May I ask who is speaking?
A friend once asked me why companies use “we” and “us” when communicating to their social media audience. We had been discussing – via Instagram direct messages – a partnership between her small business and the company for which I was managing social media at the time. She posed the question after I mentioned it felt weird not to use “I” and “me” since she knew who the person behind the account was.
It got me thinking. Why is using first person plural pronouns the default for brands?
First, a quick lesson on points of view and personal pronouns and how/when they’re used. Feel free to skip ahead if you don’t want or need the info. I will say though, when I did some research on this, I was reminded of lots of grammar tidbits I hadn’t thought about since middle school.
First person point of view and pronouns are used when the speaker is speaking about him or herself or a group in which she/he is included. These pronouns include: I/me/my/mine or we/us/our/ours.
Second person point of view and pronouns refer to the speaker’s audience: You/your/yours.
Third person point of view and pronouns describe someone who is not the speaker, the speaker’s audience, or a group that doesn’t include the speaker. These pronouns include: He/she/it, him/her/it, his/her/its, and his/hers/its.
Don’t worry, I won’t elaborate on subjective vs objective vs possessive. This time. And using second or third person is pretty intuitive, so that doesn’t need elaboration either.
What I am going to expand upon is why a brand might choose singular first person pronouns rather than plural first person pronouns, or vice versa, when both live under the same point of view. I.e., speaking from one person’s point of view versus the point of view of a group. Singular = I/me/my (speaker referring to just him or herself) Plural = we/us/ours (Speaker referring to a group to which he or she is included).
Singular = I/me/my | Plural = we/us/ours
I generally think that plural first person is the better choice for a brand’s communication. When a business is referring to itself, it’s usually referring to an entity made up of multiple people. There’s probably not one person making the product, managing retail, paying the bills, and posting Facebook updates, so why speak as if that’s the case? Consumers understand that most businesses require many roles and processes to make their services possible. Therefore, using “we” and “us” to represent the business voice seems more natural. It’s also more “professional”.
Very unrealistic example: “We are so excited to announce our NEW flavor! This one is our favorite, and we think you’ll love it, too. Do you have suggestions for future flavors? Leave us a comment!”
I’m a huge proponent of brand humanization, and to me plural first person still maintains a personal feel. Plus, it eludes to a cohesive team with shared views and values. Who doesn’t want to sound like their company or business has it all together behind the scenes?
When might singular first-person fit? In some cases, it increases that personal factor just a bit more when the message is coming from an ambassador-type figure. Here are some situations in which it could work in a brand’s favor:
- Perhaps the business really is one person making the product, managing retail, paying the bills, and posting Facebook updates. What a superhero! I run across social media accounts like this all the time; there’s a huge maker and small biz movement happening right now. If you’re a local baker who makes and sells cookies out of your home, and it’s just you running the show, singular pronouns are definitely a natural fit!
- What if you are the brand, like you’re an author, medical professional, or public figure of some sort? Same thinking as above applies. Until you’ve grown a team that shares the stake in your success, it probably won’t make sense to use we/us/our. Which leads me into the next situation:
- You built your business solo, and from the very start, when it was your wee baby brand, you used I/me/mine because it was only you working to grow this thing. My advice: keep it up! And don’t just keep up the singular first person pronouns, but keep up your overall voice and content style. I follow a popular edible cookie dough company that was created by one woman. Although it’s now a national business, she still runs the social media accounts using I/me/my, sharing her own recipes and tidbits of her day to day life (or at least that’s the appearance the brand keeps up). Consumers respond well to this style, so if you’re lucky enough to have it going, don’t drop it in pursuit of professionalism.
- Some companies, despite being large and established, have a unique characteristic that opens the door for a creative approach: They are named after a person. With enough dedication across all marketing efforts, I think well-known brands – think Bob Evans, Tim Horton’s, or Mr. Clean – could pull off a switch to singular first person. Why not play up your built-in mascot? It would be more engaging by nature, and audiences would likely appreciate the humor and playfulness.
Another unrealistic example but this time it’s also very dumb: “Bob here! Things are busy down on my farm. I just wanted to tell you about our 2 for one dinner special…” You get the point. Notice this example still includes a plural first person pronoun: Our. Businesses can – and often should – incorporate both forms of first person pronouns in their messaging. Imagine: one person is sharing the message, speaking as him or herself, but when the message involves the collective company operations, plural pronouns are used.
- If you really want to do something fun and unconventional with your social media efforts, speaking from the perspective of one person could be effective. Moonpie does this on Twitter – the social media manager speaks as if he is an employee at the company just trying his best to get ahead. Although the tweets can be a bit absurd, the approach has been widely successful – and hilarious. Going this route might work best on super casual, in-the-moment platforms (ahem, Twitter), but keep in mind you don’t technically need the same persona across the board; your audience on one could be completely different from another.
- Final situation: Customer service communications & direct messages. This tactic is becoming increasingly popular, and some brands even sign off with the representative’s name at the end of the correspondence or when responding to comments or replies to posts. While I’m still on the fence about how this looks to users (It’s like Disney protecting its magic at all costs) I can see the utilitarian purpose. People want to feel heard by another human, not a mysterious, anonymous figure.
I think a lot of businesses are hopping onto the singular first person train because they think it’s a quick fix for making their brand seem more approachable, relatable, and human. There’s merit in that, sure, but when it doesn’t truly make sense it could do more harm than good. A sudden switch from plural to singular pronouns, or fluctuation between the two, could cause confusion for your audience. I’ve seen businesses do this and it’s hard to follow the message when you don’t know who’s talking.
I can’t stress enough the importance of establishing brand standards and guidelines that pervade every public activity. Voice is especially important to building credibility and perception. Switching from plural first person pronouns to singular might not seem like a big deal, but it warrants revisiting audience, mission, goals, etc. to ensure it aligns with the brand.
No marketing or communications approach is one-size-fits-all, but you can’t go wrong adhering to one general principle: consistency. Whatever direction you take your efforts, stick to it fiercely.