The trouble with tone of voice

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Something strange has happened in the last few years. Fruity drinks have developed a sense of humour. Banks have started chatting to their customers. Even management consultants are ditching the management-speak in favour of normal-speak. (Well, some of them.)

They’ve all realised they need a voice – or rather, as brand consultants have packaged it up and labelled it – a ‘tone of voice’.

But as every Tom, Dick and branding agency now ‘does tone of voice’, many businesses are being short-changed with random guidelines that merely skim the surface and fail to make any kind of lasting impact.

Here’s where your typical tone of voice project usually falls down.

1. It’s done by strategists, not linguists

You wouldn’t take your car to a plumber to be fixed. Why would you take your language to a brand strategist?

2. It’s impractical

More often than not, a ‘tone of voice’ is just a few adjectives on a page or two of an 80-page brand manual. This not only makes it subjective (one marketing manager’s ‘professional’ is another’s ‘formal’), but also impractical. Just how do you sound ‘collaborative’ in a leaflet about price hikes?

3. It changes with each new ad campaign

‘Let’s make all our headlines three words long’ is a campaign idea, not a tone of voice. Campaigns come and go, but your brand’s personality should stay the same (at least until you make a big, strategic decision to change it).

4. It’s just a veneer

In most organisations, tone of voice is applied only to the top, ‘designed’ layer of communications. But scratch the surface and you’ll find that letters to customers, T and Cs, job ads and employment contracts are still the same. The resulting mishmash of ‘new tone’, ‘old tone’, HR speak and legalese can make things worse, not better.

5. The brand team keep it all to themselves 

Sure, your brand and comms teams should know your tone of voice inside out. But what about the techy product manager who’s writing a section of your website? The complaints team who deal with all those unhappy customers? The legal team writing all that impenetrable legalese? Fail to get them on board (and trained up) and you might as well not have bothered.

So how do you make tone of voice work?

First, by thinking of it as language, not tone of voice. Language is practical. Useful. Essential. It’s one of the most tangible and emotional parts of your brand. Get it right, and it’s an opportunity to connect with people in a way that a colour or a typeface can’t. So you need to take it as seriously as your visual identity.

Second, you need to think about what you’re saying as much as how you’re saying it. Because if you haven’t got anything meaningful to say, the friendliest, clearest or quirkiest words in the world won’t change that.

And third, you need to make sure your people at the top take it seriously too. (We’ve got some pretty impressive facts and figures to help convince them.)

Once you’ve got your buy-in and your budget, here are some tips to make your language work – and stick.

1. Make it someone’s job

For a brand language to stick, it needs someone to stick up for it. Two of our clients (both big, global companies) employ full-time heads of brand language whose job it is to keep their organisations’ language consistent around the world. Even if you can’t justify a full-time role, it should still be someone’s responsibility.

2. Train everyone

Usually when we train organisations, it’s not the marketing team but the people on the shop floor, or in the call centre, or in the HR team, who are most grateful for any guidance around their language. And ultimately, their words affect more people, more directly.

3. Make language part of your recruitment

Reflect your brand language in your recruitment ads, and you can tell immediately whether a candidate will fit your culture by the tone of their response. Making brand language part of your induction for new joiners also helps to instil it in people from day one.