Your brand’s tone of voice is as important to get right as the logo or look and feel – so you need to be able to spot when it’s going wrong.
Like the other elements that make up your brand, your tone of voice needs to be distinct and recognisable, and consistent throughout your audience’s interactions with your brand.
Every brand’s tone of voice is different. And it should be flexible; it would be weird if a product launch video and a customer bill struck exactly the same tone. So what’s ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when it comes to tone of voice depends heavily on the brand and the situation.
But there are also some common pitfalls that all brands should always try to avoid…
The passive voice is when you say “The door was opened”, instead of the active “Alex opened the door”. It’s a bit of grammar that can easily be abused to avoid taking responsibility for something.
You often see it in apologies for corporate misbehaviour (“Mistakes were made…”) and communications that demand something of the audience (“Members are requested…”). It reads strongly as an attempt to downplay the brand’s involvement in the events and weasel out of any blame or consequences. Not an impression you want your audience to have of your brand.
Don’t listen to anyone who tells you the passive voice is always wrong. There are absolutely cases where it’s the best tool for the job. But it makes a flimsy shield. In both apologies and requests, a direct approach is more effective.
Making up words is an easy way to make your products and services sound unique (and easier to google). But a made-up word is a hurdle in your audience’s path; you have to explain it before anyone can fully understand what you’re offering. That’s extra work for you and for your audience. Ask yourself if you could use a word they already understand instead, and get to the point more quickly.
Using jargon – words and phrases with specific meanings in your organisation or industry – is an even easier trap to fall into. When you use it every day, you can forget your audience might not – and substituting simpler terms can feel like dumbing things down.
But research shows that even the most sophisticated readers actually prefer simpler, plainer language. Don’t make things hard for your audience by making them translate your content. They’ll reward you by engaging more readily.
Yes, your brand’s tone of voice should be distinct and recognisable … but it’s possible to take distinctiveness too far.
Can you think of a brand you find irritating? That’s a sign that its voice is taking priority over its message. You can tell it’s working hard to get your attention, but what it’s actually trying to tell you is obscured by overly stylised language. Sometimes it’s matey familiarity, sometimes shocking impact, sometimes smarmy superiority.
Brands can be familiar, impactful or sophisticated, of course. The issue is that when the message takes a back seat to the personality, the audience can’t help but get frustrated.
More brands fall into these pitfalls than you might think – so learn to spot them, and you’ll be well on the way to developing a tone of voice your audience will want to engage with.
When we’re conducting brand definition workshops, we often see clients struggle with the question “What makes your brand different?”
Having analysed their competitors’ offerings in depth, they know that whatever feature or benefit they name, customers could probably find something similar somewhere else.
The thing is, customers generally don’t analyse the various competitors in anywhere near as much depth. They’ll search, or go by word of mouth, and then research the brands they learn about to see whether they fit their needs and values.
What matters is that they can discover enough specific characteristics of the brand to assess that fit. If the fit is good, it won’t matter if one or other of those characteristics is similar to the competition; once they’ve found what they’re looking for, potential customers are unlikely to go fact-checking to make sure the brand’s characteristics are genuinely unique. They are likely to look elsewhere if they don’t find any specific characteristics to latch onto.
So from a brand perspective, what matters is not that you offer something no other brand can replicate. What matters is clear, confident commitment to a position.
We saw evidence of this while researching investment brands for issue 2 of the Brand Report. Some investment houses argue that customers should choose them for their trusted, expert ‘house view’ – a centrally decided investment strategy all their advisors are expected to abide by. Others argue that customers should choose them because they don’t impose a house view on their trusted, expert advisors.
Industry experts could probably make a career out of analysing the data from different houses, trying to determine which approach – house view or no house view – is objectively better for customers. The truth is, there are convincing arguments for either approach. There’s no definitively right or wrong answer.
Sometimes, differentiating your brand from the competition really is that simple.
The best way to find the right position to commit to is by clearly defining your brand story. Continuing with the investment house view example, if your brand story is all about stability, trust and a proven track record, then a house view informed by the brand’s long institutional memory would strengthen that story – making it a point of difference worth promoting.
This article is from issue 2 of the Brand Report. For more insights and action points to strengthen your brand, download the complete report now.
Heritage can be a powerful asset. The longer a brand has been around, the more evidence there is that it can weather a variety of conditions, offering stability over the long term – something customers in many sectors value highly.
So if your brand has a long history, it makes sense to communicate that to your audience. And conveying your history doesn’t mean your brand has to look old-fashioned. Brands with heritage to promote have a wide range of possible approaches at their disposal. Here are some examples from the finance sector, which we found while researching issue 2 of the Brand Report.
A light approach
Hargreaves Lansdown (established 1981) uses confident capitals and a trustworthy dark blue in its logo to portray the brand as stable and reliable. But balancing that solidity is a fresher secondary colour palette and a playful typographic visual style. It’s a brand that wants its audience to know it can stay the course, without appearing stuck in its ways.
A confident approach
HSBC (with origins stretching back to 1865) acknowledges its heritage in its icon, an evolution of the original Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation’s house flag. While the shape has remained recognisable through the decades, the brand has moved with the times, most recently by updating the typography of the logo from a classic serif to a more modern sans serif font.
Outside the logo, the brand takes a sober and sophisticated approach to typography, contrasted with a generally bright and optimistic look and feel, full of white space and smiling people. The impression is of a brand that’s experienced but still forward-looking.
A radical approach
Schroders (established 1804) rebranded a few years ago with a bold, colourful, contemporary new visual identity. The brand promises modern, innovative services and a digital approach, with a look and feel that wouldn’t look out of place in a tech startup. But that doesn’t mean Schroders have cast off their two centuries of heritage: it still comes across strongly in messaging and narratives. The surprise factor – that such a modern-looking firm could be hundreds of years old – even helps the heritage message cut through.
An approach that’s right for you
Your brand story, audience and strategic objectives will help determine the right approach for your brand. If heritage is something your target customers value, it’s worth making it part of your brand.
But it’s important not to be burdened by your own history. How you decide to express it – through visuals, messaging or a combination; emphasising it with traditional design elements or keeping it more subtle – should be based on what you need it to do for you.
From issue 2 of the Brand Report
We’ve always said any interaction between your organisation and the wider world is part of your brand. But like many things we’ve always taken for granted, the coronavirus lockdown is testing the limits of this truth.
Under lockdown, your people are more likely to interact with customers, clients and stakeholders from their own homes, using videoconferencing tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Does that mean their surroundings – the living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms pressed into service as home offices – ought to align with your brand?
We’ve seen plenty of examples of people arranging their Zoom backdrops to build their personal brands recently. Various commentators and politicians have appeared on the news in front of carefully arranged bookshelves, clearly intended to indicate their intellectual leanings or even promote their own books. It’s become enough of a trend that there’s now a Twitter account dedicated to analysing the subtle and not-so-subtle messages of the bookshelves.
But it’s natural to expect someone’s home to reflect their personal brand. For most people, bringing their employer’s brand home is a different matter. It takes effort, and is likely to have an impact on their work–life balance.
For some, that impact will be positive. For those of your people fortunate enough to have dedicated office space in their home, making that space feel more reflective of your brand could actually help maintain that work–life boundary. These employees could benefit from clear suggestions and guidelines. If your brand is vibrant and creative, maybe it’s okay for clients on video calls to see a bit of colourful clutter. If it’s a warm and friendly brand, maybe there’s no need to move those family photos out of frame.
For everyone else, though? Asking them to introduce your brand to their living spaces will only blur the work–life boundary – a boundary that surveys suggest is already under huge pressure from the lockdown. Half of the respondents to an Institute for Employment Studies survey in April 2020 said they weren’t happy with their current work–life balance, and 48 percent said they were putting in longer and more irregular hours than before.
It’s fair to expect a reasonable level of professionalism on video calls made from home; no dirty laundry in the background, for example. But asking any more than that isn’t fair or healthy at the moment. Remember, the customers and clients your people are video calling are in the same boat. If your people’s lives intrude a little on their video calls, they’ll understand.
We’ve always found it useful to expand the lens of brand to cover, not just written and designed communications, but interpersonal interactions like customer service phone calls and engineer call-outs as well. It’s a more holistic approach to brand, which can strengthen the overall experience for your people and your customers.
But in this unusual and difficult situation we’re in, the power of your brand is best used to support your people, not to put more on their plates
For example, why not provide your people with a selection of custom branded backgrounds for their video calls? This gives their contacts a more branded experience, while removing the need for your people to be self-conscious about their surroundings, and avoiding your brand outstaying its welcome in anyone’s personal space.
Supportive actions like this can help remind your people why yours is an organisation they can believe in, even through difficult times.