Why tone of voice should be about the brand - not just writing well
Tone of voice guidelines should help make a brand unique. But all too often they consist of generic writing advice arranged under me-too values. Here are five common brand values along with the standard advice that’s typically offered up.
Also known as ‘Warm and friendly’, ‘Approachable’ or ‘Personable’. Guidelines with this brand value encourage you to use accessible, non-corporate language and write like you speak. You’ll achieve this by referring to your organisation as ‘we’ instead of the company name and using contractions like ‘it’s’. To sound friendly, you must address the reader as ‘you’ rather than with the remoter, third-person ‘his’, ‘her’ or ‘they’. All good advice, but every consumer brand and most B2B ones are doing this. It’s hygiene. You won’t differentiate your brand with this one.
Also goes under the names ‘Open’ and ‘Honest’. Advice for sounding ‘Straightforward’ include favouring short words over longer ones, avoiding abstract words, explaining technical terms and making sure you stick to just one idea per sentence. Commendable writing advice – essential, even. But it provides nada for a brand hoping to stand out from the crowd.
Another popular choice because it implies a connection with the audience. But its practical application to writing and tone of voice is not immediately obvious. Typical tips tend to remind you that you’re writing to a person (see ‘Human’ writing advice). Guidelines may also suggest you see things from the customer’s point of view and talk about what’s important to them. But wait. Doesn’t every brand do this? Positive
The close cousin of ‘Inspiring’ and ‘Purposeful’. Does any brand aspire to be negative (aside from Private Eye, perhaps)? So another thumbs down for differentiation. Rephrasing negative statements into positive ones is sound advice. But, yet again, all good brand writing will do this. Empowering
Also known as ‘Dependable’ and ‘Enabling’ or ‘Engaging’. Advice here is often to use clear and simple language – plus active rather than passive sentences. And talk about what’s in it for the audience, i.e. benefits over product features. But brands not doing this already are circling the drain of obsolescence. ------
So, what’s a brand to do? Well, we need to stop confusing advice about how to write with advice about achieving a unique brand voice.
I know brands like to use tone of voice guides to try to fix the poor writing skills amongst staff – and validly, as these can certainly undermine the brand. But that’s behaviour change and needs a dedicated programme with an awareness campaign and training. Writing guidelines won’t fix it.
TOV guidelines should be for writing techniques that actually will differentiate the brand by capturing its essence.
Such techniques are hard to come up with and own, especially if you are a mainstream brand with a diverse audience that prevents you being too idiosyncratic. But we find we can usually do it.
It may require excluding certain ways of writing whilst encouraging others. Rather than trying to express all the brands values, you’ll probably need to settle on one distinctive attitude. You won’t be able to write distinctively all the time so you’ll have to set out when it’s appropriate.
These are tough branding decisions, just like those you have to make when thinking about the visual identity. But the result is branding gold. You’ll have a distinctive language that evokes the brand’s character and essence.