Humans are language animals. Stories are hard-wired into our DNA. Tall tales have always mingled with the sparks and smoke of countless campfires throughout a long tradition of spoken narrative that stretches back into prehistory. We developed language to share ideas, deepen relationships and help each other navigate the world around us. And this is precisely what successful brands also do.
Why is brand language important?
Brands are created like sedimentary rock, perceptions in an audience’s mind that build up over time because of thousands of small interactions. They are not the product of a single grand gesture but of constancy, consistency, clarity and coherence; what you look like, do, and say. To focus your activity only on the visual aspects of brand identity is to operate with one hand tied behind your back.
Whatever product or service you offer, your audience is made of commercially savvy, semiotically sensitive, language-fluent individuals who instinctively process thousands of messages daily – and use them to form opinions, establish, build, or end relationships, and make decisions.
It is busy and noisy out there, and it’s hard to make yourself heard. It is no longer even a monologue that you have total control over. Consumers expect a dialogue – and they want responses quickly. It becomes even more challenging if your brand communicates with many different voices, all speaking simultaneously – you end up only adding to the cacophony. All your information, education, and persuasion get lost in the wind, and the lack of clarity might prevent an individual from ever bothering to listen to you again – they’ll choose one of your competitors instead.
You have to find a way to say everything your brand wants to say – and say it in a way that grabs everyone’s attention. Your tone of voice needs to be authentic to your brand, relevant and engaging to your target audience and differentiated from your competition.
What part does a tone of voice play?
Clarity and consistency count. Repetition is required for people to remember. But it’s not just saying the same thing over and over – that quickly gets monotonous. You must find various ways of telling the same story and find ways of telling different stories as if they all come from the same source.
Language helps to create identity. A considered tone of voice will help amplify your brand’s core tenets. Let the thinking behind your purpose, vision, and mission inform your storytelling. Inside and outside a business, these words will help everyone understand what you are doing, what you are trying to create and how you will go about it.
Language can also demonstrate your brand’s values. The people who read or hear your words will instinctively form an opinion about the kind of brand, organisation or individual that would communicate in such a way – so make sure the perception created is the right one.
Get it right, and your language can move people.
Tone of voice can express personality
Any reputable brand should have a good idea of the associated personality traits it is trying to conjure in its audiences’ minds; they help build the much sought-after emotional loyalty. As humans, we are hard-wired to use language to build relationships and share ideas, so if personality expression is a brand’s goal, its tone of voice is critical to success – even more so than its visual identity.
Which global car brand do you think said this, “Born to corner. Driving a Brand X is a ton of fun, thanks to its legendary go-kart handling. We could go on about its lightning-quick responses and glue-like grip…”, Ferrari, Audi or Mini? We think it’s pretty apparent without logos, colours, photography, or layouts.
Tone of voice can modify behaviour.
When supermarkets first introduced self-scanning checkouts, they were met with considerable resistance. Some redesigned their stores according to the principles of behavioural science. Some improved the technology to deliver friendlier, more natural-sounding voices. The clever ones used language to quickly and cost-effectively move customer perceptions. If a sign points you to an ‘Express Checkout’, you immediately understand the benefit of your decision.
Tone of voice can change perceptions.
Remaining with supermarkets, Morrisons recently overhauled its brand language and focussed on the impression it wanted to make on its customers. The warm, conversational tone opens with, “We’re foodmakers. We’re shopkeepers. We’re Morrisons. And we’re here to feed the nation.” Now compare these two statements:
“Please note that any item that has been reduced is excluded from any other offer.”
“You’ll make brilliant savings on these reduced items. So, other offers don’t apply.”
They mean the same thing, and the difference is relatively subtle, but add the second statement to all the other examples of the revised brand language, and the readers’ perception of the brand is likely to end up being quite different.
Tone of voice can help you challenge a sector
If you decide to disrupt, the words you use and how you write them can fundamentally assist your quest to overturn the status quo. If firms in your sector are trying to make consumers dependent upon them by being deliberately dense and difficult, inspire self-reliant confidence by delivering clear information in everyday language. If the subject matter is dry, build engagement with relevant personal stories that lead with the benefit to the user and make your tone conversational.
Oatly, the plant-based milk company are masters at using their content and tone of voice to challenge convention, stimulate debate – and even avoid going to jail. Their campaign to ‘Ditch Milk’, by exposing the dairy industry’s contribution to CO2 emissions, helped to galvanise and focus the global debate. When the milk lobby took them to court and banned them from comparing their product with cows’ milk, Oatly simply encouraged people to find out for themselves with a campaign to “Goolgla Mjolk”. A Google search organically led individuals to the same published scientific papers that Oatly had used to substantiate their position that plant-based milk was better for drinkers and the planet.
Tone of voice can signify technological superiority
You could fill up a website and glossy brochure pages with arcane combinations of letters and numbers detailing your technical specifications so that only your ardent cognoscenti understood what you were talking about. You could spend millions on cinematic advertisements to demonstrate your innovative approach. Or, like Tesla, you could just call your high-performance setting ‘Ludicrous mode’ and let the audacity of that concise statement do all the talking.
Tone of voice can expedite brand extension activity
Brands frequently grow by adding new products to their existing range; think of a new flavour added to Fever Tree’s existing selection. Sometimes, they develop new products or services in related sectors; examples include Kellogg’s Rice Krispies and Rice Krispie Squares or Google Search, Calendar, Meet, Gmail, Docs, Sheets and Slides. Occasionally, brands extend into entirely different sectors. Think Virgin: Money, Atlantic, Media, Galactic, Active, Games, Holidays, Voyages, Mobile, Music, Wines, Radio, etc.
Whatever the strategic decision, if your authentic, relevant, and differentiated brand arsenal includes a tone of voice, then bringing the brand to life in a new product or sector is faster, easier, and more convincing than just using the same logo and colour or typeface.
Here is a paragraph from Albion Motorcycles, a two-wheeled tour company in Mallorca:
“With the sweet-sharp caffeine kick of a quick cortado still coursing through our veins, we’ll be off in a cloud of dust and Castrol fumes. Cruising and concentration beat out an alternating tarmac rhythm across roads that roll through cicada-songed vineyards. Onwards and a sea-salt tang heralds the coming of the coast.”
When Albion decided to expand into brewing, their alliterative and poetic turn of phrase continued onto the cans and bottles:
“Our Gentleman’s IPA is fresh, fragrant, and full of flavour. It provides a thirst-quenching finale to a day in the saddle and the perfect start for a night to remember. To sup a meticulously crafted Albion Ale is to demonstrate an appreciation for the finer things in life: from the mechanical masterpiece of a classic motorcycle to the poetic alchemy of hops, malt, water, and yeast – the brewer’s art. To you, discerning drinker, we raise this toast, “Carpe Diem. In life, you need some moments to savour. Come and find yours in Albion.”
Tone of voice can improve impact
These days, people prefer concise chunks of copy, especially when reading on a screen. The adage, “If I’d had more time, I’d have written you less.”, has never been more accurate. Having tone of voice guidelines elevates the importance of language to those tasked with communicating on behalf of a brand. Hence, they pay attention to the words they use and are more constructively self-critical.
We recently re-wrote a client’s existing website page to demonstrate the effectiveness of their new tone of voice guidelines. As well as making the text more benefit-driven, active and engaging, we communicated all the content using 40 fewer words – a saving of nearly 10% on the length of the copy.
Make language your brand’s superpower
To not include tone of voice in the scope of your brand creation or revitalisation activity is to massively underutilise an imaginative, cheap and powerfully effective brand building and marketing tool – but it is an area of activity all too often overlooked.
There are three simple truths to finish on. First, more people write on behalf of any brand than you think. Words are not only the responsibility of the marketing or communications departments; everyone that writes a report or email, puts together a slide deck, makes a speech or answers a telephone – all have the potential to be ambassadors, fluent in the language of your brand.
The second truth is that everyone can’t write. Not well. Not in a way that keeps your brand’s promises and makes you stand out.
The final truth is that everyone can learn to write in a strong brand voice and enjoy doing so.
Suppose you are starting from scratch with no brand strategy, no visual identity and no tone of voice. We can help you work it all out. However, if you are just missing the tone of voice part of your brand jigsaw, we would love to assist with slotting the final element into place.
Let’s make your words work.