beloved Oleg and Sergei? They may have already started to withdraw the campaign; one recent ad (below) was pulled from the media not long after the invasion of Ukraine, and it’s not too hard to see why.
And as is expected, this has gained attention from media outlets and the public.
Ok these are not the #Russian #Oligarchs
we are looking for… #CompareTheMarket pic.twitter.com/xRGni6HnsN
— 🇦🇺 Dunken K Bliths 🇺🇦 (@DunkenKBliths) March 3, 2022
Consider, too, the tone of your campaign. Fosters and Compare the Market can get away with using jokes, whimsical characters or exaggerated stereotypes, because their products aren’t so serious. It might not be appropriate to advertise a serious subject like this: imagine care homes, funeral providers, or hospitals trying to appeal to their audience in this way.
There are always exceptions, but the likelihood is it won’t be received as well.
Not a one-size-fits-all solution
IKEA is the perfect example of a brand that turns the dial up and down on its national identity. Its Swedish-ness is something it’s proud of, but the degree to which it expresses it varies by country.
In the UK, their English-language voiceovers have a clear Swedish accent, but in the US, they use a neutral American voice. Compare these two ads from the same campaign: the first aired on British television, and the second on American.
Why is this? We’re speculating, but we think it might be because American audiences are less accustomed to European-accented English compared to Brits.
IKEA India takes a different approach altogether.
Rather than speaking in one of India’s many native languages, IKEA India uses English-speaking voice artists. English is a sort of lingua franca in India: a common ‘bridge’ language that has few native speakers, but which many people speak as a second language.
IKEA has recognized that Indian audiences are already listening to a second language; to then add a Swedish accent on top might make it indecipherable. Not only that but IKEA is less established in India than it is in others markets; so by using Indian-accented accent, their brand appears more familiar and makes a bigger impression on their audience.
If your business is aimed at an international audience or many of your customers speak English as a second language, it may pay to keep your brand’s voice neutral in accent, to aid understanding.
Drilling down: Not just national but regional pride
Jack Daniels… Yorkshire Tea… New York Bakery Co… What do all these brand names have in common (besides being delicious)?
They all use a strong regional accent in their advertising campaigns. Rather than simply ‘American’ or ‘British’, these brands have chosen to emphasize exactly where they’re from: Tennessee, Yorkshire, New York City. Why?
Your choice of voice artist is often about reflecting your audience back to themselves (to help them associated themselves with your brand). But in these cases, their target audiences are incredibly broad. So instead they’re representing what their product is about: home comforts, familiarity, warmth. And because their reach and reputation are so widespread, they don’t need to worry about people misunderstanding the accent – the product speaks for itself.
So does that mean a small business should avoid using strong regional accents? Not necessarily. If your target audience is mainly local, it could work in your favor to speak on a level they’ll relate to. And that doesn’t have to mean closing yourself off to customers further afield, but simply embracing your regional identity.
For example, imagine calling your doctor and it’s answered by someone speaking a local accent. Are you instantly put at ease? Very possibly. After all, you ring wanting reassurance from people who can understand you, so using a more neutral voice might seem colder, more corporate or more transactional.
Examples of regional accents used in commercials
Once upon a time, the go-to advertising voice in the UK was Received Pronunciation (think ‘the Queen’). And while older generations still respond well to this accent, especially when it’s needed for more authoritative or luxurious promotions, younger audiences are less likely to.
It’s why many marketers now use regional accents in their campaigns. People with Geordie accents (those from Newcastle-upon-Tyne) are commonly used to promote more important causes, like anti-drink-driving and smoke alarms, as they’re considered warm, genuine and understanding.
Many companies that promote casual necessities, such as these Plusnet and Plenty ads, use typical ‘Northern’ accents (in this case, Yorkshire and Lancashire respectively).
But how you can come across as serious and not so relaxed without using a voice deemed too well-spoken? Quite a few financial firms have opted for Scottish voiceovers, known for their trustworthy and reassuring burr! Here’s an ad from global real estate firm RE/MAX.
This was mainly used for their Scottish branches, but it’s a great example of how a strong regional accent is used for more serious brands.
Can using a regional accent in advertising be a bad idea?
It’s an unfortunate truth that stereotypes and perceptions of certain accents mean there are times when the use of them can be limiting. A study from the University College London revealed “having a Liverpudlian accent could act as an unfounded barrier to career progression or social acceptance”, and it’s one of many regional accents that cause people to have negative perceptions on someone’s socio-economic background or even intellect.
Think of people from New York, Atlanta, Boston and New Orleans. Do you immediately know how they speak? How does it make you feel about them? All of this reflects a phenomenon known as ‘accent prestige’. Can you think of an accent that’s a ‘turn off’ for you? You might even be turned off by your own!
A British government survey found that while Geordies and Mancunians (people from Manchester) enjoy listening to their own accent, people from Bristol and Birmingham would rather not, with Bristolians reminded of their widespread ridicule whenever they hear their accent on TV.
This carries over into advertising. And while a lot of these preconceptions are unfair or unfounded, it’s up to you whether you would want to challenge them or not; speaking with a neutral accent can change how professional and knowledgeable you seem.
A solution? Perhaps use accents that have some reference to your own identity, or at least your audience’s. Make sure you consider your audience, are aware of common preconceptions, and decide what impression you want your brand to give off.
Break the mould! (With caution)
Of course, there are examples where companies choose to stray from the norm. Some brands use an accent that is neither own nor their audience’s: we can think of many American commercials that feature English accents, often to create stereotypical ‘posh’ or ‘intellectual’ British characters.
One company that plays on a slightly different British stereotype is insurance company GEICO, who employs English actor Jake Wood’s natural ‘Cockney’ drawl to achieve a more approachable, Michael Caine-esque cartoon character (but note how the voiceover at the end reverts to a standard, neutral American accent).
So – having read all this – should you use one?
It depends entirely on your product, your audience and your industry. Strike the right balance and it could pay off enormously. It’s one of the reasons we have such a huge roster of voice artists around the globe – able to speak with a neutral, regional or natural foreign accent.
Want to hear what your brand would sound like, voiced by one of them?Get a free demo
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