My team have engaged an agency to rewrite our website. Instead, the agency has recommended investing in a tone of voice guide before they start working. What’s one of those?
Put very simply, a tone of voice guide is one half of your brand book, or guide. It documents how your brand ‘speaks’, in tandem with the visual aspects of your brand like your logo, typography and brand colours.
How is it useful?
Manipulating your business’ tone of voice works on a psychological level. By talking about and for your brand in a certain way, your brand becomes what you want it to be for customers. (Providing, of course, you don’t do anything to endanger your brand in the meantime.)
Think of it this way: if Innocent Drinks used the same gung-ho language as Red Bull, then their high-price, low-sugar offering would have little appeal to consumers seeking a fast caffeine hit. And imagine Red Bull adopting Innocent’s familiar, fumbling style: Red Bull gives you wings. Metaphorical ones!
Instead, Innocent has done a fantastic job of expressing its health and origin-focussed brand mission through its voice – so much so that the brand’s twee tone is now synonymous with products across the health drink sector and the health sector more widely.
In this way, a tone of voice guide is important because it promotes consistency across business and brand. If every person in your team uses the same language with customers and colleagues, your brand becomes real for them. Customers respond to the brand personality and values your voice is used to express, and using that voice consistently gives your brand credibility. This is increasingly important thanks to social media and content marketing, when businesses are required to write and publish more than ever.
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Tone of voice guides are also useful because many of us hate writing. Sometimes this includes those of us who do it for a living. By offering a guide to how emails, webpages, tweets or any other business media should be written, your team members should dread drafting last-minute press releases and important internal memos slightly less.
What does one look like in the wild?
Good question: with tone of voice guides, one size does not fit all.
For a small business with a single brand and a tight budget, a short guide covering brand character, tone, language and purpose should be sufficient.
Larger, more complex businesses with multiple sub-brands and product/service lines will need something more detailed. These will include examples of language used in different contexts, forbidden and preferred words and phrases, glossaries of terms, and, often, legal advice. Mailchimp and The Economist both have online style guides which are worth a read.
Here at Future Content, we also include ‘brand archetypes’ – that is, explanations of facets of each brand – and linguistic dos and don’ts. We also like to illustrate our clients’ brands with reference to celebrities, to help express the personality behind each brand.
Whatever your business, your tone of voice guide should include examples of your tone of voice in action – for example, in a tweet, customer-facing email or website header. This is the most important part of the guide for most readers. It’s much easier to write in the style of something you’ve read, than something you’ve only been told about. If your copywriter produces a guide without this, send the doc right back and demand more.
Moreover, all tone of voice guides should be written in the tone of voice they promote, and they should be clear and easily understood by all readers in your business. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Why not write one myself?
It’s perfectly possible for businesses to write their own tone of voice guides, and there some useful guides out there for doing so. I particularly like this one from Hubspot.
That said, engaging a copywriter to write yours offers essential perspective and experience.
Working with an agency outside your organisation will throw up fresh insights into your own brand (and if it doesn’t, consider switching agency). Partly, these ideas will come from the creative expertise of the writer, who will be used to finding the facets of your brand that should be expressed in your voice, understanding how your tone of voice should work across a number of examples, and finally in explaining this to your staff via a clear tone of voice guide.
This takes considerable skill, in the same way as designing a logo or letterhead does.
Moreover, a (good) copywriter won’t fall prey to the same mistake as many businesses do, which is to write a tone of voice guide that matches everyone else – including their competitors. I’ve lost count of the number of voice guides I’ve read that proclaim their brand uses a ‘clear, confident, intelligent’ tone of voice. Everyone does. Worse are the legions of marketing teams that fancy Innocent’s cutesy way with words and want it for their own brand – including many who should know better.
So can you write ours?
Callum Dunbar is Head of Copy at Future Content. Crafting copy and content for almost a decade, Callum has worked with international FMCG giants, technology startups and boutique hospitality businesses on website, print, advertising, social media and (almost) every other type of copy. Now he wants to work with you.