Don't paper over the cracks with tone of voice. Challenging thinking series 3.

Some copy is lovely to read. It trips jauntily along, makes you smile, entertains and beguiles you with its cleverness. But unless it’s saying something that informs, influences or convinces, it’s just a flimsy covering that won’t do the job.

A huge amount gets written about tone of voice. But very little gets written about message. Of course, defining your tone of voice is an essential and central pillar of your brand. But it also needs to be underpinned by something more substantial than simply sounding the part. Sounding the part means you sound like everyone else in your sector. Seth Godin, entrepreneur, business writer, and canny communicator puts it like this: ‘Fitting in is a short-term strategy. Standing-out pays off in the long run.”

And standing out begins with saying something that informs, entertains or influences… in your tone of voice. Until you have a clear brand messaging strategy you’re trying to apply the wallpaper before you’ve built the house.

First, get the foundations right

Great messaging begins by challenging yourself to lay out the foundations of your brand. You need to dig down and understand what problem you solve for your customers, and define what your area of innovation is. You also need to understand who your target market is and what’s important to them. Listen to your sales team too, and find out what resonates most when they’re with your clients. Take a look at what your competitors are saying and aim to zag in the opposite direction.

Only when you understand all of this can you start building your brand promise, positioning statement, your values and mission. And only then will you also uncover those gems of insight about your brand that make you stand out from your peers. This is where your agency can help you, and where skilled writers can also begin to provide you with the tools you’ll need: some key terms, a boilerplate text, an elevator speech.

Take the ‘Smell like a Man, Man’ campaign by Wieden+Kennedy for Old Spice – more commonly known as ‘The man your man could smell like’ ads. The idea was born from a simple insight – what if we advertised men’s grooming products to women – after research showed that women tend make purchasing decisions about their household’s hygiene products.

The campaign was anchored by a tone of voice that was sharp, self-aware and irreverent. The 30-second ad won the Grand Prix at Cannes and an Emmy. To date it’s been viewed 54 million times. It’s a perfect example of how an insight-backed tone of voice can launch brands into the advertising stratosphere.

No brand embraces authenticity in its tone of voice like Jimmy’s Iced Coffee. Every word of the brand’s plain tone sounds like it’s danced off the tongue of loveable brand mascot Jimmy. It’s likeable and means the brand ‘RideClub’ (just cars, bikes and skateboards that people who love Jimmy’s Iced Coffee own) doesn’t feel at all out of place. A visit to the website feels like a visit to a friend’s house – even if it is a friend who wants to sell you coffee.

So, now you’ve put in the grunt work on the foundations you’re beginning to build something. Now your words have a purpose, their parameters are more defined, your people understand your brand and your language is less likely to stray off message.

Don’t paper over the cracks

A word of warning about skipping these steps. Tone of voice is often an afterthought for many brands. Rather than spending time up front building brand foundations and uncovering insight, some brands avoid that challenge and jump straight to writing tone of voice guidelines. Most guidelines contain page after page of logo do’s and don’ts, secondary and primary colours and photography guidance. But tone of voice tends to be tucked away at the back. And because the preceding steps have been skipped, they end up being little more than a list of aspirational words like:

Friendly

Authentic

Honest

Straightforward

Human

Professional

Confident

Warm

Etc.

You may recognise them. They’re the inevitable result of an afternoon of good intentions spent trapped in a meeting room with post it notes and lukewarm coffee. But without the brand insight to inform them, you’re simply building castles in the air.

Now you can choose the wallpaper

If you do it the right way, you’ve honed your message and defined your proposition. Now you can get on with honing, exploring and defining your tone of voice. In fact, having done the hard work of putting right foundations in place, your tone of voice should almost write itself.

But tone of voice also needs to be kept on track. This isn’t something that happens by some mysterious, undefined process of magical osmosis. You can define it all you like in your brand guidelines, but left untended, it will wander off over the next hill.

This is especially true if your organisation involves multiple marketing, product and sales stakeholders, spread over a variety of different locations, perhaps using a number of different agencies across a number of projects. It’s no wonder brand language goes astray.

So beware of these lists of no-brainer, hygiene-factor words. They anchor you firmly within your sector, and doom you to sound like all your competitors. Instead of using tone of voice as a quick tart up job, challenge yourself to strip your brand back to the pillars that support your message. That way, you’ll end up with a tone of voice that reflects what your brand truly is.