I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked to rescue tone of voice projects that have misfired, or simply fizzled out, due to fundamental misunderstandings about tone of voice (or brand voice, voice and tone, whatever you happen to call it). And then, just last week, I came across a blog post by…wait for it…a fellow copywriter. Someone who says they do tone of voice. Someone who, even in their own marketing, is perpetuating lies (damned lies, but no statistics).
The time has come to debunk a few damaging myths about what tone of voice is, who it’s for and how to make it work. Damaging, because tone of voice projects that don’t make a difference waste people’s time and companies’ money. Damaging, because this devalues the concept of brand voice, as well as the people in the industry who are trying to do it properly.
So here are two of the most common myths about tone of voice, debunked.
Myth #1: It’s a brand and marketing thing.
This one’s huge. So many companies have tone of voice guidelines sitting somewhere in brand and marketing that no one else in the company (and sometimes no one in brand and marketing) knows about.
There are insidious variations on this particular myth, such as ‘this doesn’t apply to our <compliance/legal/technical/operations/B2B> teams – they’re different’. This siloed way of thinking just creates roadblocks for the people who actually are trying to apply the tone of voice. And ultimately this leads to a fragmented brand experience, which is precisely what tone of voice combats when done well.
I’ve seen many a decent tone of voice be delivered and fade away without 90% of the business even being aware it exists. And I’d argue this was because 90% didn’t know it existed.
Here’s the truth: a tone of voice is for everyone.
Everyone who communicates for the company needs to use it – wherever that communication falls along the customer or employee journey. In fact, it’s in the places people least expect it that you can most powerfully show your true brand colours.
Consistency builds brand credibility.
This is why Innocent says ‘Best when chilled (as indeed we all are)’ on the tops of their smoothie bottles, instead of simply ‘Serve chilled’. The freshness at the heart of the company’s personality comes through in their brand voice everywhere you look.
It’s the reason why companies like MailChimp, Moo and Apple have recently updated their terms and conditions to make them clearer and more accessible. Brands that trade on being transparent and sounding human have to do this throughout to be believable.
So if you’ve been thinking that it’s just your marketing team or agencies who need to understand and use your tone of voice, I urge you to think again. Who creates the experience your customers have down the line? Unless all of these people reinforce your brand values and personality when they communicate, it simply won’t ring true. And that’s when trust and loyalty goes out the window.
Myth #2: We just need some guidelines.
You may have the best guidelines in the world. Award-winning. Trend-setting. But if no one uses them, I’d say they’re pretty much worthless.
A tone of voice isn’t a set of guidelines – it’s something people do. And if they’re not ‘doing it’ – using it wherever your business communicates – you don’t really have a tone of voice, even if you do have great guidelines.
Here’s the truth: a tone of voice is a behaviour.
Guidelines help to communicate and reinforce a way of writing and speaking that’s in line with your brand. But to get people using your tone of voice, you have to change their behaviour. And booklets – no matter how pretty they look – don’t usually do this, except perhaps with people already wanting and ready for change.
Really bringing a tone of voice to life across an organisation means encouraging people to do things differently. And that takes a well-balanced cocktail of awareness-raising, confidence-building and skills development, with an incentive or two on top. It needs leaders championing the cause. Face-to-face, hands-on workshops. Clear and convincing reasons for busy people to change their habits. Ongoing reinforcement.
Straight talk on tone of voice
It isn’t easy, and it’s not something you can do on the cheap. Not if you want to see real results. We ‘experts’ need to be brave enough to paint a clear picture of what’s needed to really bring a brand voice to life. We should be more honest with clients about the investment it takes – in time, money, internal resources and commitment.
It’s an investment that will pay off – with more engaged employees, increased customer trust and loyalty, communications that reflect the brand and get things done. But these results will only come if people everywhere accept and use the brand voice. In other words, if instead of just ticking the tone of voice box, you actually change how people communicate.
So by all means, let’s include a few pages on tone of voice in the brand book. Create practical tone of voice guidelines. Train marketers and brand writers in the tone of voice. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that this alone will transform the way people feel about an organisation. To do that, we have to truly encourage and support everyone who communicates for the company to speak its brand language.