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Going beyond chatty copy

The friendly tone of voice has become the norm. But should brands be working harder to sound more distinctive? Like an off duty barmaid on her fourth glass of white wine, brands are getting friendlier and friendlier. These days, you can’t skim read an ad, eat a packet of crisps or glance up at a billboard without being addressed by some sort of needy chum.

It seems that every brand that’s reviewed its tone of voice in the last five years or so has plumped for dialling up the chattiness, adding a dash of quirk and chucking in the odd colloquialism. ‘Warm and bubbly’ has become the ‘stock shot’ for brands – and the easy option for copywriters.

A stopped clock is right twice a day Of course, for the right brands, in the right sectors, this approach works well. For example, we use a friendly tone of voice when writing for a major high street retailer. It suits their company ethos. They’ve been around long enough to have earned the right to be familiar with their loyal customers. However, even here, their core specialist expertise – fashion – always takes precedent over chattiness. Product copy, in-store graphics and any language that relates to product has to be fashion-led

Stop the shortcuts Finding the right tone of voice isn’t as simple as replacing ‘Dear Mrs Chabon’ with ‘Hello Emily’. Instead, you need to really delve into the brand’s history, values and character to ensure your new tone rooted in something genuine. You have to analyse the different audiences the brand speaks to – and fully understand their wants and expectations.

The power of precision Only by undertaking this rigorous process can you uncover the tone of voice that’s right for your brand. There are no shortcuts. Take a job we did for a luxury 4x4 car brand. Their drivers are – and we mean this in the nicest possible way – a unique bunch of oxymorons. While they love the all-conquering, go-anywhere nature of their vehicles, they’re equally attached to the refined luxury these SUVs provide.

Therefore, while writing the emails for a new model launch, we had to utilise a tone that was rugged and to-the-point, yet evocative and aspirational. Then, when it came to the messaging, we trod a tightrope between respecting heritage and promising revolutionary, new features. Simply dialling up the warmth would have missed all these nuances. Worse: the emails could have undermined the brand.

Your bank is not your friend. It’s your bank. It was the same when we developed a tone of voice for a major bank this summer. The obvious – or easy – option would have been to join our client’s competitors in the race to be Britain’s nicest bank. However, with international operations and an investment bank arm, this wasn’t a contest they were interested in joining. We rely on banks. So a tone which keeps a smidgeon of professional distance sounds much more reassuring. It's also more genuine: they're a bank; not your friend. So our approach was to be friendly, but don’t treat the customer or client like a friend. A subtle difference perhaps, but one with significant consequences for the writing.

The new generic Shoehorning your messaging into a friendly tone of voice isn’t just lazy. It also fails to achieve the number one job of branding: to be distinctive. So many brands have adopted this way of communicating it has lost its impact. By neglecting to analyse your brand’s unique character and simply following suit, you’ll fail to create a tonal identity – and end up with a tonal ‘me too’.

So, next time you have a tone of voice to review, don’t just add a few contractions and give the green light to start sentences with ‘And’. Study your brand. Ask what makes it unique. Then devise linguistic techniques which bring this essence to the fore.

‘Naturally’, he said, in a carefully calculated friendly tone, ‘we’d be happy to help’.


Barnaby Benson


Date posted: 12/08/2014


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