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The importance of tone of voice for brands

By Daisy Atkinson, Content strategist



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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July 24, 2020 | 12 min read

Despite the authenticity and rigour of a brand’s messaging rightly being susceptible to ever-higher levels of scrutiny, (it’s essential for a brand to know who they are, what they stand for and how they communicate with their audience) it seems odd on reflection that I always find myself working with at least one brand that doesn’t have one of the key frameworks for distinguishing itself and its voice in place.

crayons tone of voice

The importance of tone of voice for brands

Why brands think it isn’t

At the beginning of a client relationship I’ll always ask if a brand has a tone of voice guide they can refer me to, but since so many people treat tone of voice guides as an unnecessary piece of internal marketing or something which you can simply infer elsewhere, I often know, gloomily, what the answer will be:

"You can take a look at our blog content to get an idea "

There are several reasons why this point of reference is a bad substitute for a defined set of guidelines, not least because various writers of varying degrees of fastidiousness when it comes to tone of voice may have been producing content for the blog - and for quite some time - without a set of rules around how to communicate.

But what it also means is that the job of reviewing this content to get to grips with a general idea of tone simply becomes the next unwitting copywriter’s laborious and unreliable task.

"We don’t have one, but I can send you our brand guidelines!"

Brands do often have exceptionally well-defined brand guidelines, encompassing everything from how to leverage their colour palette to logo dimensions and typography - and they’re truly a thing of beauty to behold.

And these all send excellent and highly important subconscious signals for who a brand is. But if so much emphasis, pride, and importance is placed on the rules defining these subconscious signals then surely the tone of voice - the conscious “what you say” and unconscious “how you say it” of a brand identity - has equal, if not more importance.

After all, colour palettes and font sizes are limited in their expression, in obvious ways that tone of voice isn’t.

But, far from being given the equal attention it deserves, tone of voice is often simply forgotten about.

Should we just accept it?

While not having a fully scoped out identity can land some high profile brands in hot water, for most the disappointing reality of not defining their voice is that the resulting tone and copy invariably falls to the simplest, most broadly acceptable style of writing - the one which follows the basic principles of using the active voice, simple terminology and only 8-10 words per sentence - which, in the history of iconic rhetoric, has never set the world on fire.

But like most disappointing realities, we just learn to live with it. Only I’d rather not.

I’d like, instead, to demand a definition of what sets a brand’s voice apart, from both the drab interchangeable voices of faceless brands and the enigmatic competitors doing it well, so that it becomes valuably recognisable, and anyone writing for the brand can get into character and genuinely deliver their voice every time they commit words to screen.

Because getting into character is exactly what you have to do to get the brand voice right.

How to begin sounding the part

For a brand or any copywriter to assume the brand role involves asking the same questions any actor would ask themselves.

  • Who am I?

  • Who am I communicating with?

  • What am I looking to achieve?

  • How will I go about doing it?

  • How can the way I use my voice support that outcome?

  • Was I convincing?

Importantly, these are also incredibly legitimate questions to ask as a business, as they apply to any marketing campaign you may run.

Yet all of these questions can and should be answered within a tone of voice guide because how your brand comes across tonally has everything to do with ensuring the outcome you want:

  • building trust

  • grabbing attention

  • retaining interest

  • improving brand recall, loyalty, likeability, affinity, etc.

The list goes on but collectively it all gets you closer to the consumer. And that’s just by looking inward and taking the time to define the personality of the brand, not by creating a special offer, social campaign or landing coverage in a national newspaper. In a way, your tone of voice is a marketing tactic of its own, but I think there are three main arguments in favour of defining tone of voice, that illustrate how crucial it is to the final outcome of your content.

  1. Your tone, and not your visual identity, will ultimately be the way you connect with your audience.

Consumers, generally, don’t like the nature of marketing or advertising (essentially, being sold to). When they see a brand, they know why they’re there, and consumers are naturally suspicious of a sales pitch. So the most important factor is how you go about it, and your tone of voice plays a big part in how you cut through and connect with your audience.

For example, connecting with an audience may involve convincing them of your expertise or effectiveness or creating a sense of camaraderie, and so the phrasing and word choice you choose may be designed to convey authority, scientific expertise or warmth.

But this works both ways. While your tone will convey the sentiment of your marketing or advertising and control its impact on the consumer, it’s also the window to this intention, so what people perceive from you needs to be carefully controlled.

  1. If you strike the right tone, it shows you’re socially aware.

As we’ve seen many times before, a hapless brand that doesn’t hit the mark with their brand voice in front of a contemporary audience can create a real stink on the public stage. Meanwhile, those that do manage to strike the right tone show themselves, through their sensitivity to their audience and how they communicate with them, and through conviction of their brand ideals, to be authentic, relevant and strong in the eyes of the consumer.

Knowing where you start from and being able to authentically flex your tone of voice to speak about current issues, even so-called controversial ones - in a way that still sounds like the brand - is a fine line to tread.

The only way to do this is to have a guiding set of principles for what your brand stands for and how it communicates with all its audiences so that there is complete coherence between tone and overall brand identity. Because if your tone doesn’t marry up with the image you’re trying to create, consumers will see straight through it.

  1. A strong voice will be listened to

Within any piece of marketing material, it’s essential to put the brand voice firmly in the picture every time, because if you overlook the tone of your content, it will adversely affect the effort you put into it and the number of people it will reach.

And it can do this in a range of ways, from making your brand voice seem unnecessary or irrelevant to the conversation, since it doesn’t have a strong part to play; appear inauthentic or insincere through being discordant with the rest of its output; to simply losing it among the noise of similar content without a defining personality behind it.

Ultimately, what’s important is to get to a stage where a tone of voice is not a nice-to-have branded product for internal purposes but an essential tool to put the brand back into their own content and ensure all communications strike a consistent and recognisable chord with the intended audience.

Because with a well-described and well-evidenced tone of voice guide to follow, not only will the speed at which you produce effective, on-brand copy get quicker, the substance of your brand identity will be richer in the eyes of your audience, and you can carefully and purposefully control the impact of every piece of content you put out there.

Daisy Atkinson, content strategist, Croud

Content by The Drum Network member:


Croud is a global, full-service digital agency that helps businesses drive sustainable growth in the new world of marketing. With a rich heritage in performance,...

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