Tone of voice: no-brainer or time-waster?
Updated: Apr 26
Towards the end of the last millennium, brands started using language in ways and places that had previously been overlooked. For Innocent that even meant the bottom of a tetrapak. Every space was an opportunity to make a connection with customers. New digital channels offered a plethora of new opportunities to brand with words.
Tone of Voice became one more way for a brand to differentiate itself from the competition. Ben and Jerry’s could sound very different to Häagen-Dazs. First Direct set themselves apart from other banks with a refreshingly honest Tone of Voice. Tech start-ups like MailChimp built brands with a chilled tone that was a million miles from traditional IT fuddy-duddies like IBM.
Consumer brands have embraced tone of voice as one more weapon in their armoury of brand identity, but what about the B2B sector. Is tone of voice as relevant to products or services that will never be employing a quirky bit of wordplay or running an insta campaign?
B2B businesses. Do you really need a Tone of Voice?
Businesses investing in a Tone of Voice programme need to ask themselves whether they can reap the right rewards from making this sort of investment. Or are they simply paying for a glorified writing workshop that helps their team write more fluently?
Not surprisingly, we think the answer is that B2B businesses can see considerable rewards from a tone of voice programme built around their business identity.
The three main reasons brands invest in Tone of Voice are:
Can language alone set you apart from your competitors?
Do you come across as the same business wherever you make contact with stakeholders?
Is everyone in the team confident about writing the ‘right way’ for your business?
1. Be more different
Differentiation is the lingual nirvana of any brand.
Can words alone help consumers identify a brand? It’s a push, even for well-known brands. O2 set out to create a very different sounding brand to their main rival, BT. Where BT strives to be reassuring and helpful, O2 is more challenging.
Can B2B brands be truly differentiated?
To achieve true distinction, brands need to take risks and liberties with the language - and that's a leap most corporates aren't going to take. The first stop for most B2B brands has been to end the race to the linguistic bottom of corporate BS - see exhibit A below:
But, realistically, how different can businesses sound from each other? B2B companies can’t be folksy or aggressively confrontational or plain silly. As a result, most Tone of Voice guidelines conform to a type – something about being more human or straightforward and perhaps something about being transformational. PwC show how here:
What does it take to be different?
Go back to the strategy.
Tone of Voice can’t be something that’s bolted on to the top of your existing culture and ethos. It must be rooted in what you stand for as a business. Look at your latest five-year plan. What are the ambitions? Is there anything in there that can inform the brand language? If you’re having a design makeover, or you’ve done a brand audit, can you take that on to Tone of Voice?
Aspire to more than writing well.
Too many Tone of Voice guidelines fail to create any degree of distinctive writing because they’re really just guides for writing well. If the list of values is confined to being straightforward or human or clear, these are things that should apply to any piece of writing.
Tone of Voice is about small touches.
Talk to Ben and Jerry’s about Tone of Voice and they’ll tell you it’s about adding a bit of tone here and there. Their description of chocolate ice cream is pretty straightforward but then they’ll slip in the word ‘gobs’ of chocolate and that’s enough.
How different you are depends on how brave your business is prepared to be. Look for opportunities to be distinctive in small ways that add up to more different.
Take Acoustic. It’s only a simple switch from traditional ‘contact us’ to ‘let’s talk for the CTA, but it makes all the difference to their tone of voice. It gives the impression of confidence and a no-BS approach.
Instead of putting emphasis on saving time and money, Clear Books have focused on the feeling customers get. It changes the tone from forceful to understanding – any small business owner can relate to wanting to feel in control.
Is it worth it?
A little attitude goes a long way. If the language you use helps reflect your overall mission, the long-term gain is worthwhile. But don’t expect to see results overnight. Little and often is the best approach.
2. Consistency builds trust
Nothing undermines a brand faster than the lack of a consistent identity.
With so many touch points, a modern brand needs consistency across the channels. And with marketing teams stretched to breaking point, Tone of Voice guidelines are a simple way to give even non-writers guidance on writing for a wide variety of media. We’ve all seen brands undone by a rogue tweet or email – writing guidelines steer unpredictable authors away from the dark side.
How to achieve consistency
Don’t have too many values.
Tone of Voice guidelines can feature as many as nine or ten values. This is usually a recipe for complete confusion and a schizophrenic number of writing styles. No writer can keep that many ideas at the front of their mind. We suggest keeping it to two or three, four at a pinch.
Focus on the message and the style will follow.
Don’t keep trying to change the way you write for different audiences. It’s incredibly hard to switch voices with any degree of success. Keep to a similar style but make the message relevant to the audience you’re trying to reach.
The value of consistency?
There’s a strong link between familiarity and trust. Because something familiar requires little effort to process mentally, we are more likely to feel at ease around it. By being consistent in its use of language your writing becomes familiar to your audience and they’re more likely to trust you.
3. Build confidence
Many corporates have seen the value of Tone of Voice programmes for internal communications. The way people communicate within a business reflects the culture of that business.
BT has trained over 8000 of their staff with a Tone of Voice programme that they estimate has saved them millions (amazing how much less a nationwide letter costs when you trim a page or two of waffle). Richard Lloyd, Head of Brand for Culture and People says:
‘‘Once you get people thinking about how their writing builds the brand, they begin to understand their personal, individual responsibility for creating the brand we want to be. If that isn’t culture change, I don’t know what is.”
Tone of Voice guidelines give all writers in any organisation the confidence to write in a certain way. We’ve found the opportunity to build confidence among teams who may not consider themselves to be writers has a very beneficial effect on communications and productivity.
How to build confidence
Get sign off from the top.
If your Tone of Voice guidelines aren’t signed off by the top team, you’ll never achieve the consistency you seek. If this isn’t seen as an initiative that really means something to the business, the guidelines will languish in a dark corner somewhere.
Don’t stop at guidelines. Workshop it.
The temptation is to define the new voice, write it up in a nicely designed guideline document and park it on the company portal. Where it will never be looked at again. And certainly not by the people who would benefit most.
Get teams from different departments talking about the writing culture in live sessions. It’s an excellent way to get people thinking not just about the words they use, but the culture of your business too. By investing in training your teams, they will be far more confident writing in a certain way.
Build a vocabulary.
Once you’ve identified your values, it can be helpful to start building a lexicon to illustrate them. Don’t make people use a fixed vocabulary but encourage certain phrases and words, encourage the marketing team to be a bit braver and lead from the front.
Don’t forget stories.
Tone of Voice guidelines often focus on how you say something at the expense of what you’re saying. Good guidelines will point writers in the direction of the messages and stories they could use that support the values and mission.
Is it worth it?
Done well, investing in a Tone of Voice will benefit your business by creating a more confident army of writers who bring consistency to the way you communicate.
If you merely pay lip service to the idea, or expect dramatically distinctive results, you will be disappointed. There are Tone of Voice guidelines languishing on shelves and intranets all over the country.
Perhaps they were a pet project for the marketing team, but the executive turned them down. Or perhaps they aspired to achieve much but were never widely disseminated and died a quiet death.
Having worked with many organisations on similar projects, our guide for success would be:
• Be realistic about what you hope to achieve.
• Stay true to your ambitions as a business – don’t go off on a tangent.
• Make sure the senior team are involved.
• Don’t make the guides so complex they become unusable.
• Spread the word– every department should be involved.
• Bring the guidelines alive with practical sessions.
• Repeat the exercise every few years as your strategy changes.