By Heather Atchison, creative director, Red Lorry Yellow Lorry
Tone of voice has become almost as much of a buzzword as its big brother, the B word. It’s commonplace for a brand hierarchy to include essence, values, personality – and now, of course, tone of voice.
What this means in practice is that every piece of communication coming out of a well-branded company should sound right, as well as look right. And this includes everything – from web copy to brochures to customer service emails and letters to HR documentation. Sadly, even some of the most well-known brands don’t achieve tone consistency across the board.
So how can you make tone of voice work well for you as a brand management tool?
1. Define a workable tone of voice that fits with your brand.
This will involve linking any tone of voice work closely with brand definition work. Conduct tone of voice research alongside brand research to determine what type of language most reflects your brand positioning. Involve customers, staff and stakeholders in this – as they’ll be the ones reading and using your brand language.
Once you have your tone of voice characteristics in place, make sure these are understood and supported at the highest levels of your company. It’s important that tone of voice isn’t seen as just another marketing initiative, but as a fundamental part of brand behaviour for everyone.
2. Create clear and specific tone of voice guidelines.
There’s not much point in having principles in place if no one understands how to apply them. Good guidelines will raise awareness of what your tone of voice is, why it matters, what it looks like (and doesn’t look like) in practice, and how to achieve it. They’re an important step towards applying a tone of voice consistently in all areas of the business.
3. Model your tone of voice in conspicuous places.
What do customers read most? What will staff notice first? Take these pieces of communication and refresh them in your new tone. It’s better to show than tell – and good clear models of your tone of voice will help bring it alive.
4. Give frequent communicators tone of voice training.
While the core principles should stay the same, applying a tone of voice will pose different challenges for, say, marketing copywriters than for customer service advisers. Each team will benefit from detailed writing guidelines and tailored training courses. Not only will this give everyone specific techniques for applying the tone of voice to the writing they do, it’ll build confidence and raise awareness of why brand language matters.
5. Refresh frequently used documents.
Most businesses have ‘standard’ documents in place – and this makes sense for high-frequency communications. But unless these are written in the right tone of voice, they’ll pull people back into old language habits like a dangerous undercurrent.
So it’s crucial to dedicate time and resources to rewriting standard documents. This can be a daunting task for some businesses, but it must be done to really bring a tone of voice alive.
6. Keep your tone on track.
So you have a clearly defined tone in place. Employees know what it is and understand how to achieve it. Someone has to make sure this happens, so that all the effort and investment pays off.
This tone checking role could sit with team leaders/managers; it could sit in a central place (such as marketing); it could be managed by external experts. Wherever it happens, it’s essential to check that writing hits the tone of voice target – and to let people know when they’re not quite getting it right.
Tone of voice is often driven by marketing and brand teams, unsurprisingly. Rolling it out across a business may be challenging, but it’s an essential part of building a strong brand – one that’s more than just skin deep. This takes a real investment of time and money – and often requires external expertise.
A good, consistent tone is fast becoming a hallmark of the strongest brands. The Virgin companies, O2, Kellogg’s and the BBC, for example, have all invested in building a living, breathing tone of voice right across their business.
Their words work well for them – and enhance their brand experience at every customer and employee touch point.
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