A winning brand personality: Understanding tone of voice

In today’s multi-channel world, how companies use words is as important as their brand imagery. Can you imagine watching MTV and hearing the presenter using the same vocal rhythms and language structure as a BBC news reporter, or opening up The Times newspaper and finding the articles written in the tabloid style of The Sun?

Global brands have understood for many years that to build a relationship with their customer base they need to give it some personality. This is where a tone of voice comes in.

tone of voiceIf there is anything I have learned in the world of marketing, it is the importance of ensuring your brand’s voice is distinct from that of your competitors’. And this distinction should not be accidental. It should come from using a formalised approach that extends beyond a brand’s look and feel, and into the way words are used to communicate all that it stands for. This is known as tone of voice (TOV).

Why is TOV important? The answer is simple. Customers want and need to have contact with brands they associate with over a wide range of different media environments. That means, for an individual brand’s TOV to be effective, it must appeal to its intended audience and communicate effectively with it, while differentiating itself from any competitors.  In this way, TOV plays a significant role not just in copywriting, but across the brand’s personality as a whole. In fact, TOV can be seen as a description, or even prescription, of a brand’s communication.

“When it comes to tone of voice, a brand is never off duty. Whatever the medium being used, whoever is acting as the conduit for the brand’s voice, the tone must be maintained. Otherwise the magic is lost and the illusion blown,” said Marcie MacLellan, managing partner of the niche copywriting agency, Incontext Communications, and a part-time lecturer with London School of Marketing.

“When TOV is consistent, it provides a means by which to recognise the brand. And while the style and structure of a brand’s communication needs to focus on suiting the particular channel being used, the tone should operate as a constant feature of brand recognition.”

Have a look at effective TOV in action with two examples of typical adverts from the UK’s two leading Atlantic airlines, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways. Both brands have taken a completely different approach to how they express themselves in words by investing both time and money in tone of voice guidelines – and the effort has paid off.

“A tone of voice document is a writing guide that helps you identify the core values of your brand. It outlines how you write, what you write, and even how you use grammatical rules like contractions and pronouns,” said Marcie.

“Understanding your brand personality is essential in developing these guidelines. While establishing tone of voice is hardly a new phenomenon, it is now getting more of the attention it deserves.”

And so it should. After all, when done right, your brand’s tone of voice can convey everything your company stands for. Think of Microsoft and Apple. Volkswagen and Porsche. Paddy Power and William Hill. There is a difference. And it’s not a subtle one.

“If you haven’t established tone of voice guidelines for your company, you should start now. In some cases, guidelines might just need to be formalised, or only a few changes to your approach may be needed. In other cases, a complete overhaul of your collateral may be required. In either situation, the results are well worth it,” Marcie added.

Today, more companies are realising that the language you use, and the way you use it, are just as pivotal to your brand as the appropriate use of your colour palette. After all, your brand is only as good as the words that describe it.

By Anton Dominique, COO/CFO of the LS Education Group

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