Is your brand pitch perfect or tone deaf?

Every established brand should have documented brand guidelines which dictate and direct its voice and presentation, says Jaci Burns.

In the past, the term ‘brand guidelines’ was used interchangeably with ‘visual identity guidelines’. Of course, we now know ‘visual identity’ to be an inadequate descriptor – brand guidelines should address more than just how a brand should look. 

Contemporary brand guidelines also govern how a brand should sound.

It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it

Like people, brands have personality traits. These human characteristics make brands more relatable. For example: the Jamie Oliver brand personality is honest and challenging; passionate and inspiring; approachable and fun. In contrast, Dell’s brand personality is no-nonsense; collaborative; open and optimistic; and has a ‘can do’ spirit.

Our personality is a fundamental part of who we are, how we express ourselves and how we connect with others. The same applies to brands. 

A brand can convey its character through its tone of voice, or brand voice. 

Beth Hendricks, who instructs on study.com, describes tone of voice as being “all about the attitude behind what you’re saying”. 

Just as we read non-verbal cues such as gestures and facial expressions, we are also alert to the nuances of tone. When we read or hear something, we digest it on two levels: what was said (or written) and how it was said (or written).

In fact, in marketing communications the delivery is at least as important as the message. A strong and distinctive tone of voice will identify you even when your business name or logo is hidden.

Set the tone

A brand’s tone of voice should be as consistent as its corporate colours and approved typeface. Yet, most brands haven’t defined their brand voice. 

Tone of voice is a brand element which is often overlooked, affirms brand strategist and Brand Aid author, Brad VanAuken. “We talk at length about the brand promise, brand essence, brand personality, brand values.

“All these things lead to who the brand is, as though the brand were a person. But I don’t see anyone really adding anything about tone of voice. There’s often no real brand voice or there are so many you can pin down what it is. It’s either indeterminate or its confusing,” reflects VanAuken.

Creating a strong and consistent brand voice isn’t easy because tone of voice is comprised of many elements.

  • Vocabulary – what’s the level of education, the level of intellect, of your brand?
  • Clarity – how articulate is your brand? How truncated or complex is your sentence structure?
  • Tempo – what rhythm is created by variation in the length of sentences and paragraphs?
  • Pronouns – does your brand use the more intimate first person (we), the direct and engaging second person (you) or the distant third person .
  • Formality – does your brand use contractions (you’re, they’re, don’t)? Does your brand use jargon (which can be industry-specific), buzzwords (which date), clichés (which tend to be overused), colloquialisms and slang (which can be country- or culture-specific)?
  • Grammar – does your brand prescriptively obey long-established rules of grammar or do you bend the rules to reflect the evolution of language and sound more natural? 
  • Style – what other idiosyncratic writing techniques illustrate your brand’s personality? For example, are metaphors, hyperbole, similes or parenthetical phrases an intrinsic part of your brand voice? 

Tips for creating consistency of tone of voice

  1. Understand your brand’s personality – it’s almost certainly documented in your brand guidelines, often as ‘we are… we are not’ statements. Is your brand erudite and sophisticated or casual and goofy? 
  2. Make sure your tone of voice matches your brand’s personality. Let’s look at a few examples: sports brand PUMA, financial services brand PayPal, Coca-Cola and the University of Leeds.
  3. Document it – include tone of voice in your brand guidelines. In doing so, be as specific as possible.
    “Don’t just say your brand voice is funny because ‘funny’ can manifest itself in different ways”, counsels VanAuken. “There are so many types of humour – puns, sarcasm, vulgar humour, inside jokes, plays on words…. You need to be specific about the type of sense of humour.”
  4. Create a brand vocabulary list – What words and phrases are well suited to your brand’s personality and voice? What words and phrases would be off-brand?
  5. Don’t just tell, show – for example, check out this excerpt from the University of Leeds’ ‘Tone of Voice Guidelines’. The connection between personality and voice is clear. The guidelines also illuminate how each personality trait might sound and provide practical advice, tips and examples.Uni Leeds Vocab list
  6. Get a spokesperson –  create a character or persona, that absolutely exemplifies the personality you’re trying to instil. It’s much easier to achieve consistency if you have a person, character or archetype to keep you focused.

Tone of voice is a daily pursuit

Established in 2017, The Daily news podcast has been a runaway success for The New York Times.

The Daily is also an example of brand voice best practice. Its tone of voice is distinctive, immensely appealing and flawlessly executed. 

“Our medium (audio) is unique because the tone is inherently part of the journalism”, explains executive producer Theo Balcomb. “We have The New York Times’ style guide, which we use, but the style decisions we make are in service of telling the story. We’re thinking more editorially than ‘this is The Daily brand’.” 

Balcomb was one of three “audio-first journos” recruited to help political reporter Michael Barbaro launch The Daily. The Times granted the four free rein and they, in shaping The Daily brand, acted largely on instinct.

“We didn’t put down on paper or even say out loud the rhythm and tone of the show. Now that the team is much bigger, we’ve had to double down on how we train people on our style. That process has been really interesting; putting into words something that you intuitively know is hard”, shares Balcomb.

“Everyone we bring in has listened to the show, so they understand what we’re going after. We very much want the new people we bring in to embrace their sense of self – that’s a huge part of hosting the show – but we also want to make sure we maintain the style.

“Here’s how everything comes together. Here’s the general way we approach stories. Here’s how we would script an interview. This is how we think about structure. This is how we would write this kind of question. This is how we use audio. This is how we use music. This is how we use our host…”

The host of The Daily is the embodiment of its unique tone of voice. Usually in news and current affairs, the host is understood to have background information and to know where a story is headed. The Daily takes the approach that the host (most often Michael Barbaro) is a stand in for the listener. His role is therefore to guide the reporter (“the expert”) through the story in a way which gives the impression that he does not have any more information than the listener. It’s like eavesdropping on an intriguing conversation.

“One thing we do think about a lot is how much information we expect the listener to have. We assume that our listener is smart. We don’t talk down, but we understand they might not remember where or what something is, or who someone is. We’re walking that line a lot – what is necessary to remind people of. For example, we remember what happened six months ago but might now remember what happened in 1972.”

Jacqueline (Jaci) Burns is CMO at Market Expertise

Further Reading:

Image credit: