Updated: Jul 14, 2020
Brand tone of voice. Everyone’s at it. It’s a boom industry for writing agencies creating more and more guidelines for brand voice. Even organisations that prefer not to think of themselves as brands, such as borough councils and universities, have tone of voice guidelines.
But when you look around at the brands you love, the organisations you deal with, the businesses who email you every day, how much of the stuff you read is genuinely distinctive?
So what’s happened? There are some fantastic bits of advice knocking around in some of these guides. Why hasn’t any of it had much effect?
Here are five reasons why tone of voice guidelines fail:
1. Your tone of voice isn’t a tone of voice.
A high proportion of tone of voice guides are dedicated to writing well rather than writing distinctively.
They focus on values such as ‘clear’, or ‘straightforward’, or ‘human’.
But why would any brand or organisation not want to be any of those things?
They are excellent advice for writing well, but they won’t help your team develop a distinctive tone.
For some organisations (councils, we’re looking at you), writing well is a great start. But for a brand keen to stand out in the marketplace, writing well is a given.
Possibly the problem is that it’s not so long ago that writing clearly and being straightforward was actually distinctive – especially for b2b brands.
Until the launch of the .GOV website, most councils sounded like they’d swallowed a legal dictionary. Until First Direct revitalised the way banks talked to their customers, the sector was as engaging as a stuffed suit.
Now, the verbal playing field is considerably more level. Most brands talk normal. Even B2B brands have managed to shed much of the waffle – even if only because the internet, with its brutal demands on attention span, has made them do it.
Which means that anyone who wants to be noticed, in any sector, needs to try a bit harder to stand out.
How to make sure your values aren’t bland:
Aspire to more than good writing. Great start but does the copy really reflect the business, or it is just nicely written?
Go back to the truth of the brand. What is it in your mission statement or vision that makes you different? Chances are the goal isn’t about being ‘clear’.
Add something interesting. Even organisations stuck in the bad old ways who need explicit direction to write clearly can include something distinctive. Here are a few values we think helped certain brands make language work for them.
Lego - ‘playful’
Jamie Oliver - ‘energetic’
Dove – ‘beautifully uncomplicated’
Paperchase – ‘we spark imagination’
Mailchimp – ‘our humour is dry’
2. Your guidelines aren’t usable.
The second reason tone of voice guidelines fail is that they’re too difficult to use or dull to read.
Too many values
How many tonal values can you remember while you write? At best three, maybe two. And yet we see brand guidelines with tonal values running into dozens. Here’s a (real) example from a university’s tone of voice guidelines:
Ambitious, proud, confident, creative, bold, energetic, collaborative, positive, passionate, friendly, welcoming, excited.
No one can remember that much. And even if they could it would sound very schizophrenic.
Our test is that the tone of voice has to be front of mind, even in a stressful situation. And easy to check.
Too little explanation
Most guides use a fairly standard set of writing tips, rearranged to fit the values for that particular brand. But they’re written in a way that assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader.
For example, we’ve lost count of the guidelines that say writing should be ‘active and not passive’ – and then left it at that.
In running hundreds of writing workshops, we can report that 87.3%* of people have no idea what the passive voice actually is and routinely click the ‘ignore’ button if it comes up in their grammar check.
How to make sure your guide gets used
Limit the number of values to three. Even that can be too much for some people. We’ve done a few with just one value – that works brilliantly as a simple sense check.
Make sure the advice is usable. If you give tips without showing or telling how to use them, then don’t expect to see them played back any time soon.
*estimated figure based on very scientific guesswork
3. Your guidelines aren't written for the people who need them most.
Too many tone of voice guides are written for people who already know how to write copy or content or emails. If your guide is written for the marketing team alone, it’s destined to sink.
The people you want to reach are the teams in customer service – who may well be manning or womanning your social media. Among the greatest tone of voice fails are customer service responses that sound like an inland revenue tax demand rather than reflect the engaging voice on the website.
Teams in customer service or sales really benefit from writing on brand. But they’re not used to marketing speak. So if your guidelines waffle on about brand strategy or vision, or contain endless diagrams of ‘brand eyes’ or essences, you’ll lose their interest.
The example we often use is someone working in customer service having to deal with a complaint last thing on Friday. They quickly need to write a response in the brand tone of voice – try doing that when you’re faced with a barrage of values.
#teagate at Yorkshire Tea proved that a brand with a history of investing in a distinctive tone of voice were able to deal with a crisis with aplomb – ‘Sue, you’re shouting at tea’ is an early contender for tweet of the year.
How to write for the whole business
Cut the exposition. Most teams aren’t interested in brand onions, or pillars, or essences. Wading through pages of brand guff before reaching the actual tips puts most people off.
Use relevant examples. Many guides feature before and after examples. But if these are all in marketing collateral, they don’t help folk who are struggling to improve their emails, or internal comms, or recruitment material.
4. The guidelines aren’t signed off from the top.
A common gripe in our writing workshops is: ‘that’s all very well for you to say, but my boss won’t like it.’
Most writers, creative or otherwise, struggle with a lack of confidence that they’re writing the best way for the business. If your tone of voice guidelines aren’t supported from the top down, it’s quite likely that they won’t catch on with anyone other than the marketing team that commissioned them.
What to do?
Get buy-in from the top
Make sure the guidelines have a foreword from the Chief Exec, or some other top banana, stressing the importance of a brand language
Even better, make a short film to play at the start of any workshop you might run (should run – see point 5)
5. Your guidelines are buried in a brand manual.
In section 184.108.40.206 you’ll find a description of our tone of voice.
When design agencies put together design manuals, including fonts, Pantone references, good and bad uses of the logo and much, much more, they often stick in a page on brand language.
This is never going to be read. Deal with it in a separate piece. The more interesting the piece, the more likely it is to be read. If it’s sent round as a PDF, chances are it won’t be given more than a cursory glance.
Far better to bring the whole idea of a brand language alive in a workshop. That way your team get to practice writing in a certain way under the eye of an expert. And they can compare notes with each other and create a more supportive culture.
A workshop is also a great opportunity to explain the brand. In fact, we often describe tone of voice as ‘branding by stealth’, because it’s the one facet of a brand that anyone can add value to.
If you avoid all these fails then you will have created tone of voice guidelines that help your team, create a more consistent image for your brand, a better experience for your customer, and a stronger culture for your business.