Marketing: Strike The Right Tone
Tone of voice is the way you communicate your message—it dictates the way that an audience interprets the words. And it’s a key part of your brand voice.
Put another way, tone of voice is the way you say something out loud, whereas “tone” usually refers to the written word (though many sites will conflate the two, particularly when referring to branding). Either way, however, tone dictates how the audience will feel about the message. It can reveal intent as well as character.
If you’re going to build a strong brand, tone matters. Here’s what else you need to know about tone and crafting the best one for your clients’ brands.
The four key components of your brand tone of voice are:
- Word choice
- Message placement
- Sentence structure
Each of these four components can change the way the audience feels about your message and how they respond to it. A single message can be written using any manner of tones; the key is deciding which tone is most effective. And depending on the factors mentioned above, those can make the audience feel anything from dismissed to empowered, befriended to neutral. If the tone isn’t right, the audience may leave feeling insulted or angry. Or if the tone strikes the right chords, it can make the audience stay and listen.
What’s the difference between brand voice and brand tone? Tone does play into brand voice, but the two are not synonymous. Brand voice is the written expression of a brand. It’s what the brand—if it could speak—would sound like. Tone of voice, on the other hand, is the way a given piece of communication is delivered. Tone is what creates the emotional impact, and that can shape both how the recipient feels about themselves and about the brand.
Voice is the writing style or unique flair that an author gives their writing. Tone is the way a message is presented.
To develop the right tone for your brand, you’ll need to know a few key details:
- What is the company trying to accomplish—both overall and through a given piece of communication?
- What tone has the brand used previously?
- What are the company’s core values?
Review previously published communications, like blogs and social media posts, to understand previous tones. Ask for audience impressions to help you gauge where you stand. Combined, this information will give you a good idea about the kind of goals you want to accomplish, which will help shape the tone.
Understand your target audience. Tone can easily be mistreated if you don’t have a firm grasp of who your audience is and where they’re coming from. To combat this problem head-on, it’s worth conducting research into your client company’s ideal audience and what appeals to them. You should know key demographics, such as age range, where they live, common interests and how they like to communicate and learn. Keep in mind that things may change depending on the platform you’re using to communicate, whether it’s social media, a blog, an e-newsletter, etc.
Think about the four dimensions of tone of voice. According to Nielson’s principles for tone of voice, there are four sliding scales to consider:
- Funny vs. serious
- Formal vs. casual
- Respectful vs. irreverent
- Enthusiastic vs. matter of fact
These are useful tools for understanding where the brand’s current tone falls, as well as for getting a visual representation of what tone you want to use going forward.
You can use these umbrella tones to gather lists of words that fit beneath each of these categories, with consideration for your desired position along the spectrum. By using those words in your messaging, you can more easily craft your ideal tone.
Create tone-of-voice guidelines. Once you take the above information into account and have a solid idea of what the company’s tone sounds like, it’s time to put that idea into practice, typically as part of a brand style guide (see resources below). The “tone” section should include basic guidance, such as what a good tone sounds like versus what the company is trying to avoid, and providing examples for the reader in several contexts, such as blog posts or social media. The more information you can provide, the easier it will be for people to stick to the desired tone.
Keep your tone of voice up to date. As with brand voice, tone is something that may not be static throughout the life of a business. That’s why it’s vital to make sure that, as the company changes, so too does the tone. That way, everyone who may have a hand in creating communications from the company is on the same page about what the brand voice and tone should sound like without deviating or slipping back into an outdated or otherwise undesirable place.
Barkbox, a monthly subscription service for dog products and services, has a tone of voice that is casual and upbeat. If you look at its FAQ question, “Where is the rest of my order?” you’ll get a great example of tone. The use of the phrase, “not to worry though!” communicates a laid-back and positive tone, which in turn makes the customer feel comforted and calm. This tone contributes to the brand’s overall voice, which is conversational and warmhearted (just like the dog-obsessed community they cater to). On the Nielsen model, it leans toward casual, funny, respectful and enthusiastic.
Old Spice’s tone of voice is often goofy and enthusiastic. You need only go to the homepage of the brand’s website for a taste of brand voice, as well as tone. See an example in the middle image on the next page: “Get more awesomeness, good smellingness, and Old Spice exclusiveness than ever before.” The tone here is goofy; it makes the reader smile by the strategic use of the non-word “smellingness.” This contributes to the brand’s voice, which is direct and has absurdist tendencies, and appeals to its younger demographic. According to the Nielsen model, this tone also tends toward casual, funny, irreverent and enthusiastic.
The productivity platform, Slack, has a tone of voice that is respectfully matter-of-fact. The tone used on the company’s “tips” page is almost neutral but conveys a subtle, positive slant to the messaging. By speaking directly to their audience’s interest in productivity in this manner, Slack gives the impression that it, too, values getting things done well, but also quickly. The brand voice—which focuses on clarity and conciseness—aligns with this tone. Nielsen’s scales would tip toward serious, casual, respectful and matter-of-fact, for this example.
There are many opportunities to get tone wrong, especially if you don’t take a balanced approach:
Mistake 1: Being inconsistent. Tonal inconsistencies can create questions and even mistrust within your audience. That’s why it’s vital to create a tone guide for your brand.
Mistake 2: Offending the intended audience. Companies that go for the irreverent and funny sides of Nielsen’s scales, for example, can take things too far if they don’t define how far is too far.
Mistake 3: Creating a forgettable tone. Just like you can go too far at the opposite ends of Nielsen’s sliding scales, choosing “neutral” positions could also backfire. Tone is meant to provoke an emotional response in the reader and failing to do so means being forgettable and irrelevant—something all companies want to avoid.
Additional Resources To Craft The Right Tone
Brand Style Guide: writer.com/blog/styleguide-examples
The Ultimate Guide To Brand Voice: writer.com/brand-voice
Nielsen Norman Group’s Four Dimensions Of Tone Of Voice: nngroup.com/articles/tone-of-voice-dimensions
Devon Delfino is a writer, independent journalist and contributor to Writer.com, an AI writing assistant that helps craft clear, consistent and on-brand content for companies.