Tone of Voice is one of those subtle elements that helps to portray your brand’s personality and contributes to creating resonance with your target audience. Many brands skip the vital step of uncovering their tone of voice, which means they’re missing out on opportunities to connect more authentically with their customers, fans, and supporters.
This Guide dives into the process and best practices for uncovering and effectively using your brand’s authentic tone of voice. Let’s start at the beginning.
What is Tone of Voice?
Tone of Voice is the style in which your brand conveys its personality and values. It gives people an idea of your brand’s flavor and attitude. Is your tone sweet, sassy, or serious?
When you interact with people, you pick up on more than just their words. Think about when you call customer service and the representative says: “May I help you?” The way they say it alerts you to how that session is going to go. You can tell if they’re already annoyed at yet another complaint or if they’re happy about trying to help you.
An in-person conversation provides many more clues: eye rolls, short responses, looking away, pursed lips. But a brand doesn’t have the luxury of face-to-face conversations. Instead, they often need to convey everything they’re about in just a few sentences or a short tagline. “Just do it” let’s you know that if you wear these sneaks, you’re going to sweat.
Why is Tone of Voice Important?
Your brand’s tone of voice can either pull people in or push them away. Imagine an accounting company greeting you on their website with a flashing neon message:
“Hey all you crazy kids… Come on down for the best deal in tax preparation because we’re ready to party!”
You might think twice before trusting them to handle your finances, right? They might be a stellar accounting firm, but already they’ve caused confusion because their tone doesn’t match the values you’d be looking for in that type of business.
An authentic tone of voice helps to build trust and credibility with your brand’s fans and customers. Along with visuals and content, tone of voice conveys the brand’s overall vibe. If all of these pieces don’t feel aligned or consistent, people will sense there’s something “off.”
Articulating your brand’s tone of voice also helps to brief your copywriters, designers, new employees, and collaborators. Everyone who delivers creative assets needs to make sure they’re “on brand.”
How Is the Tone of Voice Used?
There’s an art to using your brand’s authentic tone of voice consistently across all communications. It’s important to master this because a brand’s language, and the style it’s presented in, reveals your company’s intentions and values.
Tone of voice applies to all of the ways your brand communicates, from emails to website copy to social media posts. More than just word choice, tone of voice also includes writing style, punctuation, and emojis (they can be super tricky!).
Even a short email needs to translate your brand’s personality. Here’s an example of the same message delivered in two different ways.
See you at noon. Uh oh, I’m in trouble.
See you at noon, K? :)) Yay, I’m having a fun lunch with the boss!
What’s the Difference Between Voice and Tone?
There’s a subtle difference between voice and tone. Think of voice as the message itself — the information. Tone is the attitude with which you deliver the information.
Some brands make the mistake of thinking that what they want to say is all that’s important. The message is certainly important, but the way it’s delivered is also crucial for attracting and connecting with a loyal audience.
Continuing with the example above, you could convey the same message three different ways:
I would like to see you at 12 p.m. sharp. (formal voice, serious tone)
See you at noon. (casual voice, serious tone)
See you at noon, K? :)) (casual voice, friendly tone)
How Tone of Voice Reinforces Emotion and Facilitates Connection
To connect, and eventually to sell, your brand needs to tell the story of its reason for being. If that wasn’t true, no one would care what brand of sneakers they bought. Consumers buy the dream a brand is selling. Do they want to be an athlete? A champion? A cute and comfy go-getter? A philanthropist? Tone of voice helps customers find the shoe that speaks to them personally.
Here’s an example of two companies that sell similar products but have very different branding. Their tones of voice specifically convey the values of their particular company.
Keds and TOMS sell casual canvas shoes. Although both have styles for everyone, a large part of their markets is made up of tweens, teenagers, and twenty-somethings.
Keds ads feature mega-star Taylor Swift because she has a unique style that’s girly with a tomboyish twist. Their website uses short, punchy phrases such as:
“Break out your sundresses.
Taylor’s picks have arrived.”
“Brave takes a chance.”
“A true original.”
From the confident, bouncy tone of voice, the company’s values are clear: be true to yourself, even if that means breaking the mold, and look cute while doing it. Notice the word choice: break, brave, chance, true, original.
TOMS’ website copy says:
“A sandal for every story.”
“One for one. With every product you purchase, TOMS will help a person in need.”
“From everyday men’s shoes like Paseos to fun and flirty Strappy Wedges, we are passionate about both the fashion and compassion we offer.”
The tone of voice is calm, quiet, and flows easily. It relays a heartfelt story about real people who benefit each time a pair is purchased. The customer buying the shoes is also part of this story: they are wearing their compassion, generosity, and global focus on their feet.
For these canvas shoes companies, the tone of voice distinguishes the brand. You can be a unique and powerful non-conformist with Keds, or put on a pair of TOMS to be someone who cares about making the world a better place while rocking a unique and hand-crafted aesthetic.
Most Common Types of Tone of Voice
Every person is unique, of course, but we also use familiar adjectives to describe ourselves. Maybe you’d say you’re friendly, dependable, or whimsical.
It’s the same for a brand’s tone of voice — it’s unique, but it also contains recognizable qualities that helps your audience connect on a personal and even emotional level.
In this section, we’re going to look at some of the most familiar tones of voice and the types of brands that they are associated with. These examples will help you to further understand tone and maybe even inspire you to think about your brand’s tone of voice in a new way.
Casual – easygoing language, very personal, “we got this” vibe
- Used for big box stores, Amazon, mid-range clothing, sports equipment, mid-range travel.
Funny / Goofy – silly humor, aimed at kids, exclamation points.
- Used for cereal, games, toys.
Luxurious / Elegant – flowing words, longer phases, gentle words.
- Used for high-end salons, certain clothing & jewelry designers, upscale cosmetics.
Motivational – lots of exclamation points, short, punchy words, cheer-leading or a commanding tone.
- Used for athletic wear.
Quirky / Witty – questions, wink-wink, tongue in cheek humor (can be hard to pull off).
- Used for artists, some food & beverage, brands with a retro vibe.
Romantic / Flirty – feminine words, sensual phrases, evocative.
- Used for perfume, jewelry, lifestyle.
Tough / Masculine – short phrases, bold words, terse.
- Used for pick-up trucks, gyms, aftershave.
This is by no means a complete list. There are many other tones of voice.
You can discover more examples through our Brand Strategy Kit or Brand Personality Cards. Both of these tools contain 40 Brand Personality Cards and 20 Tone of Voice Cards that are designed to help you uncover your brand’s authentic tone of voice. Each Tone of Voice card has an example included on the back to help you get crystal clear.
Here’s a good example of a brand that effectively uses tone of voice to convey their personality and values. Their overall tone is what consumers want to feel in their own lives, which is why they gravitate to and buy this particular brand.
“Freedom and ease captured in structure. Inspired by him, defined by her, and touched by the artisan hand.”
— Donna Karan
Let’s break it down: The message straight up tells you what this brand offers: high quality basic clothing that lets you do your thing. But that’s not what the company chose to say here. Notice their specific word choice, the length of the sentences, and the short phrases separated by commas that guide you on a slow, flowy journey. You feel calm when reading it, maybe even liberated to take a breath and conjure the inspiration to pursue your passions.
That’s what tone of voice does. It draws your audience in by connecting to them via emotion.
How To Uncover and Articulate Your Brand’s Tone of Voice
Articulating your brand’s tone of voice is part of the overall branding process. One of the most important parts of that is running a Brand Personality Session. The goal of that is to uncover the personality of your brand and articulate its values, character traits, tone of voice, and style.
Good branding is about creating a brand image that expresses what the company truly stands for. This sets a solid foundation that enables your company to expand into its full potential. If your branding is not aligned with the company’s true essence, you’ll create tension (or worse, failure) because you’ve created a false image that you won’t be able to deliver on.
To create a leading and long-lasting brand in the marketplace, you need to make sure you’re branding your company in a way that is truly aligned with its essence. This will help you connect with your target customers in the most authentic way, which puts you a few steps ahead of everyone else.
In order to uncover and articulate your brand’s authentic tone of voice, we recommend asking these three questions during your Brand Personality Session:
- What kind of impression / feeling do you want your overall brand experience to create for your audience?
- What kind of impression / feeling do you want your overall brand experience to create for your employees?
- What impact do you want your brand to create in the wider world?
Important note: during the process of uncovering and articulating a brand’s tone of voice, you’re not trying to come up with something new. A brand’s tone of voice is inherently part of its values, so the goal is to let it rise to the surface by exploring how those values can best be conveyed via communication.
That’s why these three questions are key — they bring out the values around which the company has been created. Values are the foundation of a brand’s personality. They are weaved into the company’s governance and become an integral part of the legacy that will be left behind.
Remember that you want your brand to shine across all communications, so it makes sense for a wide range of people to be involved in uncovering and articulating its authentic tone of voice at the Brand Strategy Session. You’ll want to make sure everyone feels comfortable and inspired to answer these questions, and as a result, feel good about contributing to the brand’s success. To facilitate this, create a welcoming and supportive environment that encourages people to connect into the company’s mission and engage in a fruitful discussion.https://www.youtube.com/embed/Z27W-jWnXic?wmode=opaque&enablejsapi=1
The Brand Personality Cards (digital) and the Brand Cards (print) are excellent tools to help you facilitate this part of the Brand Strategy Session in a playful way. They’ll act as prompts that get creative juices flowing and help spark answers to the questions above.
Instead of asking a question and getting complete silence because no one wants to speak first, the Cards provide an easy way for everyone to contribute.
Here’s how it works: When asked a question, each person picks the cards that resonate with them. Then, as a group you read both sides of the cards, discuss, revise, and finalize your selection. If the tone “sounds” off, it’s probably not your brand’s true essence speaking. Iterate until it feels right for everyone.
Specific Ways to Convey Your Tone of Voice
Now that you know what your brand’s tone of voice is, it’s time to start using it effectively. There are several elements that help convey tone. Some of these are the same as when writing fiction and non-fiction; others are more specific to brand communications and marketing.
Here’s a breakdown of some common ways to tailor your writing so it accurately expresses your brand:
- Words – Well, obviously. But which ones? Try to be as specific as possible. Most writing/editing programs have a synonym function or a built-in thesaurus. Home in on what you truly want to say and find the perfect words, phrases, and sentences to give audiences the best experience.
- Punctuation – This might be the easiest way to sound conversational because it can mimic pauses, inflections, and even smiles. But it’s also easy to over-use punctuation, which can be distracting and sometimes misunderstood. So, use it sparingly and effectively for maximum impact.
- Emojis – Our ever-present phones have made us a little lazy with words. It’s easier to insert smiley faces, hearts, and that raised eyebrow squinty face. There’s nothing wrong with emojis — they’re fun and they give off a friendly vibe. The key is to not use them to replace integral words that might be way more effective. Instead, use them as an accent, like you’d give someone a wink, not to replace a whole emotional sentence.
- Pronouns – It’s become common in marketing to talk to people directly, even if it’s a mass email going out to thousands. Savvy marketers want to establish a connection with their audience, and saying “you” instead of a more generic “we” or “they” draws people in. Just be careful that you’re not making assumptions or coming on too strong too fast in some formal situations. Also, be extremely careful when using “he/him” or “her/she” — do not assume; use “they” or ask what they prefer.
Common Mistakes Brands Make When Using Tone of Voice
As we’ve said, tone of voice is based on a brand’s inherent values. Mistakes in using it occur when a brand tries to be something it’s not. Here are a few things to watch out for in all communications.
- Being inauthentic – don’t try to sound like another famous/successful brand. People see right through that and won’t put their trust in you. That brand is successful because it mined it’s uniqueness.
- Instead: Uncover what makes your brand one-of-a-kind.
- Inconsistency – if customer service sounds way different than the copy on your website or your Instagram captions, people will be confused and move on.
- Instead: Make sure your brand’s tone of voice carries across all communications.
- Not updating your communications style – although tone of voice is baked into a brand’s values, all companies grow and change over time, as do their customers.
- Instead: Annually review how you’re using your brand’s tone of voice and make sure it stays current. (For example, if “hip” is one of your values, you don’t want to be using lingo from 2012.)
- Being unaware of your audience – if your target customer speaks “a different language” your communications are not going to connect with them.
- Instead: Listen to how they talk and see how your brand’s authentic tone of voice can be used to connect to them.
- Forgetting to include personality (yawn) or trying too hard to be liked — the most annoying people at the party are probably doing one of these.
- Instead: Your brand’s natural tone of voice is what will resonate — as they say, just do you.
To see if your brand is making any of these tone of voice mistakes, do an audit of your communications. Choose a few pieces from each category — say emails, website copy, social accounts, customer service transcripts — and run them through each of the items above. Take notes on what seems to be working and what’s off base, then make adjustments as needed.
If you need help harmonizing your tone of voice across your brand’s communications while making it “more you,” get in touch and we’ll be happy to help you.
Developing In-House Guidelines for Using Tone of Voice
It’s essential for a brand to be consistent across all of their messaging. This includes graphics, photos, website copy, social media, newsletters, and even customer service.
Whether you’re a solopreneur or a large company, it can be hard to stay aligned with the brand’s tone of voice for every single piece of communication and marketing. If a potential customer encounters inconsistencies, where messages don’t mesh with values, they’ll lose trust and look elsewhere.
Prevent that by creating In-House Tone of Voice Guidelines to make sure everyone is on the same page. Here’s our step-by-step advice for creating a document that’s user-friendly and effective.
Identify everyone who will be using this guide and provide a clear description of the brand’s tone of voice
This can be a list of all staff and freelancers, and also what they’re responsible for. Remember that even customer service needs to understand and know how to use the brand’s tone of voice.
Provide a clear description of the brand’s tone of voice. Use the general categories we mentioned above — like Luxurious/Elegant or Playful/Witty — and include descriptive adjectives, style points, and useful examples.
The 20 Tone of Voice cards included in the Brand Cards (print version) and the Brand Personality Cards (digital version) include explanations and real-life examples for how to speak to your audience. This makes them a fun and effective tool for ensuring your team is fully equipped to communicate effectively.
Ensure everyone understands how to use the brand’s tone of voice effectively and consistently
Consider establishing a vocabulary guide or identifying a writing style. For example, does your brand have “clients” or “customers” or “subscribers” or “buyers”? Choose the one term that best represents your tone of voice and then use it across the board.
When you communicate with your audience, is it long, in-depth newsletters or short, friendly tweets? The form you use is also a way to convey your brand’s tone of voice.
Offer Do’s and Don’ts
Comparisons help people understand the finer points. For example, you might include:
- use authentic language
- be specific
- be concise
- be personal (this can happen even with a formal tone)
- use emotional words
- get a second opinion if you’re not sure you’ve captured the tone of voice
- try to sound like something we’re not
- use generic language — this waters down the message
- use too many words to fluff it up — this confuses the audience
- be overly casual or friendly (unless that IS your brand’s personality)
- go overboard with sentimentality
- forget that tone of voice is based on the brand’s values
Show real-life examples of your brand’s tone of voice. This could be some website copy or an ad that’s particularly on-point in its tone. Also consider showing examples (maybe these are fake ones) of tone of voice that are not effective in conveying the brand’s tone of voice.
Include a special section on social media
These days, nearly every brand has at least one, if not several, social media accounts. This can be the main way they reach, connect with, and ultimately convert browsers into customers.
Your brand might find that its authentic tone of voice translates seamlessly onto all of your social media platforms. Chances are, however, that you might need to tweak some of the finer points of your tone to make it resonate with your fans and followers.
Social media is unique because it needs to feel personal and intimate, like you’re talking directly to one person. This generates familiarity, trust, and that warm feeling of connection.
This can be fairly easy for lifestyle brands, but practical businesses like banks and mechanics use social media too. Regardless of the type of business or organization, it’s still essential to be consistent with tone of voice.
For example, let’s say you are a bank or a serious tech company. How can you use your “reliable, serious, dependable” tone of voice in a way that is still personal and connecting?
All brands can work within the more casual and personal nature of social media platforms, it just might take some extra thought. Here are some questions to help you adapt your tone of voice for social media so it still “sounds,” and even more importantly feels authentic.
- How will your brand’s tone of voice be the same as on the website or in print?
- How will it be different?
- What qualities of your brand’s tone of voice can or should be emphasized?
- Will posts be in the same tone as when responding to comments?
If your brand needs a specific section in the Guidelines for social media communication, be sure to include all of your platforms and keep it up to date.
Include a special section on verbal communications
If your team members are often speaking to your audience, maybe via Zoom meetings, podcasts, or customer service, consider including pointers on how to use tone of voice verbally. This is especially important for keeping a brand’s image consistent when many people are speaking on behalf of the company in a variety of functions. Remember, consistency leads to trust and loyalty.
Every person has their own way of communicating. Their natural style may be super serious or ultra bubbly. There’s no need to suggest tamping down someone’s personality, but they should be aware of how they are representing the brand.
Having speaking guidelines similar to those for writing can be helpful for making sure the brand’s messages are delivered in ways that enhance its authenticity. You want fans, supporters, and buyers to feel like they’re making a real connection over shared interests.
When there’s a visual component, like a Zoom meeting, it’s also important to address body language, gestures, and eye contact. All of these small tone-related details add up to one big impression. Make sure your brand’s values translate in any situation.
Shake Hands with the Brand
Remember, tone of voice reflects the personality of the brand. Just as each person is unique, so is a brand’s tone. It offers an entrance point for your audience to connect, just like when you meet someone and shake hands (or elbow bump). From there, communication can flow in a two-way dialogue that builds trust, interest, and loyalty.
If you’re getting ready to embark on uncovering your brand’s tone of voice, or you’re a brand strategist who wants to sharpen your game, check out all of the useful tools in the Brand Strategy Framework.
The 40 Brand Personality Cards include the 20 Tone of Voice Cards, which are also sold separately from our Framework. Use them to level up your branding game, amplify your brand’s voice, and meaningfully connect to your audience.
When you fine tune your brand’s tone of voice, it feels specific, original, and personal. Get it pitch perfect, everyone wins!
Brand Strategy Framework