One huge mistake that brand managers make is not paying enough attention to their organization’s tone of voice.
“Voice” sounds high-minded, doesn’t it, seeming better suited for literary tomes than the business world? Yet tone of voice simply refers to how you sound in your writing.
In marketing, your tone of voice can be a significant differentiator (along with a few other key things) and a strong advantage, because a lot of companies aren’t thinking about it.
Many businesses spend a lot of time on their logo, color palette and other things they think of as “branding”—the look and feel of their website, collateral, signage, fonts and so on. Very few consider the branding that a unique voice can convey.
If you were to mask the logo on your site, would you sound unique—true to yourself—or do you sound like everyone else, including your competitors?
Said another way: If the label fell off, would people know it was you?
Your tone of voice isn’t about what you say but, rather, how you say it—and it’s about the impression your brand leaves on prospective customers.
Here’s how to develop your tone of voice:
1. Define what makes you you.
Marketers call this developing a “brand positioning statement” or sometimes a “mission statement.”
Whatever you call it, the idea is to specify who you are and what makes you unique.
As Dr. Seuss wrote, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” (Speaking of voice, even without the attribution there’d be no doubt that this is the work of Dr. Seuss.)
Ask yourself these key questions:
- What’s unique to your business?
- What’s special about your products?
- What’s special about the way you do business?
- What’s your company culture like? Are you buttoned up, or playful?
- How do your employees relax together? Do you all play beer pong in the parking lot on Friday afternoons, or do you have morning yoga sessions every Thursday?
- How do you want your organization to be regarded by both customers and your community? Are you a trusted source for high-level insight, or a go-to source for hands-on practical advice?
Write down three words that best define who you are.
“Don’t fall into the trap of choosing trite, non-differentiating factors such as ‘friendly,’ ‘honest,’ ‘reliable,’ and so on as brand values,” says Andrew Bredenkamp, founder and chairman of Acrolinx, a software platform that helps companies hone their tone of voice.
Such attributes are just one big duh, or “the least you would expect from any company,” Andrew said. “They may be important to your service, but they won’t help you create a distinctive tone.”
Also avoid buzzwords and clichés (like “cutting-edge” or “proactive” or “revolutionary.”) I call those words blecch. Andrew says (a bit more articulately): “If you’re looking to be different, they put you at a disadvantage right from the start.”
Instead, identify more interesting, specific descriptors that reflect who you are and how you want to be perceived.
2. Translate those words into a style.
Abstract attributes in isolation don’t mean much, so develop some detail in line with them. Make them real and practical.
For example, if one of your brand values is “creative,” what does that mean? When and how are you creative? What are you creative about? How does your creativity help clients?
If one of your brand values is “unusual”—what does that mean? How does that quirkiness help clients or customers? Do you solve problems differently? Do you have an approach that exemplifies that ideal in the real world?
Flesh out those words with a few sentences or anecdotes.
3. Write it down.
I almost wrote “create a style guide,” but I worried I’d lose you there. The idea of a “style guide” might feel both pedantic and impenetrable to a lot of businesses—especially growing, scrappy ones who think a style guide is about as appealing as a History of Trigonometric Functions (volumes 1-34). (Side note: Keep reading. Volume 35 is a page-turner!)
A style guide is important for entrepreneurs and small companies, where very often the brand voice of your organization grows organically out the founder’s personality and values. That’s great, but what happens when the organization grows and a marketing team takes over the writing of the emails the founder used to pen herself? That’s when you’ll be glad you bothered to write all this stuff down.
It’s also important for larger organizations, where content isn’t the province of just one or two people. In that scenario, a style guide acts like bumpers on a bowling lane, keeping things roughly on track.
What goes into a style guide? Start simply with some of the basic information I noted above, and add to it. You can get as ambitious as you want here, but take the pressure off yourself: A Google Doc works equally well, and it can be updated easily as needed.
Here’s what to put into your style guide:
- Your three words.
- Your three words applied in context.
- Pronouns. (Too trivial to consider? Not at all.)
Companies tend to be all over the map with pronouns—using the first-person “we” and “us” in one sentence and the third-person (“Abbading Inc.”) elsewhere. The first person tends to be warmer and create a more accessible tone, whereas the third-person identifier tends to feel more detached and paternal. Pick one based on your brand voice, and stick with it.
The same goes for your audience, by the way. Use “you” or “customers,” and don’t swap them around so they pop up unexpectedly and startle you.
Next, how do you handle jargon? I used to take a hard line against jargon and insider language—I used to say, don’t use it. Lately, though, I’ve rethought that idea, because jargon can signal a shared mindset or convey a depth of knowledge.
Spell out what jargon and phrases your company embraces and which it does not. As with any writing, be sure that its use clarifies rather than gets in the way.
Style guide tip: Adopt a well-known style guide like the Chicago Manual of Style or the AP Stylebook or (my favorite) the Yahoo Style Guide. Then add your own entries to it. The benefit of doing it this way is that you’ll have the style basics covered (“email” vs. “e-mail” ) while addressing important things such as tone. Some other great style guides have been published by Moz, MailChimp and Buzzfeed. Check them out for inspiration.
4. Sweat the small stuff.
Don’t think about your how voice is applied in only the most obvious places-such as your website copy and perhaps your Facebook page. Tone of voice doesn’t apply only to those things you typically think of as “marketing.” (Everything the light touches is content, remember?)
Instead, think about how you can use your voice as a differentiator in surprising places—on your 404 page, email confirmation page, Thank You page, About Us page, FAQ page, product description pages and so on.
Case in point: Here’s an example of voice in action.
All this talk of voice and tone sounds great, but how does it play out? Can the words you use help brand you and make you stand out?
Freaker USA manufactures and sells one-size-fits-all beverage insulators—also known as can koozies. Beverage insulation is a pretty boring category, but Freaker USA stands out in part because of its tone of voice, which extends across everything it does.
Here’s how it describes itself on the About page of its website:
Established in 2011 and located in Wilmington, North Carolina, Freaker USA quickly grew to be the global leader of preventing moist handshakes and sweaty beverages. They aren’t just selling you their fit-everything product, they’re giving you an invitation to their party—a starter kit for a new lifestyle. The Freaker isn’t a strike-at-the-wind attempt to get rich, it’s the background music to a never-ending journey. Infusing life, style and functionality into a drink insulator.
Think about that for a minute. Freaker could have described itself with a bit more utility, something like this:
This drink insulator keeps your bottled beverages colder longer, plus folds flat for maximum pocket portability. It fits your bottle or can like a glove and is classier than a brown bag.
The above is a bit of copy I co-opted from a koozie competitor’s website. It doesn’t convey nearly the same brand story, does it? If Freaker spoke that way, you wouldn’t get a sense of what makes Freaker unique.
Earlier I mentioned sweating the small stuff. This is an excerpt from Freaker’s email subscription confirmation:
“If you received this email by a whoopsies, simply delete it. As long as you don’t click the confirmation link above, we won’t haunt you with a subscription to our ass-kicking newsletter. You won’t be delivered weekly sales & giveaways right to your inbox. You will never know love. Just delete this email and carry on like nothing here ever happened. OKAY LOVE YOU BYE!”
Your brand might not be as quirky as Freaker USA, and that’s OK.
So, what’s your brand’s voice? If your logo fell off, would you recognize you?
A version of this article originally appeared on Ann Handley.com.