Nowadays a brand without an instantly identifiable tone of voice needs a spectacular product or offering to stand any chance of standing out. And yet without knowing it, many brands still sound bland, stuffy or forced. If you’re writing a new guide or refreshing your tone, avoid these 5 mistakes…
1 . They follow rigid guidelines
Unless you’re A/B testing, the minute you start scientifically analysing every word is the minute you lose your speed and instinct. Likewise, if you need to look up your guidelines to find the right adjective every time you write a tweet, you’re not doing it right. As far as a document goes, my advice is to have a style guide that details how to format dates, titles and other grammatical queries for consistency, alongside past copy examples that represent you most. Every brand strives to be conversational but many are unprepared to drop the formalities needed to sound more human.
2. They play it safe
If every brand said what they thought or held opinions, advertising’s trust and authenticity ratings would increase tenfold. Sure, a brand might alienate parts of its audience in doing so, but would you rather speak to 500,000 people who are indifferent or 50,000 people who are passionate advocates? Today’s consumers are looking for brands that reflect their values and beliefs – be that brand, especially in a world that’s quickly becoming more aware of the environment, gender and racism.
The go-to example is always Nike, which immediately faced backlash after standing by former NFL star Colin Kaepernick after he took a knee. In protest, thousands of Americans burned Nike trainers and boycotted the brand. But that didn’t stop Nike’s stock price later reaching an all-time high. Laying the foundations with Kapernick also gave Nike the authority to speak up and act two years later in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Meanwhile, many other brands were accused of virtue signalling.
3. They don’t have concrete values
A concrete set of values is a good basis for a tone of voice because values can make a brand appear more human and authentic. According to research, 74% of consumers have a more favourable view of brands that make an effort to be environmentally responsible. However, where many brands trip up is they say but don’t necessarily do, which makes their tone of voice and persona appear inauthentic.
One brand with a clearly defined ‘why’ is Patagonia, whose mission statement reads: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.” That alone tells you everything you need to know about Patagonia. But the difference between them and the next brand that preaches eco-awareness is Patagonia acts as well as says. For instance, giving staff days off to explore the outdoors or boycotting Facebook altogether.
On the other hand, don’t just take values to mean being vocal about equality and the environment. First Direct has a tone of voice that’s irreverent and unlike any other bank because they preach ease and simplicity. Work out what your brand stands for and you’ll more easily discover how it sounds.
4. They only care about their bottom line
Many of these rules apply to digital, but let’s look at social where tone is key. A great deal of marketers still approach social with a direct marketing hat on, ending every post with a call to action. Not only does this make a brand seem less human, it also disregards the need for meaningful interaction – which is quickly becoming more present outside of social.
Think about it like this, are you more likely to buy from a faceless corporation or a brand you feel somewhat emotionally connected to, having developed some loyalty and a deeper affinity over time? As I’ve said before on the Digital Human blog: social media isn’t a broadcast channel, and that goes for tone of voice as well.
5. They change to suit the platform
Think audience-first, not platform-first. There are nuances between social media platforms just like there are vast differences between TV, print and OOH, but changing how your brand speaks to suit the platform will only confuse your audience, who may be present across all channels.
With organic reach in decline, there’s no point in succumbing to every engagement tactic by changing your tone of voice to do what Facebook wants. In truth, this sort of approach will only weaken your identity.
Instead, follow the example of Oatly, whose irreverent and conversational tone of voice is the same on billboards, milk cartons and social. As well as having a clear purpose – a sustainable alternative to milk – Oatly oozes confidence because the brand has a clear idea of who it is, why it is, and what it represents.
Whether you’re a copywriter at a major FMCG company or the CMO of an SME, use brands like Oatly, Nike and Patagonia as your benchmark the next time you think about tone of voice.
Kunal Pattany is a public speaker, technology commentator and the founder and CEO of Digital Human. With 15 years’ experience in marketing for leading companies like Kantar, a WPP data and insights company, he has turned his attention to the impact of digital and AI on humans and society’s response to innovation. To find out more about Digital Human, click here. To talk with Kunal about speaking opportunities, email firstname.lastname@example.org 👋