Tone of voice. 20 years ago no bundle of words promised so much. For a brief moment Orange has used lowercase letters in their logotype, and the British phone manufacturer Phones 4u―a name using spoken language. Does anyone still care today? When is tone of voice important and how can you use it support your brand’s communication strategy?
Some time ago I organized an online course for PR specialists. Its lead theme was effective media relations. It would seem that this was a topic in which each of them should (in principle) take it like a duck to water, but, ironically, this was not the case. 245 people took part in the course, mainly high-level PR specialists: managers and directors, most of them representing agencies and corporations. Interestingly, what they enjoyed the most was a webinar hosted by my colleague and Prowly’s Lead Designer, Marta Olczak, who showed and discussed, illustrated by examples, how with little time and effort specialists responsible for brand communication can simultaneously ensure that it matches their visual identification.
Branding means much more than just a logo
“The problem is that a symbol, contrary to what may seem, does not have such great significance. And visual identification is not just a logotype. It comprises more elements that together form a complementary whole,” Marta emphasized during the meetup. In fact, the experiment she conducted at the beginning of the webinar proved that nobody remembers the precisely defined proportions of well-known brands’ logos. Relax, this is something most of us would struggle with. Just take a look at how 150 people tested by sign.com tried to draw Apple’s logotype and what came out of it:
Figure 1 Experiment sign.com, source: https://www.signs.com/branded-in-memory/
As many as 16% of respondents forgot that the apple had a bite taken and 25% that it had a leaf. 22% were convinced that the bite was on the left side of the apple. By the way, I wonder if you could name all the colors used in the Google logo from memory. I bet that even if you managed to name the colors correctly, their order would be wrong.
The point is that such a slip on your part does not mean anything. And so you know that an apple is the Apple brand, a checked trench coat―probably Burberry, while a red bottle silhouette will always be associated with Coca-Cola, and the blue one with Pepsi.
Why? Because branding consists of many elements, including those discussed by Marta during Prowly’s training:
- typeface or several typefaces,
- palette of basic and accompanying colors,
- the defined nature of the photographs used,
- style of illustrations or compositional variants,
- selection of places where the brand appears.
I’m adding language of communication to this list. And I would like to point out straight away that developing a coherent brand language is a difficult art, especially now, with so many channels and tools of communication out there. How does such a language fit into the DNA of a brand? Why is it worth speaking your own language and how to speak it so that the recipient understands you?
Tone of voice is a unique way (tone) of communication with the recipients. A medium of value that the brand has to convey. It concerns both the choice of language, vocabulary, frequency of contact and communication channels. It is strongly determined by the brand’s key message―what we talk about affects how we talk about it. A tone that works well in communication with teenagers will not “sell” a new bank loan. Equally important here is how well you know your target group (what it expects, where it happens, what media and language does it use, what is important for it?) and how you select the tone to the situation in which your recipient is (you will react differently when he complains about a defective product, and differently when he mentions your brand in social media in a positive way).
Take MailChimp, for example. They created a Content Style Guide, which you can find on their website, where the brand clearly separates “voice” from “tone”, emphasizing that the former will always remain the same, while the latter acquires different colors from time to time. With what effect? They never take themselves too seriously, and the client always comes first―they have a specific sense of humor, yet they’re trying to create simple and understandable content. And what they take into account when designing communication for their recipients is… emotions.
Figure 2 Error page message by MailChimp―a reference to Sherlock Holmes highlights the brand’s sense of humor, but also its high culture
MailChimp is well aware of how stressful it can be to plan and execute mailings, so it makes every effort to make sure that the user feels supported in the application as well. How does the company manage to do it? It uses the brand’s characteristic graphics tailored to the specific situation and colloquial language which the user uses every day:
Figure 3 Notifications in MailChimp’s app – the brand sneaks its language into every stage of contact with the user and tailors it as needed.
MailChimp also smuggles their short, heady messages into their social media communication, thus showing its character and promoting the product in a bold, cheerful, and thus coherent and expressive way:
Figure 4 MailChimp on Twitter
How we did it at Prowly
At Prowly, from the outset, we’ve focused (when I was a part of Prowly’s team) on direct communication, lack of pathos, light and a bit feisty style. This way we promoted our product on the website, through advertisements or social media. This is also the style we used to “sell” the knowledge we like to share with others in the industry―both online and during live events.
Figure 5 Intro to Prowly Magazine’s newsletter; title: “Just had a press release addressed to ‘Dear Press Release’. My work is done.”
Prowly is sincere and open-minded. At the same time, this company is not afraid to poke ant hills with a stick, they quickly suggest going on a first-name basis (both in SM and in the chat room) and they try to be close to each recipient, regardless of whether he or she is the president of a large network of PR agencies or a PR specialist who uses their tool on a daily basis. They often wink at their clients. The direct nature of communication makes the user feel that there is someone on the other side who understands him or her. Prowly knows how their everyday life looks like and Prowly knows how to convince them.
Figure 6 Prowly’s direct communication style: some things remain only between us and the users ;)
Figure 7 Prowly’s ad: “The media will be fighting one another for your stories”
They’re also sneaking their tone of voice into employer branding communication. When they publish a job advertisement, they have no problem with adding information about their addiction to sweets and coffee, and they provide any new team member with “free access to dog therapists”. They enjoy a cup of black coffee in the morning and love animals, so they want every new employee to share this emotion:
Figure 8 Part of Prowly’s job advertisement with my dog: Prowly is looking for an Online Marketing Specialist.
It is not without reason that even those who do not read their stories regularly usually come back to us ;) The message to which Prowly’s readers Prowly Magazine actively respond is an email (that I wrote some time ago) that sends automatically every time the subscriber of their newsletter does not open it for 35 days. Its headline reads “I don’t think this relationship is working, [name]…,” and then it goes as follows:
I’m terribly sad, but one of us must finally say it: this relationship is not working out anymore…For some reason, you’ve stopped opening my emails.
Do you think we should keep going on?”
Focus on the detail
As you can see, the tone of communication is also (or perhaps primarily) about the details. Antonina Samecka and Klara Kowtun from Risk made in Warsaw in their newsletter, instead of a standard clause, like “Subscribe and stay on top of what’s hot and new,” they deliver RISKy news, RISKy projects and definitely using sentences with a characteristic twisted syntax.
The names of their products (“Hot as Hell”―dress, “Don’t Stop”―pants, “Bella Ragazza”―dress) are also unique.
Figure 9 Risk made in Warsaw. Look at the names of their products and categories, which the brand uses to continue implementing their original tone of voice.
What should you remember about when designing your tone of voice? It is important to make sure that the language reflects the character of the brand and the words you choose in communication are appropriately selected. Remember about the structure of the message and emotions. Where to start? These questions may help you:
- What are your brand’s most important values?
- What role should the brand play in the life of a client/customer―a teacher, a friend, authority, or perhaps the object of worship? What kind of relationship are you looking to build with the customer?
- Are you contacting the audience as a brand or a specific person, e.g. “Amy from Zalando”?
- How are you planning to communicate with the recipient? On a first-name basis or per Sir/Madam?
- Is the language you’re using formal or informal?
- Do you have some favorite phrases you choose to use more often or perhaps you’d rather use the industry jargon in your stories?
- Are you only communicating in English?
- Can you sneak brand voice into your microcontent (CTA: “subscribe”, “go to homepage”, “add to basket”)?
Think about what you want to get or change when you build the tone of your communication. How can you achieve your mission and vision more effectively through words? How will it help you express the key values of your brand? In which areas do you intend to apply it? These are important issues that can affect your customers’ experience of brand contact at different stages of the customer journey, conversion, as well as the productivity of your communication and marketing team.
Make sure tone of voice is described clearly. Avoid vague concepts and generic statements, such as “youthful”, “modern” or “engaging”. Start with a general idea and consistently specify the details. Thanks to this, the team will have no doubts or, what’s worse, will not have to improvise.
Make sure that your brand’s tone of voice is understood and implemented not only by the people in charge of marketing in your company. Think about how you can help other departments: could the company policy or service rules be written in a more friendly way (HR, legal)? Would the IT team benefit if the product spoke to users in a less technical and more understandable language? Sometimes working on content brings the greatest benefits where you least expect it.
I have no doubt that tone of voice can have a positive impact on product and business development. But for this to happen, we need something more than a brilliant idea, which was born in the 90s, or a brand book, which nobody will read. Tone of voice must be something alive that everyone in your company cares about every day. Only then it can become an important, effective and functional element of your brand image.