An essential part of what makes a brand is consistency; this is what the company looks like, acts like, sounds like. While a company might be made up of hundreds or thousands of people, every interaction, every communication, every post that goes out from the brand should feel like it’s coming from the same source.
However, this is about more than establishing a consistent logo, colour palette and a tagline. Sure, it’s clear that email newsletter comes from that brand because the logo and subject line say it does. But strip those obvious elements away and the same email might be indistinguishable from those sent from other brands – even competitors.
Recently, I wrote about the importance of editorial style guides as a way to keep all of the copy, content and other written communications emanating from a brand consistent with each other. But beyond the spellings and style queries, one of the key elements of a style guide is the tone of voice all writers should adopt when writing on behalf of the brand.
Like most writers, I adopt a particular “voice” when writing under my own byline – as I am here. As a result, there are certain phrases and devices I tend to use regularly, so that you could strip the byline off my articles, and they would still be recognisably from the same writer. For example: I’m aware I overuse certain words, like “particular/particularly”; I’m extremely fond of alliteration and the rule of three – often together; and I can never resist a good pun.
But when I’m writing on behalf of a brand, such as the copy for an email campaign or website, I have to forget my own voice. Otherwise, I’d imbue the content with my personality instead of that of the brand.
This can be a lot harder than it sounds when the brand in question doesn’t have a strong personality or tone of voice of its own. Either the content ends up sounding bland and generic or bits of my personality still begin to seep through to fill the vacuum.
So, establishing a clear tone of voice can help a brand to develop a distinct personality. (Believe me, your writers will thank you for it.) How does the brand express itself? What are those little, recognisable quirks, rhetorical devices or patterns of “speech” that the audience will gradually learn to recognise? Such as;
- Should the writers always use plain English or more formal, academic language?
- Are colloquialisms okay?
- How does the brand refer to itself, to its people, to its customers?
- What about the viewpoint? Does the brand write in the first, second or third person?
- Is the brand funny and friendly, talking to the audience as if it is one of them, or is it earnest and authoritative like a respected leader or teacher?
- Are sentences short and snappy, long and winding, or a mixture so that the writing gains a more conversational rhythm?
- Which words or phrases can be used frequently – perhaps drawn from or aligning with already established brand messaging and values – and which should be avoided?
Some of this will be dictated by the audience your brand – and your content – needs to appeal to. A bank that tried to adopt an irreverent or “yoof” tone might not appear as if it takes our money seriously enough, while a childcare centre that sounded too business-like and formal might give parents the impression their kids were being looked after by a cold-hearted Victorian school mistress.
It can be difficult to describe a tone of voice in such a way that every one of your writers hears exactly the same voice in their head. There are probably a million ways that writers could interpret “casual and friendly, but smart and authoritative”.
One tip I’ve used many times is to reference a well-known personality or celebrity with a recognisable way of speaking or writing. It’s easier for a writer to “hear” the voice in their head when they know the copy needs to read like Jamie Oliver or David Attenborough. Don’t worry: the reader is unlikely to think your brand really is David Attenborough unless you start writing about gazelle crossing the savanna. But such a specific reference provides a solid example that no amount of generic descriptors can match.
Ultimately, a strong tone of voice makes it easier for your brand to be heard above the noise.