It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

If you’ve ever been on the London Underground, you will have probably seen the Jack Daniel’s billboard ads. The ones that break every advertising rule by having way too much copy telling rambling stories about Mr Jack. But once you start reading, they pull you in to a whole different world. One that’s both mysterious and enticing, mellow but exciting, to the point where you’re desperate to get to the end of the story before the train arrives. And how do they achieve that? By adopting the right tone of voice. Reading their ads transports you to the Deep South and tells you everything you need to know about their brand. In fact, if the copy was read out to you, you would instantly know it belonged to Jack Daniel’s.

Their ads are a great example of the importance of getting the tone of voice of your brand spot on and perfectly demonstrates why how you say something can be more important than what you actually say. But it’s not easy.

What is tone of voice?

We’ve spoken before about how a brand isn’t just a company name, pretty colour palette or logo. Rather it’s everything that gives a brand an instantly memorable, distinct identity which differentiates it from the competition and tells people what they can expect from that brand. It’s about what a brand stands for, what it wants to achieve and the actions and words it uses to fulfil those goals. And that’s where tone of voice comes in.

Tone of voice refers to how a brand communicates with its audience. It’s about the choice of words, the order they are put in and what emotional tone is adopted. Apple uses a confident tone of voice, along with short sentences, and bold statements to reflect its premium products, while Dove is known for its uplifting and powerful brand voice which fits with its vision to make beauty a source of confidence.

Oh, and tone of voice refers to every touchpoint and every communication. And when we say every, we really do mean every.

The importance of tone of voice

Just like your brand values, the imagery you use, and how you interact with your key target audiences, tone of voice is part of what makes your brand, your brand. We’ve talked before about how useful it can be to think of your brand as a person, and part of that is nailing how your brand talks. There is no point wanting to come across as humorous and irreverent if all your copy uses really long, unfathomable words only used by a boring professor talking about astrophysics. (No disrespect to professors or astrophysics!)

Tone of voice should reflect your brand’s personality and mirror your brand’s values.  Get it right and you will build up an emotional connection with your audience.

Dollar Shave Club is a prime example of how to do that successfully.  They state they have “a ‘shave first’ mindset the provides quality products that don’t break the bank – and we have fun doing it too!” And this is reflected in their tone of voice. From tips on how to shave,

the throwaway comments on their website,  all the way through to their irreverent social media posts (seriously, when did pumpkin spice become such a thing?!), they use a humorous tone of voice to sell their products.

But be warned – just like everything to do with your brand, once you are committed to a particular tone of voice you can’t change your mind. You have to live and breathe it.

And you couldn’t do better than take a leaf (or should that be an oat drink) from Oatly’s book. Known for being a bit of a disrupter (their website homepage scrolls horizontally!!), their tone of voice is self-aware, irreverent and talks directly to the audience. Their packaging is full of little asides which make even reading the ingredients interesting, their social feeds are full of long, quirky posts and even their Cookie Policy adopts the same tone of voice.


So, why is tone of voice so hard to get right?

Well, it isn’t if you come to one of our workshops (!), but as we hinted earlier, one of the areas where some companies fall down is not realising their chosen tone of voice should be used across all communications. And when we say all communications, we don’t just mean your marketing collateral, latest advertising campaign or social media posts. It also needs to be used for non-marketing related activity, such as communicating with staff, on customer bills or during customer phone calls.

And the reason is simple – consistency. Jon Hawkins, when he was Head of Brand Language at BT summed it up perfectly:

“When there’s a consistent tone of voice throughout a company – from the marketing, to the call centres, to the letters – consumers feel more at ease with your product.”

Consumers want to be able to trust the brand they are buying, but if your tone of voice isn’t consistent across all touchpoints, or changes from professional and serious to suddenly cracking jokes for no apparent reason then people are going to feel confused. And if they feel confused, they are less likely to feel an emotional connection with your brand.

Brewdog tripped up over this issue a couple of years ago when ex-employees criticised the company over “toxic” attitudes at the firm. Brewdog’s tone of voice is renowned for being unapologetic, tongue in cheek and full of attitude.  The CEO’s statement in response adopted a very different tone:

“It’s hard to hear those comments, but it must have been harder to say them. We appreciate that and we will endeavour to honour that effort and courage with the real change it deserves.”

Of course, we aren’t saying he should have adopted an unapologetic tone, as there is a fair chance that’s what caused the issues in the first place but this apparent disconnect between the different tone of voices didn’t do the brand any good. What’s also intriguing is over the last couple of years Brewdog’s tone of voice seems to have become slightly less rebellious and laddish. A coincidence maybe?  Or maybe not.

But where Brewdog has succeeded is using their tone of voice to differentiate themselves from the competition. Your tone of voice should be unique so that consumers immediately know it’s you which in turn means they will know what to expect when they engage with your brand.

Tips for getting your tone of voice spot on

Of course, like all aspects of brand building, getting your tone of voice right isn’t easy, (unless you come to one of our workshops!) as it is something you need to fully commit to and use across all your communication channels.

As a starting point, you need to:

  • Understand your brand’s core values and essence
  • Think carefully about your target audience to ensure your tone of voice appeals to them
  • Decide how you want to come across (and how you definitely don’t)
  • Review all your communication channels, including internal ones to understand which communication styles are most acceptable. For example, on social media, you can get away with a friendlier tone.

This last point ties in beautifully with probably the most important piece of advice which, comes from our very own Creative Director, Rosh. You need to be able to dial up or dial down your tone of voice depending on the circumstances.

Remember, every communication is unique, so never be too prescriptive with your tone of voice. Instead, choose one that can be subtly adjusted when the going gets tough, so you don’t end up diluting your brand personality.

And if this all feels a bit like juggling a minefield, book one of our tone of voice workshops and we’ll help your brand define a tone of voice everyone will remember.