An introductory guide to what tone of voice is, why it’s important, what a good one looks like and, most importantly, how to develop one for your brand.
What we’re talking about
At its simplest, your brand’s tone of voice is your personality and how you sound to other people. It determines how you speak to your customers online, on packaging, on social media – everywhere, really. A distinctive tone of voice deployed consistently can become as recognisable as your colours or imagery and will help reinforce the other aspects of your brand. A good way to tell if you have a distinctive tone of voice is to consider whether your audience would be able to recognise you based on just your content, even if your logo didn’t appear alongside it. Or, whether two pieces of content on two different channels sound like they are coming from the same organisation.
Why it’s important
No matter whether you’re a B2B or B2C business, you’ll likely make your first impression on a potential customer with words, be it through an ad, on packaging, or on the landing page of your website. And whilst the tone you choose can be distinctive, it can just as easily be neutral – what’s key is that it is consistent throughout your communications. Your audience has to recognise who is speaking.
The words you use shape how your customers see you and can help you build an emotional connection with them. And, that emotional connection is what will help drive that first sale and then an ongoing relationship after that – in fact, a study published by Harvard Business Review found that emotional engagement can matter more than customer satisfaction when driving brand loyalty. So, the way your brand speaks to people matters, and is worth being thoughtful about.
Who’s gotten this right
If you think of one of your favourite brands, it’s very likely it’ll have a consistent – and probably distinctive – tone of voice. You might not be able to articulate what makes up that tone of voice as easily as you could name the key colours that make up the brand’s visual identity, but consider how you feel every time you read their website or one of their tweets or even the email they send you when you buy something. They probably speak to you in a similar tone each time, and so you’ll likely feel similarly each time you engage with them – you might feel tickled, or calm, or more confident because you understand something better. Any brand that elicits a consistent and – ideally – positive feeling has gotten its tone of voice right.
How to develop a tone of voice
1. Make sure you have what you need
Your tone of voice will reinforce who your brand is and what you stand for. So, to develop one, you’ll need to have a solid understanding of your brand’s positioning, differentiators, values and – most importantly – your customers. This information might be in the form of a formal purpose and/or mission statement, information you included in a business plan, or content you’ve used on your website and other key marketing materials like your packaging. Wherever the format, make sure you have that key info on hand and in your head before you try and develop a tone of voice based on it.
2. Get inside your customer’s head
Because your tone of voice is all about how you speak to your customers, you need to first know how your customers speak. You should already have a good idea about who your customer is; now is the time to build out a more detailed persona. Focus on identifying the issues they care about, the places they get their information and even the kinds of words and phrases they tend to use. All of this will help you build a picture of the kinds of communications (messages, language and level of detail) that might resonate best with them.
There are lots of ways to facilitate the brainstorming process but the key output you want to get to is a list of three or so traits that represent how you want your business to be experienced. These words will form the basis of your brand’s personality and inform the kinds of things you say.
It can help to ask yourself the question ‘If our brand were a person who would it be?’ and then list qualities and attributes of that person that can apply to your brand. Get your team in a room and come up with a long list of potential candidates for words and phrases. Then look for overlapping terms or ideas, and narrow down the list to the few words that feel ownable and specific for your brand. Here are few examples of the key traits that provide the foundation for a few brands’ tone of voice:
Monzo’s are ‘ambitious and positive’, ‘transparent’, ‘open and inclusive’
Zendesk’s are ‘charming’, ‘humblident’, ‘distilled’ and ‘real’
Uber’s primary characteristics are ‘considerate’, ‘simple & direct’, and ‘consistent’; and its secondary characteristics are ‘optimistic’, ‘inviting’ and ‘bold’
Once you have narrowed down to a few qualities that make up your brand’s personality, you should brainstorm the tone of voice that accompanies it. Your tone of voice is not what you say, but how you say it – and is made up of the kinds of words and sentences you use as well as their order, rhythm, pace and length.
4. Put things to paper
When you and your team have aligned on your brand’s key personality traits and how they come together through language in a tone of voice, it’s time to draft a set of editorial guidelines that will cover all the essential information and context needed to make sure your personality comes through consistently in all your communications.
Brands are increasingly publishing their guidelines online so there are plenty of examples to refer to. See guidelines from Mailchimp, Monzo, UNC, Zendesk and Uber for ideas about how you might structure your guidelines.
Whatever the format, your guidelines should include: Your key brand traits with guidance on how to bring them to life in copy; A style guide noting any capitalisations and abbreviations and terms that should be written consistently (e.g. how product names and headings should be styled); List of words and phrases that you like using versus ones you don’t like using; Grammar rules you follow (e.g. US vs UK, oxford comma or not).
5. Circulate the guidelines
Once you have your editorial guidelines (AKA your single source of truth when it comes to your brand’s personality and tone of voice), you need to make sure that everyone on your team (especially those who create the content and write the copy) knows how to use them.
Making sure everyone is aware the guidelines exist and knows where to find them is just step one. If you can, host a workshop or training session on how to use the guidelines that includes time to practice writing according to them. This is something an external creative agency can help with if you’re not sure how to handle it in house.
6. Keep things consistent
When you have a tone of voice that everyone has been briefed on, the key is to make sure it’s being used. Keep checking communications that go out to make sure they’re getting tone of voice – as well as content – right.
- A distinctive brand voice deployed consistently is an important aspect of your brand that helps you build a connection with consumers
- Your brand personality is how you want your business to be experienced and can be summed up with ~3 human-like traits
- Your tone of voice is how you get across those personality traits in written communications
- An editorial guide acts as a single source of truth for what your brand’s tone of voice is so anyone at the company can put it into action.
Find out more
LinkedIn Learning’s ‘Content Marketing Foundations’ has a 2 hour module that walks you through the process of developing your brand voice.
This article by Jason Fried, co-founder of Basecamp (a B2B company with an enviable tone of voice) talks about the importance of good, clear business writing.
This guide by 99designs provides step-by-step instructions to putting together a brand style guide (AKA the editorial guide we’ve talked about here).