If you’re in any doubt about the importance of tone of voice, take a trip back in time with me to 1997.
We can see Liam Gallagher, swaggering about on stage, whining through his floppy fringe: “All my people right here, right now, know what I mean?” It just sounds right.
Now imagine Tony Blair delivering the same line, complete with his trademark pauses. Take it away, Tony: “All my people…right here...right now…know what I mean?”
See the difference?
Only, for many brands, trying to talk like someone else has been an active pursuit for years now. Instead of being true to themselves, and writing in a way that reflects their values, brands have fallen over themselves to sound like Innocent, the smoothie makers.
Ever since, we’ve endured everything from crisp packets and breakfast cereals to cash machines and pub menus trying to be our best mates. All cosy, chatty and oh-so witty. Look at us, we’re bonkers – bet you didn’t expect that from a building society!
While I’m a big advocate of writing something as you’d say it in person, the line has been crossed. When everyone says the same things in the same style, it just becomes noise.
The art of noise
But wait, what’s that heading in our direction? Why it looks a lot a new tone of voice. Move over, chatty, matey Innocent speak. It’s time to talk in artisan terms.
This change has been on the cards for a while. Post-recession, hipster culture rose, the flat white economy developed and small-scale manufacturing of everything from bread to gin allowed a slew of artisan makers to emerge.
Big brands weren’t slow to catch on. Walking through a supermarket these days, you’d be forgiven for thinking all the production lines had shut down. In their place, every single item destined for the shelves is being hand-made, artisan, authentic, hand-crafted, traditional, farmhouse.
Not to be outdone, Domino’s introduced a range of artisan pizzas. As though they had flour-dusted, Italian octogenarians toiling away at traditional wood-fired ovens in every franchise, kneading dough with gnarled fingers.
This appropriation of the authentic is at best lazy, at worst patronising and misleading. Applying terms for genuinely hand-made items on to things produced on an industrial scale treats consumers like mugs.
The overexposure of terms such as hand-crafted, authentic and rustic also leaves them devalued. The copycats cannibalise their own pilferings. Leaving a trail of empty, played-out words in their wake. Style stands proudly over the slain substance.
So what’s the solution? For starters, stop trying to sound like someone else (or everyone else for that matter). Brands rightly invest a lot in the way they look. They should do the same with the way they talk, writing in a tone that’s unmistakeably them, that expresses their values, positioning and product.
This shouldn’t just be the preserve of big brands either. The Manchester menswear retailer Oi Polloi has a wonderfully distinctive voice (that’s often copied but never equalled by their competitors). Their success lies in being themselves; independent, informed and effortlessly cool.
At the other end of the scale, can you imagine Apple or Ikea trying to sound like another brand? Or adopting the default tone of the day? Of course not. They know who they are, what they want to say and how they want to say it.
Our industry talks a lot about the need to engage with people. Treating them with respect goes a long way to achieving that aim. First Direct does a brilliant job of this. They talk to consumers as adults, in a warm, intelligent tone. They’re friendly but never over the top, like OMG we’re your bestest friends forever.
As we wave goodbye to the Innocent era, let’s make the artisan era short-lived. Let’s make sure brands don’t wholesale adopt the artisan voice of beards and tattoos. Most importantly, let’s usher in the individual era, where brands talk in the only voice that matters – their own.
Adam Reynolds is senior copywriter at Intermarketing