“Don’t use that tone of voice with me!”
Surely, you’ve heard this once or twice growing up. Assume the wrong tone, and you wouldn’t need a second warning that it’s not the right way of talking to your parents, or your teachers.
But when you’re a marketer, you don’t have the benefit of a stern-yet-insightful talking-to. If you speak to your readers the wrong way, you won’t get soap in the mouth. Instead, your prospects and customers will just turn away from your blog posts, social media pages or even products.
Today’s readers won’t give the time of day to brands that don’t make an emotional connection with them — let alone their money. Readers crave content that speaks to them — not at them, and not past them.
As a marketer, it’s your job to know your target audience and how to make content click.
Developing a Unique Tone of Voice
Writing for your readers is easier said than done. There’s a lot to consider, and you’ll find tone of voice seated atop that list of considerations.
The phrase “tone of voice” refers to the persona your content takes on. How you speak to your online readership will determine how engaged they are, how educated they become or whether or not they’ll feel motivated to take action. Your tone of voice has to embody all that your brand and your customers value. It should also reflect the lingo that those readers are most familiar with and be appropriate for the intended audience.
So, if you were a beauty brand trying to reach millennials on social media, you might use a fun, lighthearted tone that is peppered with emojis and lingo that connects with a younger audience. The moar your customer digs the writing, the shibbier. Want a ride-or-die readership? You best get that writing on fleek. (Note: This entire paragraph would possibly come across as cheugy to Gen Z. Which is fine, presuming they’re not your audience, but catastrophic if you’re trying to market to anyone under the age of 25.)
Now let’s say you’re trying to grab the attention of the C-suite audience. The suits would likely respond best to a more formal tone — one that’s professional, authoritative and concise. You want to appear knowledgeable. You want to inspire. You want to provide thought leadership and cultivate an executive following that looks to you for solutions and ideas.
What Ingredients Go into Tone of Voice?
To pull off an authentic tone of voice, you’ll have to marry brand personality with grammar, and customer engagement with rhetorical devices. Translating the ideas in your head to words on the page is remarkably difficult, but doable. All it really takes is looking at a recipe for tone of voice. A dash of diction here and some active voice there, some alliteration to taste, and presto (!) you’ve got your tone of voice.
While the exact ingredients may change — blog posts focused on upper management may want to trade hashtags for hard stats — there are common elements of any tone of voice that you will want to address when formulating your own brand persona. These include:
- Word choice: Don’t worry, you don’t have to be an English scholar or anything like that to pick the right words. Applied to tone of voice, word choice is simply about understanding which words are best suited for particular contexts. Some of this is intuitive, but there are lingual nuances to pay special attention to: regional dialect, idioms, industry terminology and other such considerations. Word choice should be accessible, and relatable, to your audience.
- Sound: The sonic qualities of words — how they sound when pronounced — can play a big role in developing a tone of voice. Using devices like assonance or consonance can create fluid, easy-to-read writing that’s almost lyrical when read by customers. A little alliteration can go a long way.
- Syntax: This is the arrangement of words, the structure of language. It may come into play when you want short, staccato sentences. There’s no fluff. The point is underscored. The audience’s time is respected. Or, you may want to convey a headier type of thought with denser phrasing that weaves in and out and maintains an artistic quality that endeavours with soaring brand language to engage the reader and inspire in them a thought, an idea, a meaning. See how easy that is?
One more thing to keep in mind: For any of this to work, you need documented brand voice guidelines. That means creating easily understood instructions for your writers on syntax, language, sound, etc. If it isn’t an official brand guideline, it may as well not exist.
Examples of Brand Tone of Voice
Now for the main attraction: some examples of brand tone of voice that demonstrate the varying degrees of personas and how they might inform your own voice. Each business will have its own needs, but there’s plenty to take away from brands active in shaping a distinct tone of voice:
Dove – Empowering and Uplifting
It would make sense for a company that sells beauty and self-care products to craft an encouraging tone. Dove is a premier example of a brand that has cultivated a persona that emphasises responsibility, having linked its name with the greater movement to empower consumers (especially women) and raise awareness of body positivity. You’ve likely seen the billboard and ad campaigns Dove launched with models of all colours and sizes, but supporting it all is a tone of voice that is soothing, inspirational and friendly. (Except for that one marketing fail.)
These qualities are easily recognisable aspects of the company’s personality on social media, as well as on its website. The way Dove glowingly describes its mission is reinforced by the affirmative language it uses to resonate with readers: “beauty is a source of confidence,” “self-esteem education,” “realise full potential.” The brand promise is made clear with these words, and reinforced through its unique voice.
LaCroix Sparkling Water – Friendly yet Informative
The beverage du jour of hipsters and moms alike, LaCroix has skyrocketed to the forefront of online-savvy brands. LaCroix’s tone of voice is a lot like its product — bubbly; and that goes a long way in building personality and connecting with readers or social media followers.
There’s only so much you can say about carbonated water, but that doesn’t box in LaCroix, which offers readers valuable content on everything from keeping flowers fresh with LaCroix to creating cocktails with a favourite flavour. Images are a big theme with LaCroix — those colourful cans need to be advertised somehow! — but the captions or blogs that accompany them are carefully written to speak to a customer on a personal, informal level, which helps LaCroix build relationships with its audience.
There’s a lot going on beneath the surface of the actual words. The phrases may be short and sweet, but they relay a brand personality that’s fun, approachable and interested in having a good time with friends! The more the tone of voice emphasises these qualities, the more customers associate LaCroix with social settings, friends, recreation and a good time.
CloudSmartz – Professional and Ambitious
CloudSmartz embodies the exemplary brand tone of voice for speaking to management, decision-makers or executives. Writing about tech can be difficult, even with a knowledgeable audience. There are a lot of abbreviations and jargon for readers to cut through before reaching the heart of the message; and even if they know what SD-WAN is, the clunkiness of phrasing can make reading awkward.
However, CloudSmartz breezes by those obstacles with a brand tone of voice that is both aspirational and grounded. The possibilities of the cloud make such forward-thinking writing a fit, but it needs to be tempered in a way to still resonate with business leaders. Check out this example from for a clinic in how to nail down such a persona:
The title “Virtualised Service Providers: The Next Stage of Telcom Evolution” sets the blog up to be in the vein of thought leadership, which CloudSmartz pulls off by making the writing accessible and not unwieldy, like most tech content can get.
Skittles – So Far Out There It’s in Another Galaxy
You’ve seen the Skittles commercials, you’ve cringed at the ads, you’ve wondered what in tarnation is going on — but you’ve also likely tasted the rainbow, as Skittles’ marketing implores you to. While being in the candy business might afford Skittles some lee-way in getting weird, you certainly don’t see Almond Joy or Nerds pushing the outer boundaries of strangeness quite like Skittles.
But here’s the thing: the Skittles tone of voice works! All the talk about Skittles Pox and being the rainbow should be enough to leave any consumer a bit befuddled, but Skittles has built a brand persona that is adored for its wackiness and offbeat humour. Some social media highlights from over the years include:
Tips to Develop Your Brand Tone of Voice
While it helps to take your cue from these brands, in the end, your tone of voice has to be unique to your business. It may take some time to reach that point, but here are some basic tips to ensuring your tone of voice fits your brand, your needs, your message and your customers’ expectations:
- Create a tone and voice style guide: Tone can seem a bit like a nebulous concept, making it harder for businesses to grasp. However, they can take control by creating a set of standards or brand guidelines to define brand voice and govern how it’s used. Each organisation should have a working set of standards for what the tone sounds like and how brand values are communicated. In fact, tone of voice arguably deserves its own chapter in your brand guidelines.
- Be consistent across channels: Building a reputable brand tone of voice means keeping it consistent across channels. Skittles is as weird on Twitter as it is in blog posts. This consistent tone fosters familiarity: A customer reading your articles who then transitions to your social media posts should have a similar experience in interacting with your brand, and tone of voice is central in creating that continuity.
- Borrow inspiration from peers: The industry you operate in will have a lot of say in how your tone of voice is formulated. After all, nonprofits will communicate differently than a corporation. Defining your tone of voice could be improved by looking at what peers and competitors in your space have done. This might help you develop a tone along the same lines to connect with readers, or tell you a totally different approach to tone that could help you win over new customers.
It takes time to perfect your brand’s tone of voice, but as they say: a journey of 1000 miles starts with one step. Using these strategies will help you take a good first first step in building that recognisable brand identity.