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Developing the right brand voice and brand tone

Devon Delfino
September 23, 2020

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Tone of voice is the way that you communicate your message — it dictates the way that an audience interprets the words. And it’s a key part of your brand voice.

Put another way, tone of voice is the way you say something out loud, whereas “tone” usually refers to the written word (though many sites will conflate the two, particularly when referring to branding.) Either way, however, tone dictates how the audience will feel about the message. It can reveal intent as well as character.

If you’re going to build a strong brand, tone matters. Here’s what else you need to know about tone, and crafting the best one for your brand’s marketing strategy.

Why tone of voice matters for brands

Tone of voice, in the strictest sense, refers to the way you say something. For brands, tone of voice is often referred to in place of “tone” itself, which applies to the written word. But whether you’re speaking at a conference, or you’re writing up a blog post for the company, tone definitely has an impact on your audience. And when it comes to written communication, many factors work together to create the tone.

Four key components of your brand tone of voice:

  • Word choice
  • Punctuation
  • Message placement
  • Sentence structure

Each of these four components can change the way the reader feels about your message and how they respond to it. A single message can be written using any manner of tones; the key is deciding which tone is most effective.

Depending on the factors mentioned above, those can make the audience feel anything from dismissed to empowered, befriended to neutral. If the tone isn’t right, the audience may leave feeling insulted or angry. Or if the tone strikes the right chords, it can make the audience stay and listen.

What’s the difference between brand voice and brand tone?

Tone does play into brand voice, but the two are not synonymous.

Brand voice is the written expression of a brand. It’s what the brand — if it could speak — would sound like. Tone of voice, on the other hand, is the way a given piece of communication is delivered. Tone is what creates the emotional impact and that can shape both how the recipient feels about themselves, and about the brand.

Voice is the writing style or unique flair that an author gives their writing. Tone is the way a message is presented.

How to develop tone of voice for your brand

1. Gather your company’s goals and values and audit previous content

To develop the right tone for your brand, you’ll need to know a few key details:

  • What the company is trying to accomplish — both overall and through a given piece of communication
  • The tone that the brand has used previously
  • The company’s core values

Reviewing previously published communications, like blog and social media posts, can be a helpful way to understand previous tones. And asking for impressions from your audience can also help you gauge where you stand. Combined, this information will give you a good idea about the kind of goals you want to accomplish, which will help shape the tone.

2. Understand your target audience

Tone can easily be mistreated if you don’t have a firm grasp of who your audience is and where they’re coming from. To combat this problem head on, it’s worth conducting research into your company’s ideal audience, and what appeals to them.

You should know key demographics, such as age range, where they live, common interests and how they like to communicate and learn. Keep in mind that things may change depending on the platform you’re using to communicate, whether it’s social media, a blog, an e-newsletter, etc.

3. Think about the four dimensions of tone of voice

According to Nielson’s principles for tone of voice, there are four sliding scales to consider:

  1. Funny vs. serious
  2. Formal vs. casual
  3. Respectful vs. irreverent
  4. Enthusiastic vs. matter-of-fact

These are useful tools for understanding where your brand’s current tone falls, as well as for getting a visual representation of what tone you want to use going forward.

You can use these umbrella tones to gather lists of words that fit beneath each of those categories, with consideration for your desired position along the spectrum. By using those words in your brand messaging, you can more easily craft your ideal tone.

4. Create tone-of-voice guidelines

Once you take the above information into account and have a solid idea of what tone the company should use sounds like, it’s time to put that idea into practice, typically as part of a brand style guide. 

The “tone” section should include basic guidance like what a good tone sounds like versus what the company is trying to avoid, and providing examples for the reader in several contexts, like content marketing posts or social media. The more information you can provide, the easier it will be for people to stick to the desired tone.

5. Keep your tone of voice up to date

As with brand voice, tone is something that may not be static throughout the life of a business. That’s why it’s vital to make sure that as the company changes, so too does the tone. That way, everyone who may have a hand in creating communications from the company is on the same page about what the brand voice and tone should sound like without deviating or slipping back into an outdated or otherwise undesirable place.

Examples of effective brand voice and tone

Barkbox’s tone of voice is casual and upbeat. If you look at their FAQ question, “Where is the rest of my order?” you’ll get a great example of tone. The use of the phrase, “not to worry though!” communicates a laid-back and upbeat tone, which in turn makes the reader feel comforted and calm. 

This tone contributes to the brand’s overall voice, which is conversational and warmhearted. (Just like the dog-obsessed community they cater to.) On the Nielsen model, it leans casual, funny, respectful and enthusiastic.

Old Spice’s tone of voice is often goofy and enthusiastic. You need only go to the homepage of the brand’s website for a taste of brand voice, as well as tone. Take the following example: “Get more awesomeness, good smellingness, and Old Spice exclusiveness than ever before.” 

The tone here is goofy, it makes the reader smile by the strategic use of the non-word “smellingness.” This contributes to the brand’s voice, which is direct and has absurdist tendencies, which appeals to its younger demographic. According to the Nielsen model, the tone tends toward funny, casual, irreverent and enthusiastic.

Slack’s tone of voice is respectfully matter-of-fact. The tone employed on the company’s “tips” page is almost neutral, but conveys a subtle positive slant to the messaging. 

By speaking directly to their productivity-interested audience in this manner, they give the impression that they, too, value getting things done well, but also quickly. The brand voice — which focuses on clarity and conciseness — aligns with this tone. Nielsen’s scales would tip serious, casual, respectful and matter-of-fact for this example.

What are common tone-of-voice mistakes?

There are many opportunities to get “tone” wrong, especially if you don’t take a balanced approach:

  • Mistake 1: Being inconsistent
    Tonal inconsistencies can create questions and even mistrust within your audience. That’s why it’s vital to create a tone guide for your brand.
     
  • Mistake 2: Offending the intended audience
    Companies that go for the irreverent and funny sides of Nielsen’s scales, for example, can take things too far if they don’t define how far is too far.
     
  • Mistake 3: Creating a forgettable tone
    Just like you can go too far at the opposite ends of Nielsen’s sliding scales, choosing “neutral” positions could also backfire. Tone is meant to provoke an emotional response in the reader, and failing to do so means being forgettable and irrelevant.

 

Devon Delfino is a writer, independent journalist and contributor to Writer, an AI writing assistant that helps craft clear, consistent and on-brand content for companies.