Take these two groups of words:
“High octane,” “shine adrenaline,” “super-charged.”
“Fortified,” “amino acids,” “neutralize.”
Funnily enough, both are used to describe shampoo. The first set – from Bed Head – positions the brand’s hair care products as expressions of a fast, exciting lifestyle; we picture ourselves strapped to a speeding motorbike, possibly while checking for split ends.
In contrast, the second set – from Nicky Clarke – frames the products within a dependable world of science, innovation and men in lab coats.
The above example shows how two companies, though selling the same product, can have very different approaches to language. Put another way, each company has its own unique tone of voice, that is: a distinct and consistent way of writing across all external communications.
While it can take time and effort, developing a tone of voice forms a crucial step in the process of a company becoming an established brand. For a tone of voice does the invaluable work of expressing personality, proving individuality, and – most importantly – building trust with an audience.
At a time when the rise of content marketing demands that brands become publishers and entertainment companies — churning out everything from blog posts, to tweets to videos — this is more important than ever.
Where To Begin
The most important thing to remember is that a tone of voice must grow out of who you already are as a company. It should, thus, involve a process of shaping and refining, rather than creating something from scratch.
It’s also a good idea to involve other people in the process (be it a focus group with people from across the company or an informal chat with the editorial team). This will not only help generate ideas but will encourage buy-in when you later come to implement the tone of voice.
Here are two key ways to approach the task:
1. Figure Out Your Company Values
Beyond financial goals, what does your company stand for or believe in? This could be anything – a commitment to sustainability, smart thinking, social fairness, having fun, seeing the positive side of life, etc. If you’re struggling for ideas, try this exercise: instead of focusing on the direct function of your product, make a list of all the wider benefits you hope it brings customers.
For example, Persil sells its laundry detergent with the phrase “Dirt is good.” Taking the opposite stance to many cleaning product brands, Persil suggests that the winning attribute of its powder is that (through doing such a great job cleaning clothes) it allows kids to go out explore, play and discover the world, no matter how muddy they get. Makers of SUVs and other four-wheel-drive vehicles take a similar approach, selling the idea that their vehicles make it possible to get off road and explore the wilderness.
Identifying your values will help show where to place emphasis in your copy. Persil uses positive language to talk about dirt, steering clear of scientific terminology in favor of everyday, simple words.
Let’s take a theoretical example. A company might sell organic fruit juice and have the wider value of sustainability. To reflect this in its writing, it may embrace a vocabulary of terms that evoke the idea of environmentalism, such as “clean,” “kind,” “green,” “fresh” and “flourishing.” It might also favor inclusive pronouns like “we” and “our” to indicate the importance of collectivity with regards to environmental action.
2. Look To Your Audience
Of course, the other side of developing a tone of voice is working out what kind of language would be suitable for your audience. Some of the answers may lie in the way customers already write about your company on social media and in emails. What kind of language do they typically use? Looking at these will show you what words people find meaningful and relevant.
Another approach is to picture your ideal customer in front of you. How would you explain your product to them? What words would you use to describe its key benefits?
It all comes down to the nitty gritty of language. Of all the words at your disposal, which are the ones that work hardest to express your brand’s personality?
Considerations will include:
Degree of formality, e.g. in emails, do you address people with “dear,” “hello,” “hey”…?
Use of colloquialisms and regional dialect, e.g., “do you understand this?” versus “are you down with this?”
Stance on swearing, e.g., the occasional use of a mild curse word such as “damn.”
Elements of humor, e.g., plenty of witty phrases and plays on idioms.
References to pop culture, e.g., a careful use of reference to globally famous artists on social media only.
Of course, your language will vary across different media and you can start accounting for this in your documentation.
Here’s a short video our company put together on tone of voice.
Once you have a clear understanding of what defines your desired tone of voice, you’ll need to tell the rest of the company about this. In an ideal world, the entire company would have an awareness of the tone of voice and what it stands for. However, in our less-than-ideal world, you’ll most likely have to focus your energy on the people who either write or oversee copy for external communications.
Helping these people form an in-depth appreciation of the tone of voice may or may not involve in-person training. However, it’s vital to have a written guide on the subject. This will:
Set down the specifics of the tone of voice in black and white terms
Provide something that proofers/editors can refer back to
Act as a training resource for new employees
Turn theory into practice by being written in the tone of voice itself
What Your Guide Should Include
A simple, one-page summary, near the beginning, that sets down the essentials. This page will cater to people with little time on their hands who just want the gist of what the tone of voice stands for. More importantly, the page will provide a way for people to easily remember what to keep in mind when writing. A real-life example is Moz’s acronym TAGFEE which stands for its core values of being: transparent, authentic, generous, fun, empathetic and exceptional.
Examples of phrases that are suitable for each different medium. This isn’t about being dogmatic (you don’t want people to just endlessly repeat the same things) but being specific about what works and what doesn’t.
A list of things to avoid such as particular terminology, jargon and types of humor. Part of defining what something is, is stating what it isn’t. This will help people recognize when they are veering off-course with their writing. For example, you might not want any swearing or regional sayings; equally, you might want to avoid being too salesy by outlawing obvious clichés and hyperbole.
If you want to explore this topic further, take a look at my comprehensive guide, Finding Your Brand’s Voice. This includes practical exercises designed to help you pin down a tone of voice, as well as interviews with writers at well-loved brands. And, let me know your own tips in the comments!
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.