5 steps to a business-boosting brand language

The way you write can attract your ideal customers and keep them coming back for more. James Hood, from content agency CONVEY, explains how you can set the right tone.

During dinner with a friend who works for a luxury fashion label recently we got onto the subject of marketing. She said a big challenge was the consistency of the brand language being used across the company. The increasingly diverse and transatlantic (sometimes global) workforce meant retaining any sort of style for their language – aka ‘tone of voice’ – was more difficult than ever but that it was essential for speaking to, attracting, and keeping the right customers. Whether or not they say ‘sneakers’ or ‘trainers’, or ‘stilettos’ or ‘pumps’ on their website for example might seem trivial, but is worthy of being added to a meeting agenda.

It is her comment about speaking to, attracting, and keeping customers that is most note-worthy. An official brand language might seem like another strategy document cobbled together and filed away, but it can have a positive impact on any organisation, by building relationships with people who will buy your products and services. In addition, the right voice can set you apart, giving customers a reason to choose your company over a competitor. Take Pret a Manger, for example, the chain of sandwich and coffee shops. Pret has mastered tone of voice by using it to reflect its values. On the back of its sandwich boxes you’ll see this: “We believe air freighting fruit and veg is completely over the top. We don’t do it.” In one foul swoop, using the words ‘completely over the top’ Pret has told the consumer it cares about the environment while also speaking in the kind of language you’d use with your mates; Pret is kind, human, and practically your friend.

You don’t have to be a giant food chain or global fashion powerhouse to benefit from a definitive tone of voice, and it is certainly about much more than the names you give to shoes. It is an all-encompassing blueprint for how you and the business behave in written or verbal communications. It can apply to the way your staff members speak to people, but generally it refers to the marketing text you are using to target your ideal audience. And it’s something that should be adopted by organisations large and small.

So what are the steps you need to take in order to actually create a tone of voice or brand language for your business?

Step 1 – Identify the personality of your business

This might sound like some wishy-washy, airy-fairy Yoga camp activity, but deciding on personality traits for your business is where you begin. Think about what you do; the products or services you provide. Are you an accountant, a florist, hotel, bar, kids’ party planner or tattoo artist? Think about a personality that reflects your company. Virgin Atlantic for example is something of a renegade – a rebel that refuses to conform to any standard business principles. It’s cheeky, risk-taking, and anything but staid or dull. As a result, the organisation’s tone of voice is human and humorous.

Step 2 – Who are you talking to?

Finding out who your customers are is a must for any business. Who they are and what their own personality traits consist of will help you determine how to speak to them. For example, do you sell skateboards to young, hip kids who don’t want to be spoken to like you are a bank? Maybe you sell designer dresses online to high-earning, elegant lawyers or welcome a range of people to a salon for relaxing massages. Find out who they are and what your customers want from you, which will help you with the next step.

Step 3 – The formality scale: what number are you?

I often ask customers, on a scale of one to 10, how formally do you want to communicate with your audience, if one is very relaxed and informal and 10 is super serious? Answering this question and then communicating it in your tone of voice guide will help you and your staff when writing marketing copy. At Convey for example, we have a formality scale of about three, so when we have to chase invoice payments our subject line says: “Well this is awkward”. It’s a light-hearted tone because we want to be less formal and more human with our clients.

Step 4 – Write it down

Document everything you’ve learned about your brand and its language. That includes the personality of the business, the customers and your formality scale. Then create some examples where written communications are used in your company and what they should be like. For example, if you invite customers to sign up to your emails, what is your acknowledgement email like? Is it friendly or formal? Write a good one and a bad one, so employees can see the difference.

Step 5 – Show your personality through vocabulary

We work with a large property client and changed the way the organisation describes homes because it was old fashioned and the terminology was overused. Ask yourself is there a better, more human way to say something? Are we using a particular language because it’s the way it’s always been done? Write a list of words that are allowed within your business alongside those you would rather not use. For our property business for example, we changed things like ‘commencement of a tenancy’ to ‘start of a tenancy’. And words like ‘comprises’ and ‘characterful’ were banished to a kingdom far away, making the tone more friendly.

James is a content expert who runs agency, Convey. He lives in London but works with clients around the world to write compelling marketing copy and brand-building tone of voice guides. For more information go to or call James on 07900923458.

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