How to identify your brand’s tone of voice (Part 1)

I often ask new clients, ‘What’s your brand’s tone of voice?’ This is so I can establish the type of language I’ll need to use to capture their brand’s personality. For larger brands that have been around for a while, this has usually already been defined, and is often set out in a Style Guide or Brand Guide with clear guidelines around what to do, and what not to do. For newer, smaller clients, however, this question is often met with a hint of uncertainty, and I agree that this term can be a little ambiguous. To help shed some light on this important element of brand communications, I thought I would do a deep dive into what tone of voice is and how to identify it for your brand. It’s split over two parts, so be sure to continue with Part 2 after you finish reading this post.

What is tone of voice?

When thinking about a verbal conversation, tone of voice is an easier one to get your head around. From a very young age, you learn to vary the volume and tone in your voice to communicate your feelings about something, whether that’s happy, sad, angry, confused etc. Or, you might vary your voice depending on who you’re talking to. Think about how you sound speaking to a client vs. your best mate vs. your elderly neighbour. You’re likely to vary the volume and pitch of your voice to suit your audience and what you’re talking about.

Similarly, tone of voice, in the context of brand communications, is all about how you communicate with your audience, not what you communicate. So, a specific message may be similar across brands, but the word choice, sentence structure and punctuation all work together to convey a specific personality and attitude. Simply put, tone of voice is the way we communicate a brand’s personality through language. If your brand is fun, casual and enthusiastic, then your word choice and sentence structure will need to reflect that so you leave the audience with the right impression of your brand.

Common ways to describe a brand’s tone of voice include:

  • Playful
  • Friendly
  • Conservative
  • Witty
  • Informative
  • Frank
  • Unapologetic
  • Sarcastic
  • Nostalgic
  • Passionate
  • Provocative
  • Irreverent
  • Respectful
  • Casual
  • Formal
  • Edgy

Okay… give me an example of how this works

Telling someone that they’ve landed on a webpage that can’t be found used to be a straightforward, generic 404 error message. These days, many brands use it as an opportunity to apply their tone of voice, creating a very different effect. Consider the below examples of real-life 404 error pages:

  • Sorry, something went wrong. This error is generated by Sendinblue servers. If you entered the URL by hand, double check that it is correct or contact our support. Check our server status here. (SendinBlue)
  • No es Bueno. You came here, looking for something, and all you get is this silly running hot dog. Not good. Not good at all. (Ueno)
  • Oops! You ran out of oxygen. The page you’re looking for is now beyond our reach. (Mantra Labs)
  • We’ve been tidying up – and we let go of this page with gratitude. (KonMari)
  • Sorry we can’t find that page! But don’t worry, everything is STILL AWESOME! (Lego)
  • Sorry, looks like we sent you the wrong way. Let us guide you back! (Carwow)
  • Awww…Don’t Cry. It’s just a 404 Error! What you’re looking for may have been misplaced in Long Term Memory. (Pixar)
  • Oops! You blew up the internet. (Moxie Design Co.)

As you can see from these examples, varying the word choice, sentence length and structure, and punctuation conveys a different tone of voice, influencing how the brand is perceived. It also demonstrates how important it is to think creatively about your ‘standard messages’ – as this can make your brand far more memorable. A good copywriter can help with this!

Tone of voice can provide clues to the audience about what they’ll experience when they interact with your brand, helping them decide if you’re right for them.

Why is tone of voice important?

Your tone of voice doesn’t communicate what you do, it communicates who you are. It embodies your personality and conveys to your audience what your brand stands for, and what your interests and priorities are. Done right, it can also communicate information about the way you operate: what motivates you to do what you do, and how you look after your people and customers. Tone of voice can also provide clues to the audience about what they’ll experience when they interact with your brand, helping them decide if you’re right for them.

Tone of voice can also guide your audience to a desired action. Your tone could be simple and instructive, promote a sense of urgency, or compel your audience to contact you for more information. Therefore, your tone of voice needs to suit what you want your audience to do, think and feel. For example, a software company that uses short, easy-to-understand, instructional sentences will leave people with a very different feeling compared to a law firm that uses long, formal sentences and lots of jargon to denote their expertise. That’s because using software is a very different activity to seeking legal advice. Similarly, a luxury car brand like Mercedes-Benz or Alfa Romeo has a different tone of voice to a family-friendly brand like Suzuki or Toyota. That’s because they’re going after different market segments with different products, and need to tailor their tone of voice to suit.

Having a unique tone of voice can make your brand more recognisable and better able to connect with an audience. If your tone of voice is familiar and friendly, or communicates your expertise in an appropriate way, it’s much easier for you to build trust with your audience. And we know that trust is essential to businesses and brands because customers want to know that you have their best interests at heart, or they’ll go elsewhere. A key purpose of marketing and communications is earning and maintaining trust with an audience – and tone of voice plays a significant role in this. As author Maya Angelou said, “People don’t always remember what you say or even what you do, but they always remember how you made them feel.”

Find out how to identify your brand’s tone of voice in Part 2.

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