Tone of voice is one of those things that we often instinctively know is wrong or right when we hear it – but it can also be very hard to pin down. In marketing terms, it can make or break a brand, and can be hugely influential when people engage with it. Take the Innocent drinks company, who have spawned an entire generation of businesses who have all adopted a similarly quirky tone of voice for their own products, with varying degrees of success. So how do you go about identifying a tone of voice for your own company? Here are my thoughts.
Understand who you’re talking to
It’s a general rule that has got me through a lot different situations in life – before you start talking, listen. This certainly applies to identifying your brand’s tone of voice. It’s important because the early stages of defining tone of voice – the way your company ‘speaks’, is all about understanding who you’re actually speaking to with your communications. To do this properly, you’ll need to get out and about and listen to your customers. Sit down face to face with them, listen to how and where and when they like to be communicated with, and build these insights into your communications approach.
Make it uniquely yours
Once you know who you’re talking to, and where, it’s time to do more listening. This time, it’s about listening to your direct competitors, and understanding how they speak to the same customers you’re fighting each other for. Why is this such a crucial process to go through? Well, in a crowded marketplace, differentiation is absolutely key. If you’ve done everything else right, you should have a product or a service that is some way markedly different to your competitors. The way that you present your business visually, through the design of the products and the marketing materials that surround them, will all also have their own distinct feel. With this in mind, it’s absolutely crucial that your tone of voice – the way that you speak directly to your customers – doesn’t just sound like everyone else. So, listen to your competitors, and learn from them, but don’t copy from them.
Make it adaptable – but make it consistent too
One of the most important – but also difficult – aspects of finding the right tone of voice for your business is that it needs to be both adaptable, and yet still consistent. This is because of the sheer range of different channels that we’re able to communicate through now. There was a time when companies just needed to think about how they sounded on a marketing leaflet or in a newspaper advert – today, we need to consider how we get our messages across in a myriad of different ways. Whether it’s on Twitter, or on a banner ad online, or a Facebook post, or a giant billboard by the side of the road, the tone of voice of our brand needs to be consistent, wherever people interact with it.
Not, importantly, the same – but consistent. By this, I mean that every channel should feel right sat next to each other – not necessarily the same ‘person’ speaking every time, but certainly speaking in a way that feels consistent with the image people have of your brand. It’s well worth sense checking your comms in this way – asking ‘is this the kind of thing we’d really say to our customers?’. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.
A final word on this too – tone of voice is also about context. For example, as a rail company, that quirky, familiar tone you use in your ticket booking process might be reassuring and perfect for what could otherwise be a bit of a boring and impersonal task. But it’s a tone of voice that really doesn’t work for announcing that a train has been cancelled – it alienates customers who don’t feel you’re taking their inconvenience seriously.
The trick then is to find a way of speaking that can adapt to different situations and different channels, but that is still recognisably and distinctively yours.