Brand tone of voice: why you need it and 5 steps to choosing one

7 min read
28 June 2021

In an information space crammed with advertising and all kinds of competing content, you can stand out by using a tone of voice. The right brand tone of voice can establish or strengthen an emotional connection with customers, ensure recognition and trust. In this article, we will explain what steps to take to find that unique pitch.

What is the brand tone of voice & emotional response?

The phrase “tone of voice” stands for a brand’s overall style of communication with its audience across all channels. It is the manner of your brand’s expression. This communication approach produces a particular emotional response in customers. If the result resonates with the customers, they feel pleased; if it does not, they may be irritated and repulsed by the brand.

Purchase decisions are usually purely emotional. People often don’t know the reasons for rejecting a particular company’s offerings. They may rationalize their decision: “Too expensive,” “I’m not sure about the quality” etc.; however, an aversion to a wrong tone of voice may be the real culprit.

A contradiction in the tone of voice across different channels may also cause dissonance. When a brand uses a familiar tone in its advertisements and the customer support service is dry and formal, the client can feel cheated when it comes to contact expectations.

Additional tone of voice functions

Improves trust via recognition. Even adventurers and adrenaline addicts enjoy some stability and permanency. That is the way the human brain works: it seeks known and understandable things. A brand with a defined communication style is easier to interact with and recall. Thanks to being predictable, it is also more trusted. When a potential customer has to choose from a variety of options, they will, most likely, settle for a recognized mark.

Conveys brand values. Consumers want to know the values of the company they interact with. This is especially important to millennials and Generation Z. Customers may go to the other side, to competitors, if they experience a clash between the brand’s projected values and their own. Still, declaring values isn’t enough; companies need to act accordingly or suffer from dissonance. A tone of voice may be an excellent vehicle for values if the brand highlights them and transmits a clear phrasing and approach on social networks and banners.

When the tone of voice clashes with the content, a brand comes across as hypocritical: a company that wears dependability on its sleeve but uses strong language and black humor in its messaging is bound to confuse the audience.

How to choose a brand’s tone of voice

Let us begin with an important point: a tone should not be chosen only by personal preference. You might like the way a company communicates and want to imitate their style, but this would only increase the recognition of another brand and make you look like a copycat. Such a decision should be worked out in a step-by-step manner. And it takes more than knowing the audience you seek to address. You must also have deep knowledge and understanding of your brand core.

Step 1: Study your brand

If you already have a brand book with a brand profile, values, and mission stated, it’s great! If not, here are some questions to answer:

1. What does the brand do?

Example: “We present Martha’s Breakfasts. It is a service that delivers fresh breakfasts on time every day.”

2. How does the brand improve customers’ life?

Example: “Martha’s Breakfasts saves time in the morning and helps people keep a healthy morning diet instead of drinking down a banana with a cup of coffee (or going to a fast-food chain by a subway station).”

3. Why should customers choose you over others?

Example: “We are chosen because we are reliable: our delivery is always on time because we know that time is precious in the morning, and if we are not quick, the customer’s plans will be affected. We also guarantee: if we are late, we serve a week’s breakfasts for free. Ordering from us is cheaper and more convenient than dealing with delivery services every time. Martha’s Breakfasts offers a varied menu; customers always have a choice of treats. Our brand helps make mornings interesting.”

4. How should customers describe your brand? What impression do you want to make?

Example: “The perfect client of Martha’s Breakfasts finds the brand reliable, trustworthy, caring, and fairly inventive.”

Step 2: Define the brand persona

Now it’s time to “humanize” the brand:

  • What would the brand persona look like?
  • What interests would it have?
  • How would it treat people?
  • How would it communicate? How would people assess and perceive this persona?
Burger King’s brand persona created by Ozumii Wizard

Step 3: Study the target audience and create its persona

Next, study your audience and make the second portrait. If you are well-acquainted with your customers, simply write down the answers to the questions below. To arrive at the right tone, it is important to have basic information at your fingertips, even if it seems like stating the obvious.

  1. What does a typical representative of TA look like?
  2. What do they do? Where do they work or study?
  3. What are their goals, dreams, and priorities?
  4. How do they spend their free time, what do they do for recreation?
  5. What content dominates their information field? What do they watch, listen to?
  6. How do they communicate: words, intonations, jokes, emojis? How do they formulate their thoughts?

Step 4: Become a “matchmaker” for the brand and audience personas and bring them together using your tone of voice

At this stage, consider how your brand needs to talk to its audience to convey values, evoke trust, and build an emotional connection. The means of conveying information are more important than the content.

The tone of voice is often characterized too generally: “We will talk to customers in a respectful and professional key.” Employees and brand representatives end up with a different understanding of this approach, resulting in the tone of voice being incoherent and disconcerting.

Let us use this Nielsen Norman Group classification to be a little more specific. Here we have four pairs of directions, a.k.a. “dimensions,” to take:

  1. Funny vs. serious;
  2. Formal vs. casual;
  3. Respectful vs. irreverent;
  4. Enthusiastic vs. matter-of-fact.

We can apply this grid to a website error message.

A serious, formal, respectful, and matter-of-fact message would read something like: “We apologize for the inconvenience. There has been an error our technicians are working on it.”

On the opposite end (funny, informal, irreverent, and emotional) there might be: “Oops! You broke something! Okay, just kidding, we’re having some problems on this end… :( But we’re already fixing them!”

The elements can be adjusted by running around the slider bars and making a message more or less formal.

Here is an example of a humorous tone: an “Error 404. Page not found” from MailChimp:

Prada reports errors on its website in a rather formal way:

If these four shades are not enough for you, there is an expanded table from NN Group, where you can generate the tonality you desire with more precision.

A brand tone of voice can be narrowed down with a formula “We speak so-and-so, but not so-and-so,” e.g.: “We speak with customers in a friendly way but without formalities,” “We use business lexicon but don’t bore people.”

Step 5: Apply your tone of voice

Once you are ready to set sail down the chosen voice stream, combine the information about it in one document: guidelines. It should contain all basic information about the brand and communication rules. The guidelines could include the following chapters:

  1. Core brand information: mission, values, characteristics, etc.;
  2. TA data: from general to specific;
  3. Brand persona profile;
  4. Audience persona (or several, if there are visible segments);
  5. Tone of voice and its boundaries, with examples;
  6. Special notes for different communication channels. For example, “In newsletters and social networks we use emoji and joke 60% over the website level”;
  7. No-no words and phrases. For instance, no affectionate and diminutive forms, no “call a cabbie” or “thrash it out with our techs.”

Sample guidelines from well-known brands:

Brand tone FAQ

This logic is taking hold, regrettably, and leading to a proliferation of clones of famous brands. By stealing someone else’s communication style, you don’t beat the system but only ruin your image. The original author will benefit from the audience’s recollection, conscious or not, of who was there first – not you.

The tone of voice is the basis of your communication with the audience. It does not force you to keep the same mood in all contacts with customers or spout off jokes like a comedian. If a customer gets a substandard delivery, he will be in no mood for jokes. You can dial down the funny to respectful, caring, and friendly level then.

It is best to maintain the same tone of voice as long as it matches the brand’s values and suits the market situation. If an approach is obsolete or jars with the brand’s main concept, get rid of it without hesitation.