In our multi-channel media world, brands and organizations increasingly rely on elaborate content strategies to coordinate their communications. One key factor in sharing a brand’s story successfully across all platforms is a consistent voice and tone. In the fourth installment of our content series we talk to Sara Cardace, editorial director at Nordstrom, about how to find your brand’s tone, how to maintain it, and what challenges might lie ahead.
Before joining Nordstrom in 2012, Sara was the women’s editor at online flash sale fashion website Gilt.com and a writer and editor for New York Magazine. Her culture features, profiles, reviews, and interviews have appeared in New York Magazine, the Washington Post, the New York Post, Interview Magazine, NYO Magazine, as well as on Slate.com, Nerve.com, and Babble.com.
Many people have a general idea of what an editorial director does at a newspaper or magazine. What is the role of an editorial director at a large brand like Nordstrom?
Typically, the editorial director has the final say on tone and copy. That’s one piece of it. But another reason that brands are bringing editors on board is to craft editorial calendars and help them map out their storytelling in a way that is purposeful.
Essentially that means ‘What are we talking about, and when?’ What holidays are relevant for us to talk about? Are we a brand that talks about Coachella and festival season, or not? When are people thinking about what they are buying for prom and so on.
What is relevant for Nordstrom right now?
Right now, we have a woman named Olivia Kim who was brought in to set up pop-up shops in some of our stores. Customers love them, we love them, and they are bringing Olivia’s curated culture into our experiences. The response has been really great because it is truly authentic to her style and interests.
Voice generally conveys personality and authority and is consistent. Tone conveys emotion or attitude and is more variable depending on situation and audience. Do you keep both in mind when you make decisions?
Absolutely. We have different copy teams – a catalogue team, an email team, online, in-store. I work with all of them on the tone, which is really just trying to make sure that we are all speaking the same way, talking about the same things, and that we are all aligned on where the tone should be and where it should go.
Where do you start if you want to set the tone for your branded content?
Mapping out the competition on a matrix is a great place to start. Let’s say you’re a new company that wants to be really irreverent, and you’re trying to figure out how to express that via your tone. In that case you’d make a list of all your competitors and then figure out which axes work for you—maybe it’s Edgy vs. Earnest, and Understated vs. Loud. Things like that. And then you plot them all out on the matrix, and decide where you want your brand to be.
What was the next step after looking at the competition?
To do an audit of yourself. Sometimes that can mean looking at everything that your company did in a given week or month. For us that would be an impossible task. When we’re looking to level-set, we pick examples that we think really exemplify the Nordstrom tone, and work from there.
Ok, so let’s talk style guides. What are some ways to make them clear and useful documents that content creators go to for help rather than a rigid framework that they hate?
People have very different opinions on this. In my opinion it should not be a big packet because people are never going to read the whole thing. So ideally the guide would just be a few pages long and include the basic tone principles. It should have concrete examples because that’s the quickest way to get the point across. Examples are especially important now that brands sometimes have fewer words to get their point across, because of limitations online.
I guess that’s a general trend online. Text gets shorter and shorter and images become more important. On social media, text and visual almost melt together. How do you make sure your visual language matches the style guide?
That’s a really good question and one we talk about it all the time. Another thing we learned from our competitive audit is that some brands will have really risque images with really boring – yes, boring, I’ll say it – headlines. I won’t give any examples. They can get away with it because they don’t seem boring when paired with their wild photos. But if you are a company that has really comfy-cozy kind of photos, maybe you need to use your copy to kind of counteract that a little bit. Because if you’ve got safe imagery and safe copy, people might gloss right over it. So what’s the balance there? We think about this a lot.
Also, a lot of copywriters do what we call “see-and-sell”. You’ll have a picture of some sneakers and the copy just describes sneakers. It’s not important. It’s not useful. So we think a lot about what we can communicate that will be either useful to the customer or maybe that will make them laugh.
What’s the biggest challenge to maintain a consistent voice and tone? Or said in another way: what keeps you up at night in your job?
The biggest challenge is that the number of channels and ways that we communicate with our customers feels as if it is multiplying every day. Some brands are using Snapchat and that is probably already dated as we speak. We really have to be monitoring tech news and consumer behavior closely to make sure that the things we are saying are even showing up in front of our audience.
Also, the way we are talking is changing. Social media has really affected the tone in our culture. Plus, it’s still changing all the time. It’s fascinating and I love it but it is challenging.
In the social media age, is it harder to reach the consumer or easier?
I think it’s easier to get yourself in their face and it’s also easier for them to ignore you. So that’s a fine balance.
A look in the magic mirror: future challenges in content or editorial strategy?
There is this whole movement towards communications that don’t last. That’s fascinating for brands to think about because what does it mean if we end up in a space where the norm is not that you have a lasting ad campaign but you have things that are coming and going so quickly?