How is it that a young child knows they’re in trouble just from the way their mother calls their name? What makes an employee decide to shut up rather than risk questioning their boss? And how the hell does a dog know to bow its head and give you the sad puppy eyes just as you start to scold it for soiling your good carpet? It’s all in HOW something is said. But what happens when mum isn’t there to express that tone? How can your boss imply something’s not up for debate when he’s not even in the same room as you? How can you preemptively warn Rex not to crap all over your carpet? Well that’s down to WHAT you say and together with HOW you say it, they form a tone of voice. And that’s something that can make or break a brand!
Tone of voice is one of the most important weapons in a brand’s arsenal, yet commonly one of the most underused. From logos and branding to office space and uniforms, brands and businesses spend billions each year making sure they look a certain way. However, how they sound is often just an afterthought and frequently just left to the Marketing Department or their retail marketing agency at the last minute. The funny thing is, consumers are won and lost the second a brand opens their mouth:
“Think Different” This new way of acting helped change the culture of a small company, then an industry and eventually an entire generation of global consumers.
“Yes We Can” From day one, this simple piece of optimism carried a black man all the way to the US Presidency.
“I tell them it’s total crap” Gerald Ratner pompously uttered these words about his own jewellery brand, leading to its destruction.
“Think like a man” BIC Biro were internationally lampooned recently when they celebrated South Africa Women’s Day by suggesting consumers do this!
‘Yes We Can’, for instance, wasn’t just a catchy line. It literally set a tone of optimism, opportunity, positivity and possibility. This foundation showed voters the way he would conduct himself and his business and helped his race to victory. Crucially, presidential campaigners know that if they want consumers to buy into their brand, then they have to trust it’s not going to stray too far from what they emotionally signed up to. It’s why people scrutinise their ‘campaign promises’ so closely – and why politicians are under a lot of pressure to practice what they preach.
It is this ethos that directly applies for brands. Your tone will dictate your values and your values play a huge role into what consumers buy into. So once you’ve promised to act a certain way, it should be treated as sin to stray too far from it. And it should be punishable by death to go as far as to try and be something you’re not (think old, out-of-touch politician saying he’s a Cody Simpson fan). That’s what’s known as being ‘fake’ and consumers don’t like that.
Consumers buy into brands and their marketing service as much as they buy into products. It’s why millions and millions of them bought iPods rather than the Creative Zen that pioneered the technology. An awful lot of people like what Apple say and how they say it and like being seen with their products as a result. Apple’s tone of voice (and their wider image) is confident, capable and cutting-edge; traits consumers want to be associated with. But Apple never stray from this tone! When they launched the original iPod their aspirational tone confidently invited consumers to simply enjoy ‘1,000 songs in your pocket’. It was a great verbalisation of their Think Different mentality. Now imagine if instead of inspiring people to “Think Different”, Apple had ‘empowered’ people to “Think Groovy!” God only knows how they would have launched that product but I think it’s safe to say that millions would not have run out to buy their iPod and the brand probably wouldn’t have gone on to make an iPad, iWatch and take over the iPlanet. As they say, the minute you call something cool (or groovy), it’s no longer cool!
How to create your Tone Of Voice
Like every other department of creativity, arriving at a powerful, engaging and inviting tone of voice is a craft and one that takes time. You wouldn’t create a marketing campaign, a product or a business strategy without careful consideration. So why would you give so little thought to what you’re going to say?
The biggest brands put very careful consideration into their tone of voice. Before they even launch, they decide what they stand for and how they want to be seen by their target audience, their competitors and the general public. They determine if they want to be seen as smart (The Economist), witty (Fosters), young (Billabong), risqué (Newcastle Brown Ale) or aspirational (Nike), and then ensure that everything they say conforms to this image.
Think about your tone at every touchpoint
Your new tone must form the basis of everything you do. I’m not just talking about taglines, company mottos or advertising slogans. Similarly to ‘Think Different’ before it, Nike’s ‘Just Do It’ became much more than a snappy line. It transformed into a way of working, thinking, selling and even behaving. Every time they do something Nike ask themselves “Does this fit the Just Do It mentality?”
Let’s say you run a health store that’s all about well-being and a positive outlook. You want your customers to come in and feel relaxed. But more importantly, like every brand, you want them to feel welcomed. So you hire an expensive interior decorator that can meet the brief. From the colour of the paint on the walls to how comfortable your couches are, you have every base covered. Then you go and plaster the walls with ‘Shoplifters will be prosecuted’, ‘No returns on sale items’ or my absolute pet peeve ‘No children allowed!’ Shoplifters know they’re going to be prosecuted and the other 99% of good people don’t want it even being suggested that they could do such a thing. Why not let them return sale items? Be open, be understanding, be what you said you wanted to be. A problem solved is a customer won. Finally, think of your audience. An awful lot of health-food visitors are parents and if they can shop with their two children you can turn one customer into three with the right approach.
From meetings to marketing, business brochures to business pitches, shelf edges to legal signs, your tone of voice must touch every facet of your brand. You must also ensure every employee knows what your brand stands for, so you all stand together. Remember: to be taken seriously, you first have to take yourselves seriously. If you can do that and if you sound like you know what you’re doing, people will trust you more. That’s what business is all about!
Be careful what you’re saying online
Look at the home page of your website. For many, this will be their first introduction to your brand. Is it an inspiring introduction or just an assortment of boring facts? Are you clear and concise or do you ramble on? Is the tone you use true to your brand or just something to fill space between the pretty pictures? Basically, if someone sees it, will they buy into your brand… or vote for the other guy?
Be brief, be brilliant, be gone!
When you first give a company a chance to say something about themselves or their brands, they find it quite hard and are not really sure what they should say. Then… the floodgates open! Suddenly they can’t stop themselves. They litter their websites, flyers, leaflets, brochures, in-store posters, promotional offers and advertising with as much information as is humanly possible and overload it to the point where ironically, nothing is taken out by the reader.
Don’t just take it from us
Client or customer testimonials are old school but still top of the class. They won’t be relevant for every business reading this but you only have to look at Amazon reviews and the strength of TripAdvisor to see that consumers still value what other consumers say. If it’s feasible, think about including a few in your touchpoints but for the love of God do not make them up as if they came from “Mick, in Perth” as consumers see right through that nonsense and immediately think you can’t be trusted.
Do’nt have typos
Very simply, messy brands make for nervous consumers.
1. How you sound is just as important as how you look.
2. You wouldn’t create products without careful consideration.
3. First impressions can be ruined the minute you open your mouth.
4. To be taken seriously, take yourself seriously.
5. If you sound like you know what you’re doing, people will trust you more.