Dont use that tone of voice with me!

Such is one of the enduring phrases I remember hearing frequently during my childhood. After my inevitable protestations, it was often followed by its close relative its not just what you said, its how you said it.

Ah, theres wisdom in them there words – wisdom thats as relevant to us marketers today as it was to an impetuous five-year-old standing in the kitchen with hands on hips and a furrowed brow. And it seems that our dear Prime Minister Rudd – and at least one of his advisers – seems to think so too.

In case you missed it, in what many critics have called a blatantly orchestrated attempt to appear more in touch with his working class audience, PM Rudd dropped the S-bomb on TV recently. His whole performance, including his subsequent self-admonishment, had an air of authenticity to it rivalled only by televangelism and pro-wrestling.

Nevertheless, the tactic itself and its repercussions served to highlight the importance of tone of voice in brand communications (and yes, our Prime Minister is most definitely a brand). Getting it right is a fine art: too distant and youll never own the consumers hearts and minds, too personal and you risk offence; too plain and youll lose interest, too contrived and youll face ridicule.

Gone are the old days when banks sold financial products and insurance companies sold insurance. Having clued on to the notion of selling benefits rather than features, they’re now promoting their brands on the basis that they’ll enrich our lives. But how far is too far when setting the tone of voice that drives the creative? How did brands go from being a faceless institution to wanting to be our life coach? Where is the balance?

To get the right tone requires an understanding of not just your audience, but your brand from your audiences perspective. Just because you’ve been able to identify certain personality characteristics in your audience doesnt mean that you can automatically align your brand personality with theirs by adopting a particular TOV in your communications. Modern consumers have fantastic bullsh*t – ahem, baloney – detectors and you risk just causing alienation if you get it wrong. While the initial awkward laughter at Rudd’s ‘slip up’ the other night may have been the desired response, much commentary since (and the insightful YouTube comments jury) has labelled it a pathetic stunt and has left it with an air of condescension. You see, the rest of the Rudd brand personality doesnt support Campaign Sh*tstorm, and so consumers have called it for what it is: a cheap ploy.

The other key is understanding what space you occupy in the audiences mind as a brand and a category, beyond just your brand personality. If youre a brand or product to which people align themselves and from which they derive a sense of identity, you can probably talk to them about their dreams and desires and inner self. It may be appropriate to talk of enriching their lives. But if youre selling basic commodities in the same fashion, youre treading a fine line: get the creative execution wrong and it just may be thrown back in your face in negative consumer sentiment. People don’t like being patronised. If you’re an insurance company, for instance, rather than trying to own the consumer’s life outlook, perhaps you’d be far better off aiming to own the space that is interested in insurance. Personally (and I suspect this others will share my sentiment) Ill get my philosophies from the Good Book and pew time on Sunday, so I don’t need a cacophony of brand messages trying to speak to me on that level.

The key to finding the right balance will undoubtedly be rigorous research, both in terms of consumer insights relating to the above, and then in pre-testing the creative message. If his critics are to be believed (remembering that they’re politicians too, so probably not), Mr Rudd ran focus groups surrounding the use of that particular expletive before letting it roll clumsily off his tongue. What he failed to realise was that a simple tone of voice change for a moment would not be enough to create resonance with an audience in spite of the rest of his brand image. Hmm… to think that any brand, no matter how boring, could be just one expletive-laden campaign away from universal adoration? The creative industry would have a bloody field day.