Why your brand shouldn’t have just one tone of voice

It is safe to say that social media has evolved to be a general field of communication, and so I’d like to talk about a much more specific facet of social media – tone of voice. This is a term you’ve probably come across a number of times, but I think it’s worth dwelling on a little, not least because it’s liable to be confused with other terms and concepts related to branding.

Two basic tone of voice propositions

And that’s partly why I’ll be talking as much about what tone voice isn’t as I will be talking about what it is. So my two basic propositions this morning are:

  • Tone of voice is not your brand’s personality
  • Tone of voice is an attitude you adopt to something

They may look like simple statements – and I indeed I hope they are quite simple! But personally I find them very useful when it comes to trying to understand what makes tone of voice distinct from branding in general.

What tone of voice isn’t

And perhaps this is why I’d like to start with the negative definition; namely that tone of voice is not your brand’s personality. All of us here adopt many different tones throughout the day; none of them are pure expressions of us as individuals, even if they all contribute to our personality – or, in marketing speak, to our brand. Instead, these tones are positions we take up in relation to particular subjects and particular audiences.

Social media tone of voice examples

A very telling example of this surfaced last summer, when the CIA celebrated one full month on Twitter with the following Tweet: ‘No, we don’t know where Tupac is’. This was generally received with warmth and surprise – in other words, it was a little gem of social-media marketing. Did it express the CIA’s brand? Of course it didn’t – this is not the CIA transforming into Private Eye.

But the tone of voice employed here was nevertheless very precise – through it, the CIA reflects on its own involvement in Twitter as being a little absurd. It’s funny, but not cute or friendly – and so is still consistent with the CIA’s brand.

What tone of voice is

So if tone of voice is not an expression of your company’s personality, what is it? I think its best understood as an attitude you adopt to something. (Aside: The CIA example is interesting in this sense, because I think the ‘something’ is Twitter rather than Tupac!)

Imagine you are updating your company’s Facebook account with a post about a charity bike ride. This is not simply a case of you showing your brand to potential customers and clients, it’s actually a position you’re taking up in relation to something else. And this ‘something else’ – such as a charitable event – is something that your audience will already have a relationship with.

TV channels differing tone of voice

We often hear tone-of-voice in action when we’re watching TV. I always find it interesting to notice the different ways a TV announcer will introduce different programmes on the same channel. There might be a flippant tone when talking about Made in Chelsea, and something more sober for talking about a forthcoming episode of Dispatches.

Once again, these are not straightforward expressions of the channel’s brand. Rather, they are an attitude to a product, which is based on a careful prediction about the audience’s own attitude to these programmes.

Social situations determine tone of voice

So when you’re composing social-media communication, and thinking about your tone of voice, you might find it useful to think in terms of social situations. Are you addressing friends at a party, strangers on the street, your bank manager, or a conference of industry colleagues? Remember, the same person might find themselves in all these situations in any given week; their personality is consistent, but their tone is flexible.

This afternoon, when you’re looking through Twitter and Facebook, see if you can translate the tones of voice which companies are using into a social situation; who are they addressing, and what kind of real-life interaction are they invoking?

Who does tone of voice best?

When it comes to examples of tone of voice in action, there are certain brands that continually come up, such as Innocent and Brew Dog. These are interesting up to a point, but are so exceptional that you may not be able to learn a great deal from them – which is why I suggest thinking about the day-to-day communications of companies you’re already familiar with.

Who is doing the best day-to-day tone of voice?

Here are a couple of low-key examples of what I’m talking about. The first is a message that was posted on the Mumsnet website when it had been hit by a security bug: “We know this has been an enormous pain in the rear end for some of you, and we’re really sorry about that.” Mumsnet doesn’t deny the fact that customers have been somewhat let down, but neither does it turn into an impersonal website when problems arise. It’s a nicely managed social engagement.

The second example is an even more run-of-the-mill instance. Watershed recently capped its admissions prices for people under 24, and last week tweeted: “The number of young people who came here to see brilliant world cinema for less than £5 last weekend nearly doubled.” Notice the lack of cutesy overfamiliarity; in other tweets, Watershed is liable to be a bit friendlier, but here it adopts a very straight tone. Its attitude towards “brilliant world cinema” is serious, and Watershed assumes that its followers will also be willing to take this matter seriously, too.

In short, I would advise you not to try and learn about tone of voice from Apple or Virgin or Disney; look closer to home, and you’ll probably glean more useful lessons.

What could be the tone of voice for a family law solicitor?

Recently, I worked with a local solicitors, who felt that their multilingual website was not quite doing them justice. Look, for example, at the introduction to its Family Law pages. The first sentence is: “Family law, more than any other field, requires sensitivity and patience.” It is an authoritative voice, but not boastful or sales-driven. The voice does not address ‘you’, or talk about ‘we’. This helps to steer the encounter away from a consumerist engagement; it sounds to me more like the reader has been referred to a specialist.

What could be the tone of voice for a bookkeeping service?

Meanwhile, for a bookkeeping service we find the following:

If your company is putting its trust in us, you’ll want to be sure that all the bases are covered. Each of these services is provided as standard:

  • Payroll run reports (including departmental analysis)
  • Year-end reports
  • Maintenance of employees’ standing data
  • BACS/Telepay submission report
  • HMRC electronic filing (RTI)
  • Pension auto enrolment

We also manage starters, leavers, student loans, sick pay and maternity pay, as well as childcare vouchers schemes and other required deductions. And if you require electronic or security payslips, we can arrange that too.

Here, there are no qualms about the fact that this is a commercial engagement. And why should there be? Do you want your payroll provider to be especially sensitive, or for that matter quirky and creative? Also notice how the tense gives the impression that the reader has more or less chosen, said organisation, already. Elements of the tone are slightly more casual and jargon-free than we might expect from an accountancy firm (for example, starting the final sentence with ‘and’), but the encounter is still business-like.

What can you take away from this?

All of the examples I’ve talked about today show of voice to be a balancing act; you want to communicate your brand, but in such a way that considers the particular subject matter, and your audience’s likely relationship to that subject matter.

Overall, I want you to go away with two things:

  1. The habit of imagining each piece of social-media marketing as a real-life interaction; how would you talk in that situation?
  2. The ability to spot different tones at play within any given brand. See how they complement one another, but also how they adapt to the nature of certain platforms, networks and topics.

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