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How to create a distinctive tone of voice (yes, one that's actually recognisable)

Looking to create or update your brand’s tone of voice? You’ve come to the right blog. We’ve created an extensive guide to all things tone of voice. 


By the end you’ll have learned: 

  • What tone of voice is and why it’s important

  • Why almost all companies sound the same (despite the amount of time and money they spend with brand / tone of voice agencies trying to make themselves sound unique) 

  • The secrets to creating a unique tone of voice

What is tone of voice?

Tone of voice is how a person speaks, rather than what they say. It influences the emotions they convey, the meaning of their words and their apparent trustworthiness and credibility. Nielson Norman Group propose four ‘dimensions’ of tone of voice: humour, formality, respectfulness and enthusiasm. 


These four 'dimensions' unfortunately don’t help identify what makes any particular brand’s tone of voice unique. Isn’t respectfulness one aspect of formality and humour a sign of informality? In reality, tone is as varied as the adjectives available to describe a personality or attitude.  

 

What is brand tone of voice?

Brand tone of voice is the way a brand communicates with their audience. It conveys a brand’s personality, attitude and values in the choice of words and sentence types. Tone of voice emerged from brand agencies in the 70s who realised that the way a brand “speaks” impacts how it is perceived. 


Specifically, a writer called John Simmons at Interbrand noticed that the nationalized British Rail spoke to its customers in a bossy, formal way. He figured out how they could sound more human and friendly and argued that there would be a brand equity benefit: it would sound like British Rail actually cared about their customer’s experience.  


Two laws of tone of voice emerged from this that have been with us ever since: 

  1. There is a tonal spectrum from informal to formal.  

  1. A brand’s messaging (what they communicate) can’t be completely separated from their tone of voice (how they communicate).  


Tone of voice examples

Nike is all about motivation, capability and possibility. They convey that through tone, often using imperative verbs (“Rise. Run. Rest. Repeat"), and messaging that challenges the audience: “Be the hero you didn’t have” or “Find your greatness”. 



Nike advertisement | Barnabybenson.co.uk
Doing it

The best example of Nike's tone of voice is their strapline "Just do it". It sounds empowering without being bossy, because the message is positive and suggests possibility.  


Coca-Cola's tone promises positive feelings and experiences. “Open happiness” their strapline is, like Nike’s, an imperative. The tone conveys ease through the choice of a verb that is unchallenging and easy, ‘Open’. The shortness of the statement also conveys ease.  


Why is tone of voice important?

Your tone of voice offers the potential to develop differentiation, relatability and consistency in your brand. Achieving all three allows your brand to offer something uniquely appealing and recognisable across all mediums, building brand equity. 


Differentiation

Differentiation is a primary goal for any brand manager. It creates brand equity, an emotional and rational appeal that makes consumers want your brand over the competition’s and justifies premium pricing.


Brands can be differentiated through all the elements of the brand model: their positioning, mission, proposition, personality and values, all of which are usually set out in their brand guidelines. The brand’s tone of voice - experienced at a touchpoint with consumers when they see an advertisement, read a webpage, or open an email - is one of the ways your brand perception develops in the target audience. This is partly the result of messaging, what the brand chooses to communicate, and partly tone - how it communicates.


Relatability

Relatability is when a brand sounds like their target audience and shares the same values and opinions as them. After all, a brand's written communications are just a substitute for human contact - the sales representative or store adviser who formed a human link between customer and brand. The good ones talked like their customers. Relatability has a similar benefit to the emotional appeal of a differentiated brand outlined above but doesn’t require you to be different. A brand can be relatable in the same way as its competitors and people will still be inclined to trust it.


“As a rule, we most prefer to say yes to the requests of someone we know and like.” Robert B Cialdini

Consistency

Brand clients coming to us for tone of voice advice usually have at least one of following three needs. They want to: 

  • achieve consistency  

  • stop poor writing letting their brand down 

  • make the most of the media they are using to communicate


Good brand tone of voice guidelines can make written communications consistent across a whole company whether it’s copywriters or non-writers who are drafting those communications. Simple to follow guidelines, that are properly launched and trained in, enable everyone who writes for the brand to achieve consistency of message and tone, in both their internal and external communications. 

Now you can ask AI to revise existing content, putting it into your new tone of voice. You just give it a data set of writing in the new tone, then get it to redraft the old copy. If you have specific tone of voice techniques in your guidelines, AI will be able to apply these, helping it to achieve your brand's particular tone. Don't be surprised if the AI's draft isn't quite right. You'll probably need to pass it across the eyes and mind of a good old fashioned human being to make sure it hits the spot.


So, how well do most brands use tone of voice to achieve differentiation, relatability and consistency? Most fair quite well with relatability and consistency. Very few achieve differentiation. Here’s why. 


So, where are all the brands with a distinctive tone of voice? 

You may well be reading all this thinking, “Well, if all this is so good for a brand, why don’t I see more companies with a distinctive tone of voice?" If you covered up the logo, would you recognise the brand that wrote that piece of writing? Not for most brands. So, what’s going on?


Distinctiveness involves deciding on your brand’s predominant attitude or personality trait. The trouble is, that will narrow the potential market to only those people who like that personality trait. This is true of all brand differentiation but for some reason, a distinctive tone of voice seems the hardest thing for brands to commit to.


Identical dogs | Barnabybenson.co.uk
Sometimes it's good to look exactly the same.

Perhaps this is because a truly distinctive tone of voice stands out because it is so rare. Maybe it's because tone of voice operates whenever the brand communicates. Often, a brand won’t want to express a strong personality as the situation might be inappropriate. A bank, with wit as their personality trait, wouldn’t want to be witty when turning down someone for a loan.


Alternatively, this reluctance to put forward a singular personality could be because it is hard to achieve. You can restrict your primary colour pallet to three colours and your photographic style and your typography then create press ads, videos and corporate identities that are clearly on brand. But what elements of language would you restrict to give you the same effect? And could you capture that restriction in simple to follow guidelines? The visual identity rules on use of the logo and layouts etc. you find in brand guidelines are written for professional designers. But tone of voice guidelines have to be written for anyone who writes for the brand. That means pretty much everyone in the organisation as well as the professional agency writers and freelancers it hires.


Below we've set out how brand and tone of voice agencies develop tone of voice guidelines. As we go through, we point out when the opportunity to create a truly distinctive tone of voice is missed. We then explain what you should have done if you really do want a distinctive tone for your brand.


9 steps to creating your brand tone of voice guidelines 


1. Understand the brand

As you are likely attempting to do this for your own brand, you’re in luck! You know more about it than anyone else in the world!


Review your brand’s mission, vision and values alongside its current position in the industry. What products or services do you provide? Note the brand’s history and future aspirations. Taking account of all these aspects of your business helps you understand what kind of tone of voice would suit the brand.


2. Understand the target audience 

You are aiming to create a tone of voice your target audience likes. You can’t do that if you don’t know who your audience are and what makes them tick.


Think of your target audience as an actual person you know. If you’re creating a tone of voice for a B2C brand, think of a friend or family member. If you’re creating for a B2B brand, think of a colleague or someone you’ve met through work.


Rather than aiming at middle-aged accounting executives, aim at Susan. You know Susan. She works at Deloitte as a tax consultant, has a husband and two boys, and enjoys playing squash every Monday evening and watching stand-up comedy (but only when Michael McIntyre is in town).


The point is you can paint a more vivid image in your head of a particular person you know. That makes it easier to understand how you would communicate with them. Ultimately, you want to write to someone in the same way that you would talk to them.


3. Audit your brand’s current tone of voice

Mapping out your brand’s current communication style reveals several things: 

  • how your brand naturally communicates  

  • all the errors and inconsistencies in your current tone of voice  

  • the range of communication media and contexts e.g. sales emails, reports, pitch documents, web pages, video scripts etc. 

  • which types of communication are mission critical


Take notice of what content types and platforms you communicate through most and the scenarios they're most used in. If they are essential to the business’s success you may need to produce specific guidelines for how to write in each one of these scenarios.


4. Define tone of voice principles

This is where your new tone of voice begins to take shape. Here, you decide the overarching direction for your brand’s tone of voice.


Often a brand’s tone of voice principles will merely repeat the brand’s values. So, if one of the values is ‘human’ there will be a tone of voice principle along the lines of ‘Write in a human way’, followed by techniques to help you write in a human way.


This is the current approach of most tone of voice and brand agencies. There are several problems with it: 

  • Values are often generic – lots of brands will have ‘human’ as a value, for instance. So the brand cannot ‘own’ them. So it cannot use them to differentiate. 

  • The techniques offered to help you write in a ‘human’ way – things like, ‘use simple words and short sentences’ - are also generic. Most good writers will do this in order to write clearly and approachably. So, the techniques will not differentiate. 

  • Most brands have four to six values. If all these become aspects of your brand’s personality you will not have focus in your tone of voice. Differentiation requires focusing on one distinctive quality, and ‘owning it’, by becoming known for it


So, that's how tone of voice principles are currently developed and why they rarely produce a distinctive tone of voice. If you want to differentiate your brand, what do you need to do differently? 

  • Don’t just take all your values and say these describe your tone of voice. Choose a single element of your brand model that is distinctive and encapsulates what makes the brand different.  It probably won't be a value as these tend to be rather generic. This quality becomes your overarching tone of voice guiding principle 

  • In the techniques you provide to help people's writing convey this quality, be original.

  • You'll probably also need generic writing advice on how to write well to help people communicate effectively for the brand. But be open about the fact that these won't make the tone distinctive. This sort of writing advice is used by pretty much everyone. 


5. Identify techniques that bring these principles to life

This is where you craft what your brand actually sounds like by giving writers do and don’ts that will help them achieve the desired tone of voice. You’ll find a lots of good writing advice here. Things like, ‘write like you speak’, ‘don’t use jargon’, ‘adopt the second person “you” rather than distancing third person “we"’ etc.


If your guidelines are for everyone in the business, not just copywriters, then these techniques need to be simple, practical and easy to follow. Detailed examples of before and after copy, or dos and don’ts, are essential. So is annotation to explain how the techniques deliver the brand tone of voice.


If you're aiming for the high bar of a truly distinctive voice, you're going to need to create a technique that's:

- Unique to your brand

- Expresses your overarching tone of voice guiding principle (this is the 'single element of your brand model that is distinctive and encapsulates what makes the brand different' you identified in stage 4 above)


6. Determine how your tone of voice will “flex”

“Flexing” is how your tone of voice adjusts between different media, and situations with differing communication objectives. For example, your brand would communicate differently on TikTok vs LinkedIn. The platform norms are different, TikTok being far more informal and using video rather than text and image. In an ideal world, your brand’s tone of voice needs to stay consistent and recognisable across these platforms. But it will have to flex to work effectively in different media.


Again, specific instructions are necessary to make this possible. Without clearly defined techniques, the non-writers in your company will not be able to know out when to flex their language, or how. And the copywriters will have trouble staying consistent too.


7. Document your choices in your tone of voice guidelines

Your brand tone of voice guidelines document should probably include: 

  1. Intro 

  2. Overview of brand identity 

  3. Overview of target audience 

  4. Tone of voice principles  

  5. Specific techniques (with correct and incorrect examples) 

  6. “Flexing” for different media and contexts 

  7. Checklist  

  8. Appendices and resources 

Not every brand will need all these sections and some sections will be more developed than others depending on your needs.  


Utility is a consideration. If the guidelines become too long, many will not read them. If the advice is not clear and easy to follow, it could well be misinterpreted. It the tone is too flat or bossy, many will switch off. To motivate people to read, understand and then follow the guidelines, you’ll need to establish and maintain a reasonably upbeat, positive tone.  

 

8. Launch the new guidelines with training

Guidelines require training to be effective. Their goal is to change the way their users have been writing for their entire lives! It’s no small task.


Implement training for both non-writers and copywriters to help them understand the ins and outs of these new guidelines. Learn how we design and deliver tone of voice training

 

9. Monitor and update

As time passes and your business grows and changes. New media arrive on the scene or existing media become more important to your business. You could merge with another company and need to review the whole brand, and tone of voice will be part of that. So your tone of voice guidelines will need updating. An annual review is wise.


Want more help creating your company’s tone of voice?

You should now be well informed on all things tone of voice. Whether you want a standard or differentiated tone of voice, we are here to help.


Find out more about our tone of voice services



 
Barnaby Benson Icon

Barnaby Benson

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Date posted: 15/05/2024

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