As tone of voice balances on the cusp of becoming a mainstream discipline, our associate content consultant offers a few tips for businesses that want to realise the true value of brand language.
If I hear another business say they want to sound like Innocent, I’ll scream. Fellow writers will understand only too well the frustration of this jaw-clenching prospect during a content strategy meeting or tone of voice workshop.
No discredit to Innocent. The pioneer of personified packaging has done wonders for demonstrating the value of a distinct brand language (and I salute anyone who can distil comic timing into the bottom of a juice bottle). Plenty of companies can peddle fruit, but when you sell it with a wry smile, people remember it. Admittedly, the over-familiar chirpiness of wackaging is becoming tiresome. But that’s the point: tone of voice needs to be a brand’s own if it’s to stand out from the crowd.
Developing a distinct voice isn’t easy, which is why savvy businesses don’t skimp when it comes to investing in it.
Why a proper job matters
According to a study by The Writer, a third of top UK companies have a pre-defined tone of voice (a lot or too few, depending on your view), spending an average of £116k. Benefits cited range from better customer experience to positive culture change and cost savings. Some have even done the math, with BT reporting a 10:1 return on investment.
I usually balk at metrics being asked of such a creative discipline – tone of voice is about building relationships with customers, and that isn’t, and shouldn’t be, easy to quantify. But anyone who feels a glimmer of doubt about paying for a proper job may want to check out new research by usability gurus Nielsen. The nub of which is that different tones of voice have a measurable impact on an audience’s perception of a brand, and that different characteristics work for different territories.
People listen to people, not companies. So no type of organisation can afford to be faceless if they want to build customers’ trust. It’s no surprise that the finance sector invests the most in tone of voice activities (The Writer). With more companies communicating online, I wonder if we’ll see more interest from e-commerce and customer-service departments.
From my experience, tone of voice also bears immediate cost savings – surely music to the ears of budget holders. In my 15 years working with both commercial clients and publishers, I’ve seen fewer copy changes and smoother briefing when solid guidelines are in place.
Building a successful brand voice starts with these six things…
1. Customer-focused copy
User-focused writing is the basis of any good tone of voice, with personality adding the layer of differentiation. Developing tone of voice and style guidelines is a specialist creative discipline that demands professional rigour and a robust process.
2. What you say, not just how you say it
The biggest misconception, for me, is that tone of voice is a magical essence you can sprinkle on copy to liven it up.
When you listen to someone engaging, you’re not just swayed by the style of their delivery but also what they talk about: the interesting detail, a compelling narrative, their opinion. Opinion can matter more than hard benefits. Here a brand’s vision is one of the keys to differentiation and finding the emotional hook that will motivate interest or instill trust.
3. Consistency and patience
Having a tone of voice is all about consistency. So chopping and changing it every time there’s a shift in strategy or subjectivity undermines its believability. Like a successful logo, language and messaging should evolve gradually. Also consider the whole content piece – good design can lift copy, so tone should come through visually as well as verbally.
Even after the guidelines are written, it takes time and practice to hone brand language. It has certainly paid off for the likes of Carlsberg and Specsavers, whose catchphrases have become ubiquitous – in their own campaigns and in the public conversation. If you stick with it, it’s more likely to stick.
Nor should brands adopt different tones for different audiences. Rather the volume of tone, or a specific element of it, can be adjusted to suit circumstance, objective and format. A Facebook competition is likely to be more playful than an apology letter to an individual customer.
Give your brand personality a face by drawing from the people behind it. Whether getting staff and stakeholders involved in the process or using them to tell your stories, people will give your words credence. Likewise, audience should play a part if you want to relate to them; but it shouldn’t determine the tone, just help substantiate it.
Tone of voice guidelines should never gather dust in a drawer. Distribute copies and let them also be the anchor for idea-generation, content approval and customer-service training. Their effectiveness depends on how they’re put to use, not as a set of rules but as an approach from planning to creation.