11 Nov How to find the right tone of voice for your brand

It ain’t what you say…

…it’s the way that you say it. Or, why our tips on how to develop a tone of voice can make your marketing work much harder. In this copywriting tone of voice guide, we look at why how you talk in your copy is at least as important as what you say. In it, we introduce you to some of the techniques for developing and writing in a tone of voice that’s unique to your brand.

You’ll read about:

  • How tone of voice creates the difference between your brand and a competitors’
  • How it will help reinforce your brand in multichannel communications
  • Why established B2B brands can struggle finding a tone of voice
  • How your brand tone of voice reflects your brand personality
  • Simple exercises to establish your tone of voice
  • How to start applying your tone of voice in written communications


Why Tone of Voice makes all the difference

You’ll often hear marketers and copywriters discussing tone of voice, and why it’s so important. And with good reason. Quite simply, your brand tone of voice is one of the most crucial things to get right in your copy. Because a clear tone of voice will set your brand apart even if your product doesn’t.

So unless you have a genuine category-leading brand or a unique product that can’t be copied (in which case, lucky you), you need to find a way of talking to customers that is distinct and memorable.

Remember: Between two competing brands, the one that gets the most traction is the one people recall because of how it talked to them.

Two images that demonstrate good copywriting tone of voice showing antique chairs, one with a sign saying "Please do not sit on the chair" the second saying "Everyone who has ever sat in this chair is now dead. Play it safe and remain standing".

Two trips to the museum. Which one do you think will be remembered the most?


Using Tone of Voice to reinforce your brand

But tone of voice isn’t just an exercise in differentiation. It’s also a powerful way to reinforce your brand. Because talking in a consistent way makes the sum of your marketing parts work that much harder.

When you talk to your customers on social media in the same tone you use for your direct marketing, POS or trade advertising, it builds recognition. And recognition builds trust. You don’t have to work to win them all over again, because they already recognise and know you from elsewhere.

Good marketers know this instinctively. They’re the ones who establish a tone of voice for copywriting from the start. And benefit from higher recall, increased brand loyalty and greater ROI for years, or even decades. Simples.

Struggling to find your brand Tone of Voice? You’re not alone.

So if the right tone of voice is such a potent tool, how come we see so much bland, characterless marketing around?

Often, it’s the startups and entrepreneur brands that have the most characterful, recognisable tones. Think Moneysupermarket.com, Mailchimp or Innocent Drinks, back in the day.

It’s easy to see why. In a small startup, it’s usually one person doing everything. From raising the finance and washing out the bottles to, yes, writing all the marketing material.

So when they write about a business that’s essentially an extension of their personality, they are their own tone of voice.

But when you’re bigger, it gets harder to define what makes you different. Harder to find something new to say about yourself, especially for B2B marketers.

Then there are all the layers of management and other stakeholders who all want their say as well. You can see why, despite the best efforts of the marketing team on the ground, so much marketing adopts such an uninspiring tone.

The importance of brand personality

At its heart, tone of voice is simply an expression of brand personality. And when you have a clear picture of what that personality is, it becomes a lot easier to find the words that go with it.

So if you’re struggling with your tone of voice, here are a couple of simple exercises you can use to help you get a better idea of what your brand stands for and how it should talk.

Try them out to see what works for your brand and where they take the tone of your written communications.

Go from one extreme to the other

Simplest of all is to establish where you feel your brand sits on a continuum of key characteristics.

For example, on a sliding scale of formality, where do you fall between ‘Rigidly institutional’ and ‘Everybody’s best mate’? Or risk: Are you a ‘move fast and break things’ disruptor or a preserver of tradition?

How about collaboration? Are you one of life’s team players or do you do things your own way?

Spend some time (along with other key stakeholders in the business if possible) discussing your position between these and any other personality control points that are relevant in your sector. Like this:

After a few hours (and possibly a couple of disagreements – it’s amazing how different the perspectives of different people can be on the company they’ve all worked in for years!) you’ll have a series of words or phrases that each contributes to an aspect of your brand personality.

Now, it’s simply a matter of whittling them down to the three that best represent what you feel is its very essence.

Establishing your tone of voice coordinates

Why three? First, because when you try to turn your brand personality into a tone of voice, having four, five or six personality traits to acknowledge will make things very complicated indeed.

And second, three points of reference are all you need to define the position of anything, anywhere in the universe. Including your tone of voice.

Let’s say you’ve decided your tone will be ‘Approachable, Adventurous and Inclusive’. Write them down, in a venn diagram like this if you like:

Now you’ve got a ready-made litmus test for every piece of copy you write or commission.

What you’re not is as important as what you are.

If you’re confident about what your brand stands for, those three keywords can be enough to begin building a distinctive tone of voice. Sometimes, though, it takes a little more work to get to the heart of what they mean and how they influence your writing.

When that’s necessary, one technique we’ve used with clients is an exercise known as ‘We are, but we’re not’, for obvious reasons.

It involves thinking again about those specific key qualities, but this time from the perspective of what we don’t want them to imply. Using the above examples once more, this might unfold as ‘we are:

  • Approachable, but we’re not Overfamiliar.’
  • Adventurous, but we’re not Reckless.’
  • Inclusive, but we’re not Indecisive’.

Now you’ve got an even more tightly defined set of coordinates to guide you on your tone of voice journey. So, how do you start putting it all into practice?

Getting it all down on paper – and pixels.

For many businesses, the next stage is setting out the copywriting tone of voice in a set of brand guidelines. That’s sensible, especially if you’re part of a large group and you need to make everyone aware of the new direction your marketing is about to take.

That said, there’s no substitute for giving your newly focused tone of voice a run out for real on your next live project.

If you’re confident writing copy yourself, go for it. Nobody knows more about your brand than you, and with those guidelines to point you in the right direction, you can be reasonably certain of getting the register and feel you’re after.

Often, it’s easier to start with the little things rather than review all your website copy or sales collateral in one go. Things like like calls to action, signage or even 404 Error messages on your website. That way, you get to try it for size without having to invest a lot of time or money.

Tone of voice – starters for 10..

So instead of ‘Click here for more information’ on your website, you might like to try something like ‘Feeling adventurous? See where we can take you…’

In your visitor carpark. ‘Sometimes, even we’re backward looking. Please reverse park for everyone’s safety’

Or instead of a traditional ‘Keep Your Distance’ sticker on the back of your vehicles: ‘It’s nice that you want get closer. But keep it safe and call us instead: 08000 0000 0000’

After that (think of it as a ‘throat clearing’ exercise) you can begin applying your copywriting tone of voice to all your sales activities.

Bear in mind, though, it can be time-consuming, especially with everything else you’re likely to have crossing your desk. And we haven’t even started talking about how writing for different audiences and different media might mean altering your tone of voice accordingly…

Yes, it can be complex. But that’s what makes finding and exploring your copywriting tone of voice such a challenge. And what makes it so rewarding when at last you get it right.

If you’d like one of our copywriting team to cast an eye over a piece of your copy and show you how it can be improved, why not send it to the DGR Copy Clinic?

This post has been adapted from an article that appeared in our DGR copywriting and content review – DGR Ink where you will also find other copywriting guides including:-