Blog in 03 2016.
If you didn’t catch our Marianne in The Guardian’s Superbrands supplement, we’ve popped it here for you.
At The Writer, we’ve been working with lots of the brands on this list for 15 years, helping them define and roll out their tones of voice. And we’ve just commissioned independent research into tone of voice in the UK. Here’s what we’ve learnt from the most linguistically savvy brands.
1. You don’t have to sound like Innocent, or Virgin
They were linguistic pioneers, yes. But you can’t nick their tone of voice if you’re an arms dealer. Sound like you.
2. A distinctive tone of voice depends on a distinctive brand
Otherwise it’s just lipstick on a pig.
3. You can measure its effects
Check how many people respond to your letters, or call your call centres. Just changing the tone will make a difference. (That’s why 65% of brands with a tone of voice say it’s as important as, or more important than, their visual identity.)
4. Make it someone’s job
Brands like BT have a ‘head of brand language’, with the power to sign off (or veto) important comms, even outside brand.
5. Chief execs are interested
Most CEOs want to make an impact on the culture of their business, and language is a brilliant way to shape culture: 91% of businesses with a tone of voice say their senior leaders get its value.
6. Make it practical
It’s not enough to tell your people, or your agencies, ‘we want to sound bold’. Or ‘innovative’. How do you really express that in an ad, or a white paper, or a tweet?
7. Make it stick
No one reads guidelines more than once. So you need to find ways to keep your tone of voice in your people’s heads, years after you’ve launched it.
8. Invest in it
£116k is the average spend on a tone of voice programme.
9. Obsess about the details
These days, the millions you spend on an ad campaign can be undone by some dodgy Ts & Cs, because grumpy customers will take to Twitter to berate them. The nooks and crannies matter.
10. Don’t stop at brand and marketing
In most organisations, everyone writes. So getting HR, or legal or customer service to think about tone of voice will get HR, or legal or customer service thinking about your brand.
10½. They use language experts to do it, not any old brand people
We would say that, wouldn’t we? True, though.
Boy, the British Government loves wading into debates about English usage. The Department for Education has just issued rules on which uses of the exclamation mark will get kids credit in tests (only in sentences that start with ‘How’ or ‘What’). A few years ago the Justice Secretary (and former Education Secretary) Michael Gove fired off his own idiosyncratic hodge-podge of guidance about what’s acceptable English and what’s not.
Now, here at The Writer, we bemoan the over-use of exclamation marks with the best of them. But an arbitrary rule about which sentences should have them, and which shouldn’t, is barmy. That’s not how language works.
We should be teaching kids (and exam markers) that these aren’t black-and-white issues, but questions of context, judgement and taste. And if you really want to know where exclamation marks actually get used, do some science. Get some data. There’s what an academic linguist would do. The Department of Health wouldn’t recommend a medicine on the basis of what colour pill some minister happened to prefer, so why do we tolerate the same subjective amateurishness about language? That’s how unsubstantiated superstitions like ‘You can’t start a sentence with “and”’ become accepted, but ill-informed, wisdom.
It’s not like it’s difficult to investigate. At The Writer we were debating how to describe in the US what our UK clients call ‘tone of voice’. In the US, we hear ‘brand voice’, ‘verbal branding’ and all sorts of alternatives. So we checked which terms people searched on Google, and ‘tone of voice’ was still the clear winner. Two minutes’ research into real usage and job done. Using facts, not hunches, or prejudices.