Talk to me in that tone of voice

December 2020

Tone of voice is a phrase that’s used generously in just about every marketing meeting in every office of every brand around the world. Everyone who works in branding or marketing knows that tone of voice is important, and that they should definitely have one.

But what is a brand tone of voice, exactly? And why is it so important?

Your brand’s tone of voice is not about what you say, but how you say it. It’s about how you ‘sound’ in writing. And that means everything in writing – from your Twitter posts to your ads, your customer emails to your print brochures and your point-of-sale copy – even your micro-copy.

Your tone of voice is how you ‘sound’ in writing, from your Twitter posts to your ads

It can be formal, quirky, warm, chatty, funny, business-like, excitable, calm, confident, or anything you like. ‘Please click here’ and ‘Let’s do this’ could both be the same call to action – for signing up to a newsletter, perhaps. But they are in very different tones of voice.

Your tone of voice is an expression of you

Tone of voice is important because it’s the expression of your brand’s personality. It’s what sets you apart from your competitors. And it is even more important now that the marketplace is more crowded, and communication channels are more numerous, than ever before. A cool logo and a whizzy visual identity are no longer enough – a brand without a distinctive tone of voice is not really a brand at all.

A cool logo and visual identity are not enough. A brand without a tone of voice is not a brand at all

It also helps build trust. If a customer is familiar with your tone of voice, then they know who they’re dealing with, and they know they can trust you. That’s where consistency becomes important. If you sound like an over-excited Gen Z in your social posts and like a bank manager in your CRM emails, then that’s confusing for a customer. You are not building brand familiarity, you’re not expressing your personality, and you are not building trust.

If a customer is familiar with your tone of voice, they know they can trust you

And finally, tone of voice is important because it influences how your customer feels. John Lewis, a long-established British high-street store, is famous for its distinctive, carefully honed tone of voice. It is warm and down-to-earth, like a well-loved older relative who has nothing but your interests at heart. But it’s never patronising. From its big Christmas ad campaign to the smallest of small print in its T&Cs, it effortlessly makes you feel welcome and cared for. You trust it instinctively.

How to nail your tone of voice: first nail your values

So how do you come up with a tone of voice? The first mistake to avoid is to try and force it. It has to be organic. Instead of copying a tone of voice that you admire or that’s cool or fashionable, your tone of voice should be a genuine expression of your unique brand. Don’t try to be Innocent Smoothies (unless, of course, you are Innocent Smoothies).

And that means it has to come from your values. First, do the soul-searching, the workshopping, the research and the brainstorming with your teams, customers and stakeholders, to decide what your values are.

Once you know what your values are, you know what you want to say

Are you inclusive, or are you aspirational? Is your mission to make people feel confident in their skin, like Dove Soap? Is it to fire up and inspire others to grow their business? Do you care about the planet or is affordability more important? Once you have these values defined, you will know what you want to say, and how you say it should come more easily.

The nuts-and-bolts of your tone of voice

So now you need to work out how to express your values in your written communications. What words do you use and what do you avoid, how do you structure your sentences, do you use slang, are you polite, are you conversational, and so on. Hammer out the details, so that everyone who has to write anything for your brand, whether they’re the creative team, the customer service, or the UX designers building your website, will know exactly how to write. 

Just write: The easiest and best way to do this is to actually write something, and once your copy sounds true to your brand, then that is your tone of voice. Write lots, and write for different situations – social media posts, transactional copy for your e-commerce site, customer emails – as each context will call for a different nuance of your tone of voice. 

Be specific: Now you just have to come up with a few adjectives to describe your tone of voice (four or five is plenty). Don’t use vague words to do this. Everybody wants to sound ‘human’, for example, but what does that really mean? Instead of using ‘friendly’, ask whether it is ‘familiar’ maybe, or ‘excitable’, ‘calm’, or ‘urbane’. Try to dig down and be specific.

Show, don’t tell: Then, and only then, you can create your brand tone-of-voice guidelines. This is where you model it in different applications, and anyone who has to write anything for your brand will know how they should sound. Giving examples of your tone of voice in action is much more effective than describing it. Your idea of what ‘fun’ sounds like, after all, might be quite different to your boss’s idea of ‘fun’.

Put it into practice: The most important thing that you do with your beautiful new tone of voice is to use it. Make sure everyone buys into it, from the top execs down, and use it consistently across every single touchpoint, every single written communication. Your hard work will be repaid with loyal, loving customers.

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