Tone of Voice
If you're about to commission a tone of voice scheme for your brand, this page should help. It outlines how tone of voice is currently done. Along the way, we suggest ways it could be done a bit better.
We create tone of voice schemes for brand consultancies and direct for brands. We also see tone of voice guidelines every time we’re given a copywriting project. There’s a huge variation in the quality and ambition of these. Most summarise the brand model then present a few standard writing techniques with examples. We believe tone of voice could achieve more.
What is tone of voice?
Tone of voice, brand language, verbal identity... this discipline is still so undeveloped, the marketing communications industry hasn’t even agreed its name, let alone a definition! Let's try for one now:
Tone of voice, noun. A scheme that sets out how
to write for a brand so that the style and content
evoke the brand’s personality wherever words are used.
Why tone of voice needs a different approach to visual identity branding
The discipline of tone of voice emerged from brand consultancies in the mid-70s in the UK. The tone of the passenger information notices at the state-run British Rail were so bossy they bordered on contemptuous. A writer at Interbrand, Jon Simmons, thought all the brand’s writing – not just the advertising - needed more warmth. So he set out some ways writers could achieve this. Tone of voice was born.
As this discipline emerged in brand consultancies, a parallel was made to how the brand’s visual identity was created and managed. Hence tone of voice’s paradoxical alternative name, ‘verbal identity’. Instead of taking ownership of a few colours and a font, a tone of voice could be carved out from controlling vocabulary and style. British Airways can ‘own’ the red, white and blue of the union jack. Easy Jet can own orange and white. But can either own the word ‘Hello’? Or a warm, approachable tone?
Can you differentiate using tone of voice?
If tone of voice can’t easily take ownership of words, what can it do to differentiate? The answer is, it can convey personality - an attitude that reflects the brand’s character. If your brand’s personality is highly distinctive, you can have a highly distinctive tone of voice which will be immediately recognisable.
Most tone of schemes don't achieve this. The brand personality the tone has to convey simply isn't distinctive enough. (Most mainstream brands have to appeal to so many types of people, in so many different situations, they can’t afford to have too distinctive a personality. It would alienate too many). The other reason so many tone of voice schemes are a tad vanilla is because they haven't stepped up to the challenge of how to achieve differentiation through linguistic manipulation. Language is a marvellously varied system for conveying meaning. If you get under the bonnet, you can tweak it so it does fresh things.
What else do tone of voice guidelines do?
Perhaps frustrated by the difficulty of taking ownership of aspects of language, most tone of voice agencies add in other stuff that is less to do with language and tone but still very useful for the organisation.
In addition to advice on how to write, they might contain advice on:
How to convey certain messages
Advanced or specialist writing techniques - such as sales writing
Specific communications challenges faced by the organisation
Clarity and consistency
So, most tone of voice schemes, despite claims that they differentiate the brand, in reality provide advice for clear communication in a warm, approachable tone. That is worth a lot to a brand. ‘Good prose is like a window-pane’, wrote George Orwell. Clear communication, free of errors, in a consistent style that makes the most of different media’s strengths – all that is immensely valuable.
The clarity of thinking that comes from clarity of writing has massive spin-off benefits. People contribute more because they think more clearly and are more easily understood. There's greater efficiency as people don't have to struggle to understand what others are saying. Customers grasp sales messages more immediately, increasing sales. Brand messaging is more convincing allowing the brand to defend itself from competitors and support premium pricing.
But tone of voice schemes could do more. Use linguistic techniques innovatively and you can create a truly distinctive way of writing that is recognisably your brand’s. That's IF your brand has a distinctive brand personality.
How do you create a tone of voice scheme?
You may have a tone of voice guidelines but it’s a bit out of date and not working so well. Maybe you have nothing and you’re starting from scratch? You’re about to ask three or four brand consultancies or tone of voice agencies to quote for your brand’s tone of voice project. What’s involved? What can you expect?
Firstly, here’s what they’ll need:
Examples of your current writing across all media, audiences and messaging
An indication of what you think isn’t working
Your brand guidelines and an explanation of all the elements of your brand model including the purpose, positioning, promise, values and personality
If you haven’t got brand guidelines, the brand consultancy will suggest preparing these first. That, after all, is what they do. A tone of voice agency might struggle. Brand development is not what they tend to do. You’ll be offered workshops where writing is explored and trends in tone and messaging are identified. This will reveal the writing needs of the organisation but won’t lead to a brand model. And without a brand model, with a distinctive brand personality, there is nothing to for the tone of voice scheme to aim to express through language.
What you should look for in a tone of voice proposal?
Simplicity - tone of voice guidelines have to be easy for anyone to follow and implement, as lots of employees will write for the brand.
Range and flex - you have to provide advice on how to write for the different types of media a brand uses - everything from social to traditional ads in print. And you have to judge how to flex the tone so it is appropriate for different communication channels, audiences and messages.
Launch and training - companies need their people to write well so tone of voice guidelines are often widely distributed. Training can help launch and train these in.
Culture change and values promotion - tone of voice guides are a great way of communicating the brand internally and changing attitudes and behaviour.
How to assess tone of voice guidelines:
Your agency has come back with a tone of voice proposal. Here's what you need to check for:
Can any writer follow this advice or will I have to keep coming back to the agency for interpretation and delivery?
- Does it demonstrate the new tone of voice?
- Is it motivating enough to make people want to use it?
Is it long enough to explain and show what's involved, but not so long, no one will have time to read it?
Is it too restrictive so that current creative activity, and future creative development, is too constrained?
How are these guidelines going beyond regular writing techniques to express my brand’s personality?
For more details about how we approach tone of voice and what it can do to build your brand, go to our Tone of voice guidelines page. Or call us on 020 8674 3551
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