• Chris Silberston

A tone of voice too far

It’s easy to imagine that running a successful business was simpler back in the day. Put up a sign in fancy lettering (not forgetting the ‘est. 1689’), tidy up a bit, treat customers respectfully, job done.


It’s not quite so straightforward these days. In a globally connected world, brands need to stand out. Unless you look distinctive, it’s easy to get lost in the information overload we all experience every day.


But now a new problem has surfaced. Have we gone too far? Have we lost the common sense and basic communication skills of the businesses of yesteryear?


Too much tone

Most marketers blame Innocent. Ever since their cutesy babyish packaging caught the attention of shoppers, brands all over the world have been trying to out-unique each other. But, as a wise old man once said: who’s more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?


We’re not here to play the blame game. There are plenty of articles about Innocent and their impact on the branding world. We’re more interested in what’s next. Is it time for a return to more humble beginnings?


First, let’s see the extent of the problem and explore some examples of tone gone too far.


Crummy grammar

method multi-surface spray

At A Thousand Monkeys, we’re happy to push the limits of grammar, but no capital letters just makes this product description from method confusing to read. And ‘+’ instead of ‘and’? Is that supposed to be a quirky brand mark? Is this how the kids are talking these days?? Is there a character limit on the bottle??? And I’d like to think we could come up with something better than scent-sational…


However, in the interests of fairness, there are some positives. The copy explains some key points about the product, it’s not all waffle. And it uses everyday language that most readers can relate to. But those positives could easily be achieved without the over-the-top abuse of simple writing conventions.


Pointless mission statements

The sting shop window

This mission statement was in the window of a shop in London (now closed down), in the old Tower Records building on Piccadilly Circus. There’s not really anything good to say about it. It’s all style and no substance. Tone of voice gone waaaay too far. Someone clearly took a lot of care to include what they thought were inspiring and uplifting words, without ever checking that what they wrote made any sense.

Stupid jokes

Timbuk2 packaging

Admittedly this is probably just wasted space so you could argue it’s harmless fun. But it’s also pointless. And a bit cringeworthy for something that is a purely functional piece of packaging.


What would be far more useful is information about whether the foam can be recycled. But of course, that’s not Innocent enough, is it?


Bewildering creative ideas

Anglian Water bill

When is a water bill not a water bill? When it’s a comic-slash-brand-ego piece.

Nothing about this envelope makes sense. People tend to open mail that isn’t obviously junk, so there’s no need to be persuasive. And water companies aren’t something most of us have a say in, so there’s no need to try so hard to stand out from competitors.


There would be some benefit in using the envelope for a bit of brand goodwill, but this goes so far it’s just confusing.

That’s the bad. What about the good?

We’re not saying aiming for a distinctive tone of voice is a bad thing. Far from it. But it’s easier to get it wrong than to get it absolutely spot on. Take a look at some of the brands nailing it to see what a fine line it is between quirky and annoying.


Delectably floriferous


Hendricks Midsummer Solstice gin

As befits a floral alcoholic drink made popular in the Victorian era, Hendricks have created an embellished style of writing that’s quite unique.


While there are plenty of ornate words, one reason it works so well is that they didn’t go full Charles Dickens. Much more florid and it would be tiring to read. But, while the language is unusual, it’s perfectly understandable for a modern reader.

Not-so-subtly offensive

Cards Against Humanity: UK Edition

Cards Against Humanity perfectly capture the spirit of the game in their tone of voice. Just read this product description.


Informative to the point of being blunt, with a quick dig at British culture that you could easily miss if you weren’t paying attention. They don’t cram swearwords into every sentence or try to shock you – they tell you everything you need to know and then include a few creative extras.


Mailchimp

An email marketing platform with a chimp for a logo could easily have gone too far with its tone of voice. But Mailchimp have managed to rein themselves in and create a brand that isn’t annoying.


Here are some key points from their content guide:


We treat every hopeful brand seriously. We want to educate people without patronizing or confusing them.

Mailchimp’s tone is usually informal, but it’s always more important to be clear than entertaining.

Mailchimp has a sense of humor, so feel free to be funny when it’s appropriate and when it comes naturally to you. But don’t go out of your way to make a joke—forced humor can be worse than none at all. If you’re unsure, keep a straight face.

This sort of advice is particularly useful when it’s for a mixed audience within the organisation. Marketing people might be confident making a joke but if you ask everyone in the business to do it, a lot of copy will end up sounding very amateur. As Mailchimp show, it’s better to be clear and serious rather than attempt something more complicated and fail at it.


How to toe the line

Let’s face it: you probably won’t ever have a distinctive tone of voice. Not many brands do. And that’s fine.


Although tone of voice is important, it’s job is to support your message and tie everything together. So you don’t need to go over the top. Focus on clarity and consistency first, then add the finishing touches on top.


If you can write well, you’re 90% there. Then, when the opportunity arises, you can add the odd joke or creative word choice to help make your words a bit more distinctive.

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