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Creating a tone of voice for your brand

Posted by Alex Warren on 10th October 2019

A company’s tone of voice (ToV) can be a hugely important aspect of its overall brand personality. When working in a competitive market, the ability to differentiate through tone is especially vital.

Many of the world’s most memorable brands have cemented their tone of voice in our minds – think McDonalds, Three, or IKEA. Nobody would ever confuse an IKEA message with that of Oak Furniture Land, or a McDonald’s coffee advert with Starbucks or Costa. So much of this distinction comes down to the tone of voice being used – something that brands in any sector can emulate within their own marketing.

With this in mind, here’s a quick five-point guide for brands looking to craft their own unique and memorable tone of voice:

How to create a memorable tone of voice

Step 1: Start at the start

When thinking about your brand’s tone of voice, it’s all too easy to jump straight in at the end, drafting brand guidelines or preparing a brand personality document. In reality, deciding your tone of voice should be one of the last things you think about – after your objectives, messaging and brand values are all already in place.

These higher-level considerations will help to shape your tone of voice and give it meaning. Even more importantly, they will give your tone authenticity, ensuring that it reflects the genuine culture and values of your brand.

Step 2: Find examples you like

With your objectives and messaging still front of mind, the next step is to seek out other tones of voice that could work for your brand.

While the obvious place to start may be your competitors, it’s worth remembering that the whole point of setting a consistent tone is to stand out from the crowd. Simply copying the biggest player in the market won’t do anything to differentiate your brand.

Once you have a sense of your own market (and what’s been done to death), next it’s time to look further afield. Think about your own favourite brands and how their voices help them stand out in your mind. Most big brands publish their tone of voice guidelines as PDFs online. It can take a bit of digging, but finding these will provide a great source of inspiration for your tone, as well as the structure and layout of your own brand guidelines.

Step 3: Start mapping your tone of voice

There are plenty of tools out there for developing a unique tone of voice, but one of my personal favourites is the NN/G framework.

This framework asks you to plot your company – both as it currently stands and as you would like it to be perceived – across four sliders. These sliders are: Funny vs Serious, Formal vs Casual, Respectful vs Irreverent and Enthusiastic vs Matter of Fact. Typically, you should ask several members of staff (at varying levels of seniority) to do the same and then compare results.

Once you’re happy with where your brand sits on these four levels, the NN/G provides a series of tonal words and phrases that you can use to plot your brand personality and use as the basis for your tone of voice guidelines.

Step 4: Write your tone of voice guidelines

Once you have a good idea of which words best reflect your brand, you can start drafting up useful guidelines for employees.

To be effective, these guidelines should be as short and clear as possible. Typically, a good ToV document will contain just four elements of your tone, explained through a short paragraph of text. This text should make it clear when and where to ramp up this particular tone (e.g. in a customer mailout) and where to tone it down (e.g. when responding to a customer complaint).

A good ToV document will also provide clear examples of the tone in action, typically broken down into: what you should say, what you shouldn’t say, and a brief explanation of why one is better than the other. And remember, every element of your tone of voice document should be clear, concise, and of course, written in your approved tone of voice!

Step 5: Live it

The unfortunate truth is that no matter how brilliantly crafted your tone of voice guidelines are, most people aren’t going to look at them. When drafting email copy or making a customer call, very few people think to check their language against the brand guidelines.

Instead, making a brand’s tone of voice stick is all about persistence. Deciding on the voice itself is only step one. After that you need all of the tools and processes in place to help staff live and breathe that tone in their daily interactions.

That could mean implementing new training procedures and regular workshops. It could also mean setting up voice-proofing processes and brand ‘checkpoints’ before marketing collateral goes live. The exact processes for this aren’t set in stone, but it’s worth remembering that the benefits of a tone of voice can only come through consistency and regular use. Anything less, and they simply won’t stick.

To find out more about how Wildfire can help build your brand, contact our team.

Alex Warren

Alex Warren is an expert in AI and marketing technologies. He has published two books, Spin Machines, and Technoutopia and is regularly quoted in PR, marketing and technology media. In his role as a Senior Account Director at Wildfire he helps tech brands build creative strategies that deliver results and cut through the marketing BS.