26 September 2023
Tone of Voice

Table of contents

When we think about a brand’s image, we probably picture its logo and colours, and maybe the face endorsing the brand. That’s the brand’s visual identity. Yet every brand, product and company is also defined by the words and language it uses. That’s its brand voice.

And just as designers use style guides to create a new look, there are prescribed communication rules for marketing and customer interactions that must be followed consistently. The tone of voice – the voice of the brand – is more critical here than most would believe.

What do we mean by tone of voice in marketing?

Words have power – and personality. When companies and brands express something in writing, what they say is important. Which content should they publish, what values should they convey, what do they want their readers to learn, think and feel about their company or brand?

At the same time, how that message is delivered is equally important. The way in which we communicate can either reinforce or weaken our message. This is where tone of voice comes in.

Defining a tone of voice for your brand is essential for your content strategy so you can connect with your audience effectively. The tone sums up the attitude, character and distinctive signature style of your brand in everything your company says or writes. Plus, if the tone of voice is right for your target audience, it will resonate with them and create the ideal environment for a sale or order.

Tone of voice is key to your branding

Tonality of voice is a central element of branding. It’s responsible for how a brand expresses its identity and how customers perceive it. To illustrate this, imagine a well-established, reputable private bank that communicates in a clear and rational manner. Now picture a Swedish furniture shop that uses a bold and unexpected style of communication. It even addresses its customers on a first-name basis. There is no way that these two organisations could swap their communication styles; it just wouldn’t suit either one of them.

We sometimes say that the tone of voice is a perfect fit for the brand. This means that the style of writing perfectly represents the product, the people behind it and their mission. And that it hits the mark with exactly the kind of customers a company wants to attract.

Tone of voice is like a communication fingerprint. Its one-of-a-kind characteristics are crucial for making a brand memorable and unique. It gives products and services a written personality that stands out from their competitors, is recognisable and becomes familiar, which builds trust.

Brand tonality is a matter of design. It should be consciously created, not left to chance.

How does your content sound at the moment? How would you like it to be?

It creates the perfect atmosphere for sales

Everyone knows that the same message can be delivered in completely different ways, affecting how it is perceived, understood and how people react.

It could be objective – serious – and competent.

Or cheeky – surprising – yet equally competent.

Some people worry that a casual tone of voice does not equate to high quality. Interestingly, quality and tonality are less connected than you might think. Let’s take two tradespeople. Both are experts in their field. One is matter-of-fact, doesn’t talk much, and when they do it’s in a serious tone about technical subjects. The other has a flair for irony and quick-witted remarks, is outgoing and sociable. Professionally speaking, they’re both excellent. And yet, as a result of their different communication styles, they will each attract a different type of client.

That’s what makes tone of voice so interesting in interchangeable markets. Where multiple providers are offering similar services and competing for customers, tone of voice can cut through the noise, create a unique selling point and make a brand stand out. Like the Swedish furniture shop. Although the range of furniture on the market is fairly similar, this retailer used a unique voice to position itself as an attractive option for the young and the young-at-heart. How? By creating a distinctive and memorable communication style that set them apart in their industry.

Finding the sweet spot between extremes

Anyone who’s studied the stylistics of communication will have noticed that there are certain pairs of opposites that recur time and again. These pairs will play a pivotal role in defining your brand’s tone of voice. In many cases, four pairs of opposites are enough, although much longer lists do exist. Ultimately, each brand will decide which dimensions and characteristics are relevant, and to what extent.

Generally speaking, four central dimensions have been shown to help define a company’s tone of voice:

  • Formal – Casual
  • Innovative – Traditional
  • Personal – Distant
  • Enthusiastic – Reserved

For some companies, it may be useful to include more dimensions, but for most, a tone of voice can be defined within these profiles.

Looking at the first pair, “Formal – Casual”, most people automatically equate formal language with professionalism. However, it can lack personality and seem a bit cold. You’ll seem more human if you make it a little less serious.

The other pairs of opposites work in a similar way, and together they will help you define your brand’s unique tone of voice.

As a copywriting and translation agency, tone of voice is a huge part of our job. In fact, we’re really passionate about it and produce our best work when we’re juggling with tone dimensions! We would love to help you develop the perfect tone of voice for your company or brand. Make the most of our expertise and contact us to find out what we can do for you. The first consultation is free of charge.

Still with us? Great. That was the What and Why. Now to the How:

How is tone of voice defined in practice?

First off, you’ve read the phrase ‘tone of voice’ so often by now, let’s switch to TOV. So, once you’ve established “what you’re saying”, you need to decide “how you’re saying it”. A company or brand needs a voice – a TOV – that gives it personality and makes it unique. This is a crucial step, as the brand language and voice will have a major impact on how your message is perceived.

A brand’s TOV verbally represents a company’s core beliefs and values. These are set out in the company’s communications strategy. This document defines what the company wants to communicate and to whom.

The TOV covers a number of aspects, two of which are paramount: For one, tonality is an outward expression of the values that a company or brand stands for. At the same time, it’s aimed at an organisation’s current and potential customers, so it should suit the target audience and meet and exceed their expectations and needs. Done right, your TOV will embody everything that you and your customers value.

If you know how your target audience feels and thinks, you will know how to tailor your messages and imagery in a way that will resonate with them the most. That’s why the tone development process should start by analysing your brand values and your target audience.

First: Define and apply your brand values

Brand values are the essence of a company or brand. Based on the core reasons why a company was founded in the first place, they define the cornerstones of the company’s ideals and are used to guide its actions.

Brand values reveal what a company wants to offer the world, what it has to say. In many cases, the company’s values (what you want to say) already hold clues to the TOV (how you want to say it), in order to create a cohesive narrative.

Second: Know and understand your customers

The second critical factor for your TOV is your target audience. A customer analysis and market analysis are often the quickest way to find out how best to communicate with your audience. Bear in mind that it may not be possible to define a single set of rules, as consumer bases can be very diverse. And, as you might expect, different demographics have different communication preferences.

Take, for example, a bike shop that serves both older e-bike customers and very young BMX riders. Targeting their TOV towards the younger generation could risk losing some of their older clients – and vice versa.

To find a more independent and relevant tone, it can help to narrow your potential customer base slightly. True, you won’t be able to reach some of these prospective customers in the future because your message won’t resonate with them as much. However, you will develop a stronger bond with other segments of your target audience who will feel more drawn to your message.

By honing your target audience, you gain a really strong edge when it comes to building customer relationships.

Remember to make your content readable. Consider your audience’s level of comprehension and use a writing style that is easy to understand. Technical terms are a classic example. Corporate communication is often peppered with technical terms and specialist expressions because the writers think it conveys a high level of expertise. In reality, you lose some potential customers because the content is too difficult to grasp, which puts them off the brand. If you want to communicate technical content, avoid using jargon. Your organisation will still sound knowledgeable but will feel much more approachable and human.

Formal or friendly?

When defining your TOV, at some point you’ll need to decide how to address your audience – should you address your customers formally or casually?

While there are no hard and fast rules, you can use your brand values, your target audience’s expectations and your competitors’ behaviour as indicators. Classic conventions are used less and less. In formal settings, it used to be customary to address people by their title and surname. These days, there’s much more leeway. Particularly in markets where everyone uses the same form of address, you can create a compelling and unique position by using the opposite. However, this approach needs to be consistent with the essence of the brand

Grammar – to the letter?

Written language that rigidly follows the rules of grammar often sounds stiff and detached. The issue is even greater when the writers come from university academic literature. It’s been proven that people respond more positively to language that more closely resembles how we speak. This means that minor grammar and stylistic imperfections are allowed. Like starting a sentence with “And”, for example, even though most of us have been taught that this is wrong. And if you want to convey an authentic TOV, these little linguistic “stumbles” can be very helpful.

Choose your channels and situations

Your TOV must be flexible enough that it can be adapted to different communication channels and occasions. A humorous tone, for instance, is fine for social media but would be inappropriate when dealing with critical issues in a face-to-face conversation.

One for all and all for one

A TOV only becomes effective through repeated and consistent use. So it’s essential that everyone who writes and publishes content knows, understands and uses it.

It helps to involve the whole team in the development phase. This will give you the best chance of defining a voice that matches your company or brand identity. For the very best results, talk to an experienced copywriting agency.

Summarise the most important aspects of your TOV in a set of fixed guidelines and rules. This can be used as a daily reminder. It can also be used later when training new staff. Even the guidelines should be written in the new TOV.

Keep checking your TOV

Languages change, target groups shift and markets evolve. So it makes sense to review and adjust your brand’s TOV every few years.

Your fast track to the perfect TOV

As a copywriting agency, we use different tones of voice for each company and brand every day. We create copy based on our clients’ specifications and can easily help you create the perfect TOV.

Do you have any questions about TOV? Make the most of our expertise and ask us what you’d like to know.

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