Why tone of voice matters. And how to use it.
Talk to me in that tone of voice.
Behind every great business there is a powerful brand language – the tone, terms and words that a company uses to describe themselves and their products. Brand language is as crucial as brand identity. Like visual signals, it has a huge impact on how consumers perceive a business – building awareness, establishing trust, differentiating it from the competition.
Tone of voice is a crucial part of how a brand forms and executes language, and is that brand’s inherent character brought to life through words. It’s not what you say but how you say it – the type of language you use, the way you construct sentences, the rhythm and sound of your words. Most people have heard the term ‘tone of voice’ bandied about in business meetings. But let’s dig a little deeper into what it is, how to use it, when it comes into play.
A first port of call for developing any tone of voice is your brand positioning and core values. What does your brand believe in? Is it dynamic and empowering? Is it caring and empathetic? Is it funny and mischievous? Or is it a smart, astute expert in its field? And how might each of these positions translate into tone of voice?
Once you’ve established your core positioning, you can then use your brand values to create tone of voice principles, or rules of thumb for the things that you write. A dynamic brand like MailChimp might make bold statements and use lots of positive-trigger verbs to capture attention. An empathetic, trusted brand like SSE might use warm language and lots of personal pronouns, to show their customers that they care. A more mischievous brand, like PaddyPower, might crack jokes and use wordplay.
The what, where and when
Staying true to your brand’s core position and values allows you to keep your tone of voice consistent across all written comms, from press advertisements to packaging, web copy newsletters, press releases, social posts or UX copy. That said, certain elements of your tone of voice can be dialled up or down, depending on which channel you’re communicating through. For example, your humanity might show more in your UX copy, your humour in an Instagram post and your breadth of knowledge and experience on your website.
Showing who you are. Reaching who they are.
Let’s consider how two very different brands might use their tone of voice to express who they are, and reach two different audiences. A prestige brand with an older, more traditional audience might use a word like ‘exquisite’ to describe its products, for example, but a more informal brand, speaking to a younger audience, might just say ‘our lovely things’. The traditional brand may say ‘Please click here’ on their website, for consumers who value clarity and brevity, whereas the more informal brand may say ‘let’s do this!’, so a go-getting Gen-Z customer can relate to them.
Two different brands pose a million opportunities for differentiation through tone of voice. It gives brands an opportunity to advertise their real selves — from the expert, professional or neutral, to the chatty, quirky, excitable or courageous.
From identifying to believing
Humans express themselves primarily through their words and expressions. So why should it be any different for a business? Tone of voice is of fundamental importance, because it’s an expression of YOU. How your brand thinks. What it believes in. What it’s passionate about. What it’s striving for. It’s an expression of our deepest personality. And it is personality, not products, that allows consumers to go beyond just identifying with a business to wholeheartedly believing in them.
In a cluttered brand marketplace, with more communication channels available to us than ever before, it’s no longer enough to just have a bouncy logo and an eye-catching visual identity. Every brand has a voice. And every brand should be using it.
A consistent tone of voice helps to build lasting consumer trust. As we’ve already touched upon, identifying with a tone of voice means identifying with a personality. And when consumers feel familiar with a personality then they are more likely to be loyal to the brand behind it. So, although it’s possible to flex tone of voice for different scenarios and different audiences, you don’t want to go overboard.
Don’t sound like an over-zealous Gen Z in social, and a stiff-upper-lip bank manager in your CRM emails. Strike a balance. But most importantly keep your core brand values in mind when writing anything. This means that even if you express things or coin words differently in different circumstances, your customers, on a deeper level, will know what you stand for.
Bringing your tone of voice to life
Once you’ve nailed your brand positioning and brand values, and from those created tone of voice values and principles, you can really start to bring your tone of voice to life. And the best way to do this is to write, write, write! First create a messaging exploration document to show how your tone of voice values and principles can be dialled up and down. Then write for your website, write on Instagram, write your newsletters, have fun with headlines, standfirsts, micro-copy, customer emails.
One of the most powerful incarnations of your brand
Lastly, remember to show, don’t tell. Lots of brands have tone of voice guidelines, but not many have a truly memorable tone of voice. That’s because they get so weighed down by the rules that they forget to go on and have fun with them.
Your values and principles will give your voice consistency, but should never be at the sacrifice of creativity. Don’t write it because you think it’s right. Or because your guidelines dictate it. Write it because you feel it. You believe it. And you believe it’s the best possible way to reach someone in that particular moment. Then your tone of voice has limitless potential, and can become one of the most brilliant, powerful incarnations of your brand.