The all-important difference between brand voice and tone
The fact that establishing a “brand voice” is seen by most companies as a valuable investment and essential part of their brand strategy is brilliant. It means companies are starting to understand the value in moving beyond functional copy, to injecting some brand personality into their content and marketing materials to help audiences better resonate with what they have to say.
One thing I do come across when going through brand discovery workshops with clients is that while they understand the idea of brand voice, the distinction between “brand voice” and “tones of voice” (yes, that plural is intentional) isn’t something they’ve actively considered.
After seeing the “light bulb” moment happen with my clients when we work through practical tone guidelines, and getting feedback expressing how helpful these guidelines are for them in practice, I thought it might be helpful to write and share a post detailing how to distinguish tone from voice. This post will go through why it’s so valuable to not only develop an overarching brand voice for your business or venture, but to understand how to craft your content and communicate different tones of that voice to accentuate different brand traits. We’ll also talk about creating guidelines for when to use each tone in common situations that come up in your users’ experience with your company.
Let’s start with voice…
What is brand voice?
Your brand voice is inextricably linked to your brand’s character or personality and it is (or at least should be) a constant across all of your branded material. This means that — from your website content to emails, social media posts and marketing collateral — your brand voice should be consistent and help people identify who you are.
Example of Brand Voice:
Here’s a snippet from guidelines I produced for a client describing their overarching brand voice:
“[Client]’s brand voice can be described as authentic and grounded — we’re craftsmen before we’re salespeople and marketers — what you see is what you get.
We’re quietly confident, we believe wholeheartedly in our product and our craft and we talk about it with passion and honesty, but always remain humble, avoiding hype or superlatives”.
Brand voice sets a strong foundation, but when it comes to the practicalities of writing branded content, the tone of voice we use is even more important. If we skip identifying our brand’s tones of voice, we end up simplifying things too much and we don’t give our marketing and customer service teams enough of an understanding of how to stay on-brand when communicating with your business’ audiences across different channels and contexts.
What is Tone of Voice?
If your brand voice is your personality, your tone can be better likened to your attitude. Your tone of voice is, therefore, a bit more malleable and different tones of voice can be adopted or accentuated depending on the medium you’re communicating through, the audience you’re speaking with, and the context of the conversation.
Tone of voice guidelines shouldn’t just say “this is how we speak”. They should say: “In X situation, we adopt Y tone to effectively communicate Z value or brand quality, and here are some examples of how we can do that”.
Because, when you think about it, that’s how we use tone in real life.
Throw the notion of business and brand aside and think about yourself for a minute. When you speak, it’s always your voice, but the tone you use to speak to your children, or your parents, or your friends, or your boss is pretty much guaranteed to differ (and if not… it probably should…).
Even when speaking to the same audience, you’ll find that you naturally adapt your tone based on the situation:
The tone you adopt when you’re playing with your children (channelling “fun mum/dad”) is going to be very different to the tone you use if you’re telling them off (channelling “putting my foot down mum/dad”), or if they come to you crying because they’ve been bullied at school (channelling “compassionate mum/dad”). Each time, it’s still you speaking, it’s still “mum” or “dad” — you’re just using tone to bring individual qualities of your personality to the forefront based on what the situation calls for.
The exact same principles apply to your brand.
Tones of Voice: Examples
When I do brand discovery meetings with clients we pull out key values and brand qualities — aspects of the brand identity which are really important to communicate to our target audiences.
I always suggest picking three key brand qualities and using them to start putting together important tones of voice.
It’s okay if some of your traits don’t seem too complimentary — As we saw in the Mum/Dad from the analogy above, they had the traits of Fun, Strict (when necessary) and Compassionate. At first glance “fun” and “strict” might seem like the complete opposite, and definitely require different tones, but that’s the beauty of this exercise and why establishing tone guidelines is so helpful, because they give us so much more flexibility over a static “voice” or single “tone of voice”.
For example, for a very fun B2C eCommerce client, their core values and brand traits were
— Innovation & creativity in design
— Being genuinely customer-centric
— Always having fun
All of these values shaped the overarching lively and distinctive voice of the company, but in the guidelines I also gave instructions on how they can use tone and style to amplify each of these traits, based on context, to better connect to users and their needs at any given time.
For example, this client would want to accentuate their genuine customer-centric nature anywhere customers would be seeking reassurance.
The guidelines outline that they should adopt an empathetic, familiar and sincere tone when responding to customer queries, feedback, reviews and appropriate social media posts/comments. This tone is also relevant for key information & FAQ pages on the website, and to consider using at potential drop-off points throughout the checkout process.
The tone needed in these situations is very different from what I would consider their most frequent or “default” style of writing where they’re encouraged to adopt a more light-hearted and humorous tone, as outlined in their guidelines as follows:
“The following styles of writing will accentuate our fun nature; This is especially important in our promotional and marketing materials, and can also feed into our website content and engagement with followers on social media where appropriate.
What we are, is light-hearted, quirky and humorous. What we’re not, is soppy, boring or dry.”
Which then leads to more practical instructions for each of the three tonal indicators. This is the one for light-hearted:
“Our products are often cheeky and playful, and so are we!
The best way to communicate this light-heartedness is through playing with words, using colloquial language our audience can relate to, being open to including asides in parentheses and not taking ourselves too seriously.
NB: This does not mean that we don’t take our customers seriously. Another of our core values is that we are truly customer-centric so it’s important we only accentuate this fun tone of voice when appropriate and adopt a more sincere tone of voice where required. See the previous page for tone and style guidelines to communicate empathy, familiarity and sincerity with our customers.
This last extract from the guidelines is key, and perhaps one of the best ways of showcasing how valuable multiple brand “tones of voice” can be.
The key word is guidelines
One final thing I want to mention is that when we produce brand guidelines they are just that: guidelines. Especially when it comes to brand tone of voice, a lot has to be said for basic common sense. If your gut feel tells you that what’s in the guidelines isn’t quite appropriate for the context of what you’re writing – listen to it!
Use your overarching brand voice as a guiding light, and consider first and foremost those brand values and qualities you want to portray. If you need to go off book to communicate effectively – then do it!
What’s important to remember is that your brand, like you, is dynamic.
Establishing a “Voice” for your brand is an essential starting point, but it’s not always enough. Thinking about establishing on-brand tones of voice will equip your teams with the tools to know how to speak consistently across different platforms with all of your different audiences.
Want some help?
If you’d like to chat about developing guidelines for your brand, please do reach out. I’m more than happy to have a chat.
Skippy has been working in digital for the last five years following a PR and communications background. She's passionate about helping businesses boost onsite engagement through increasing their credibility and improving their content.
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