Let advertising direct your tone of voice
Any tone of voice guidelines should look to the brand’s advertising for direction. Most don’t and their TOV suffers for it.
Let me state two true observations. Then see if you can spot the glaring inconsistency they reveal.
One - any brand’s advertising campaign is the highest profile communications a brand has. It therefore sets the tone of the brand’s voice as it’s the thing most consumers think of when they think of the brand.
Two - most tone of voice guidelines are not written by the advertising agency and do not significantly influence the creative direction of the brand’s advertising.
The disconnect between these two statements struck me last week when I was asked to create a tone of voice guide that stipulated the advertising headline style and structure – very precisely. Wow, I thought, the ad agency isn’t going to like this! We’re telling them what their next campaign will look like. More than that: we are telling them what all their future campaigns will look like.
Most TOV guides aren’t so brazen. They suggest you write in a certain way that’s appropriate for the brand. They cite the brand’s values and shoehorn a lot of sensible advice on writing plain, approachable English under those value headings. So, if one of them is ‘Human’, which it often is these days, there might be advice about writing like you speak, not using complex sentences and not being afraid to start a sentence with a conjunction such as ‘and’ or ‘but’.
The problem with this approach is, it doesn’t result in a differentiated tone of voice. (This past post explains why.) Whereas following the advertising’s lead probably would.
The brand I was working on didn’t advertise much and, if it did, the ads would be created by the brand consultancy. So stepping on the ad agency’s shoes wasn’t an issue. But it would be on a bigger brand that did advertise. How could the ad agency’s creative teams do their job – of making brands stand out and get noticed – if their conceptual hands were tied by strict TOV guidelines governing headlines?
Then it occurred to me that if the ad agency wrote tone of voice guidelines each time they created a new campaign concept, we wouldn’t have a problem. The full potential of their concept could be seen as they could explain how it could be applied across other media. They’d be creating a distinctive tone of voice for the brand. And they wouldn’t be constrained by the tone of voice guidelines as they would have developed them following the conceptual stage.
Tone of voice then, far from being a threat to ad agencies’ freedom, appears to be a golden opportunity to extend their creative influence. But will agencies seize it?