What no one ever tells you about Tone of voice

Here’s a puzzle. Lots of companies have tone of voice guidelines; not many brands have a memorable tone of voice.

So what’s going on?

Tone of voice has become such a tick-it-off-the-to-do-list, shove-it-in-a-brand-book given that people lose sight of what they actually want words to do for their brand. You can see this in the typical approach to tone of voice projects: process comes before anything else. Most people start by asking for guidelines, ‘consistent’ words, or for an agency to translate values like ‘dynamic’ and ‘inclusive’ into a tone.

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Many branding or brand language companies are happy to sell that to clients. They’ll whip out their tried-and-tested steps, take some brand values, crank a wheel, do a couple of workshops and produce some perfectly-formed guidelines at the end. It’s a production line and it’s why most tone of voice guidelines sound exactly the same.

Always start with the words

But if you go back to the handful of brands known for their tone – Innocent, Pret, Howies – they didn’t follow a ten-step process. All these brands had one good writer at the start, and their style became the brand’s over time. Thinking about the best way to sum up the tone, how to get it working across everything else (and how to get other people doing it in case their writer got run over by a bus) all came later.

The patron saint of tone of voice: Innocent.
The patron saint of tone of voice: Innocent.
Wales' answer to Patagonia: Howies.
Wales’ answer to Patagonia: Howies.

So our top tip? Don’t start with brand values or guidelines. Do as Innocent & co. did: start with the words.

The things customers see come first

Start with the main things customers see, like a homepage and an advert, because once you crack those, appraisals, letters, recruitment ads and so on fall into place. Or, to flip that around, it’s easy to make letters less formal and more consistent, but they’re not the best place to start if you’re after a tone that sets you apart from the rest.

This is how we begin most projects. So, say, for example, we’re helping a client launch a new soft drink, we’ll write things like the label in a few different ways. We might start simple and then keep pushing the tone – even over a cliff – to see how far we can take it.

There’s no template. The main thing is to keep writing, playing, editing, pushing it, editing again, until you’ve got a distinctive set of at least three or four routes that work for your brand (there’s no point pushing a tone if it jars with everything else, so be focused and ruthless – cut anything that just doesn’t sound right).

This way forces you to write the same set of words in different ways that are each more interesting than ‘plain English’ or ‘a bit friendly’. The words have nowhere to hide, so the job becomes all about the tone, not about the guidelines at the end of it. It’s exactly what the more process-y tone of voice people miss out.

But that’s not the whole story. A lot of people in our wordy world – us included – simplify ‘tone of voice’ to make it easier to explain and sell. The truth is that ‘tone of voice’ is a misnomer because it implies that style does all the work, and that’s not true.

A good tone has a point of view

The reason a lot of brands struggle with tone of voice is that they shy away from the one thing that makes them and their tone more interesting – a point of view.

You’ll find a point of view lurking behind all the brands we’ve mentioned. On the surface, Pret’s tone seems friendly enough – and sometimes that’s all it is. But when it’s at its best, Pret gets maniacally preachy about not adding crappy additives to food, or pointing out the absurdity of a low-calorie brownie. Their point of view gives them more to write about, which makes their words more interesting to read.

"If Pret staff get all serviette-ish give them the evil eye."
“If Pret staff get all serviette-ish give them the evil eye.”
Lurpak: the tone comes from their point of view.
Lurpak: the tone comes from their point of view.

Too many brands skip a point of view altogether, and that’s partly because, over time, tone of voice has become code for ‘slightly frothy positive words’. But positivity soon drains a point of view dry. Very quickly you end up with a happy-clappy sub-Innocent tone, but with nothing to say (‘wackaging’), which customers hate. If you’ve noticed that Pret’s words have gone off the boil lately it’s because they’re not as opinionated as they used to be.

 

Wackaging: a water bill that oh-so-desperately wants to be your friend.
Wackaging: a water bill that oh-so-desperately wants to be your friend.

So when you’re trying to work out different ways to create a brand’s tone of voice, don’t think about style alone: work out a way to give the brand a stance too. What are you for? What are you against? (you don’t have to be vacuously positive all the time, in fact most interesting brands are fighting for or standing against something). What’s your brand’s take on things?

Behind every good tone is a good brand

Sooner or later a tone of voice project will come back to your brand because a good tone can’t work by itself. At its best – and when it’s not trying to squash some writing tips into mushy brand values – a tone of voice project can do much more than sort out your words. A good tone helps everyone be much clearer about a brand, its take on the world and its opinion. It’s why words can help solve all kinds of things brands have been grappling with for years.

But you won’t find the answers in most tone of voice guidelines.

Come again?

1. Always start with the words, not brand values or guidelines.
2. Focus on the main things customers see first and get to letters and behind-the-scenes things later.
3. A good tone needs a point of view, so look at that at the same time.
4. Behind every good tone is a good brand (and words can crack both).