Tone of Voice
It’s not just what you say, it’s also how you say it. Brands are increasingly turning towards tone of voice as a means of establishing their market position and creating a brand identity.
How do brands use tone of voice?
Writing appears at many of the so called 'touchpoints' where consumers encounter your brand. These welcome emails, delivery notes and pieces of pack copy are an opportunity for influencing consumers' view of a brand. How to write them needs to be thought through and made part of the brand guidelines. This is the brand tone of voice. It's an expression of the brand's personality through the way it uses language.
The main goal of these guidelines is often quite modest: give out good advice on writing well so that employee's writing sounds warm and friendly. This creates a closer, more emotive bond with people and builds the relationship between the consumer and the brand. Tone of voice guidelines aim to reduce writing that is unclear, error-ridden or inappropriately formal as this all alienates customers and prospects.
Getting everyone to write better has other benefits. 'Writing is thinking' is an old adage and a true one. Improve the writing of your people and you will improve their thinking, their clarity and their effectiveness. Ideas will be received and shared better so the organisation will be better at adapting to change and seizing opportunities. It will be more agile.
Tone of voice agencies, which have sprung up to meet this demand for better writing, suggest that you can create a truly distinctive verbal identity, just like a brand consultancy creates a distinctive visual identity. The reality is that words, the elements of language, are not as 'ownable' as design elements such as colour and logo styles.
Brand consultancies, seeing the potential for language to differentiate and position, are starting to suggest headline structures and styles in their brand guidelines. That will annoy advertising agencies, as this kind of direction constrains advertising creative options.
Creating a tone of voice scheme that is genuinely distinctive and on-brand is possible, but challenging. It requires considerable commitment to pull off, as you need a broad launch and training so that everyone who writes for the brand knows how to achieve the tone. The constraints involved are often impractical for mainstream, multinational brands who need more flexibility. But the rewards in terms of differentiation through language are considerable. Just look at Innocent, PaddyPower and Ryan Air for examples of brands that have created strong brand differentiation from the way they use language.
What should you consider when creating tone of voice schemes?
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 tasks, audiences and messages.
Launch and training - companies need their people to write well so tone of voice guidelines are often widely distributed. Tone of voice agencies 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.
Barnaby Benson: leading tone of voice copywriters in London
Tone of voice copywriting is one of our favourite topics. We focus on the following:
Distinctive tone of voice schemes - we have developed techniques for creating tone of voice schemes that are distinctive. Even if a brand does not want a boldly distinctive tone of voice, we can propose relatively minor changes to language that will differentiate the brand subtly yet noticeably from its competitors in a way that's appropriate for the brand.
Advertising agency background - because we apply an agency discipline and process to the development of a tone of voice scheme, we'll take into account all the client’s goals for the brand. As with any piece of communication, you need to understand the audience’s current relationship with the brand and how you want to change it. Only then do we consider the messaging and creative approach to tone of voice that is most likely to achieve this change.
Use the full resources of English - any one of the language's many grammatical rules and conventions can be flexed or subverted to achieve a distinctive effect. With many of our writers having English degrees, we understand how language works and how to play with it.
Teaching experience - tone of voice guidelines are a training tool and need to be constructed as a learning resource. We have writers with postgraduate qualifications in teaching in our team and we have been running sell-out Guardian masterclasses in writing and branding for several years. So we're good at designing tone of voices guidelines that really are effective guides.
How do clients benefit from our approach?
Clarity about your brand’s tone of voice - most tone of voice schemes have no controlling idea, they simply repeat the brand’s values and then offer advice on writing well that loosely relates to each value. If a brand has ‘Human’ as a value, for example, it might suggest ‘writing like you speak’, referring to the company as ‘we’ not ‘it’ and using contractions such as ‘you’ll’ and ‘we’ve’. This will result in writing that is more readable and friendly, but it won’t be distinctive. We’ll tell you that and, if you do need a properly distinctive tone of voice, we can create one for you.
The right tone for the right situation - different media and different situations put different demands on tone of voice. Many brands now employ an informal chatty tone, and it’s great in situations where formality would be off-putting. But what about an email responding to a customer’s complaint? Our tone of voice guidelines flex tone for the message, audience and medium.
Simplicity - tone of voice schemes shouldn’t be so comprehensive that they’ll require a morning to read. Guidelines that can be easily implemented are more likely to be used, which leads to greater take-up and consistency. Our training programmes can also be used to help bed-in a new tone of voice scheme quickly, encouraging adoption.
Inspiration and motivation - tone of voice guidelines need to be inspiring, so the writer will be motivated to achieve the new way of writing. We keep the rules to a minimum and provide lots of useful 'before and after' examples to illustrate how to achieve the new tone of voice.
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