Today’s brands have a new challenge: humanization. Faceless brands are gone. It’s all about how to fuse human elements into brands to build consumer trust and stand the test of time. A foolproof way to make your brand personable? Find its personality and establish a tone and voice. Your consumers are real people, they crave stories and emotional connection. Having a recognizable, distinguished tone and voice sets your brand apart from your competitors and creates a bond between the brand and its consumers.

Why Tone & Voice is Important

Let’s start with the basics. What’s the difference between tone and voice? Simple. Think of it in human terms. Think of your brand as a person. Your voice is who you are, your unique personality. Your personality is your identity — it doesn’t change. This is your voice. When it comes to voice, consistency is key. Now, based on your personality, you communicate things a certain way depending on the context. Your voice is the foundation for your tone. When you feel different things, you evoke different tones through your messaging. It’s the same for brands. A brand’s tone fluctuates and adapts to the context of a message.

Why does all this matter? If your voice changes frequently, it’ll be challenging for audiences to really know who you are and what you stand for. Your brand will be muddy, not clear. It’s best practice to establish a brand voice style guide, a cheat sheet of sorts, to help your brand navigate an on-brand tone that varies with messages.

We asked Alex Blair, our director of brand strategy, and Danielle Moore, our content strategist and copywriter, for their take on how brands can successfully establish a tone and voice with a few key steps as well as some of the biggest mistakes brands are making with these identifiers.

How to Establish Voice

#1Know Your Brand & Who You Are

The first step for defining your tone and voice is having a clearly defined brand. Know why you exist, what you offer, and what makes you unique and different. Talk to your employees, partners, and leaders.

“Your brand is your guiding light and reason for existing. It’s your unfair advantage. It’s the emotions and identity your customers experience.” – Alex

The understanding of the brand should be cohesive across your organization.

#2 – Define Your Audience

This is a very important step after understanding your brand’s complex identity. All messaging should be customer-first. And in order to ensure you’re crafting your content in this way, you need to know who your audience is at a deeper level, why they choose you, and what the experience is like for them. For a successful brand, the underlying values of the brand should match your customers’ values.

If you don’t have a clearly defined audience yet, then diving deep on audience research and creating audience personas can help get you on track.  When you know exactly who’s listening, you have the tools to tweak the tone for each of those audiences to communicate a message that sticks with them.

#3 – Play With What The Brand Can Sound Like

Your brand’s voice can encompass several different traits. Are you more confident and serious? Or, are you warm and encouraging? Find concrete adjectives that define the approach to your brand’s voice. We find it helpful to plot on a scale where the alignment of your brand’s voice falls on the spectrum for each adjective.

“Let’s say you want humor to be a branded voice trait. Going from soft to loud, plot where your sense of humor falls on the voice spectrum: rare smile, slight chuckle, intelligently witty, outright funny, knee slapper. I sure hope that no hospital uses ‘knee slapper’ as a humorous voice trait…” – Danielle

#4 – Analyze Existing Communication

It’s important to measure a baseline to see how the brand is communicating currently across all channels. Take note of where any inconsistency lies in your messaging to find room for improvement or missed opportunity.

#5 – Conduct A Competitor Analysis

See what your competitors are doing. Analyze the tone and voice they are portraying with their messaging. See what they are doing well, but also what they are missing. Note what communication tactics they’re using to connect with a shared audience. Are there voids within those tactics that your brand can fill to set yourself apart?

Common Mistakes Brands Make With Tone

#1 – Acting Overly Informal on Social Media

It’s important for brands to be multi-dimensional and complex to pique customer engagement. However, there’s a time and a place to be conversational and lighthearted, if at all. Everything your brand says or does should be grounded in understanding who are. Before posting, ask yourself: does this tweet, email, or post accurately reflect what we stand for?

“No one wants to see their bank be quippy after a data breach, or feel like their health care provider is unserious or sloppy. Striking the right tone between sounding personal and approachable, and understanding what customers expect from you, and when, is critical to being authentic.” – Alex

Because we’re in more progressive times there can be a temptation to be overly informal and friendly. Evaluate whether or not that tone parallels with your underlying brand that you took time to build. Just because other brands are sounding a certain way on social, doesn’t mean it’s now standard or how your brand should sound.

#2 – Talk Less, Say More

Some brands sacrifice their consumers’ time by having long messages, rather than making them short and concise. There’s a real risk in going overboard with tone in your messaging.

“Don’t confuse simplicity with boring and short. We’re surrounded by brands everywhere we look, so it’s up to powerful branded messaging to connect with customers quickly and memorably. Make your messaging worth their time without sacrificing the integrity of who you are.” – Danielle

A helpful tip from our pros: read the copy outloud to yourself. It sounds silly, but it helps solve easy issues. If you feel winded when the copy is spoken aloud, it’s not going to be read correctly, and may be confusing. Alter it. Try and get the most important words in, and eliminate the fluff.

#3 – Going For a Full-Rebrand, When You May Just Need a Shift in Voice

The reason why establishing voice early on is so important is to have a guide on how to communicate with your audience long-term. The market is consumed with rebrands, which seem to be announced almost every day (remember Dunkin’, WW, and Uber’s rebrand in 2018?) but it’s important to evaluate if it’s really what your brand needs.

We always recommend to try to ensure that major decisions are research-based, filled with listening-processes, and concrete data. Remember: it’s essential to your brand’s integrity that your voice doesn’t change frequently. If research shows the current voice isn’t engaging or doesn’t accurately represent the brand, then a voice change may be warranted. When the voice changes, we closely evaluate if the brand should change as well. Avoid letting voice shifts happen regularly, or you’ll lose your audience’s attention and trust.

#4 – Don’t Underestimate Social Listening

Your brand messaging framework should have length and sustainability to let it flourish, but to also allow for shifts in tone. More importantly, your brand should have a finger on the pulse of your audience’s values, challenges, and conversations at all times.

To practice good social listening, ask yourself: what information is the brand’s audience gravitating toward? Is it possible to shift tone to target specific personas without having to dig up your entire brand framework? Fully digesting what matters to your audience and what they respond to is an important habit to adopt to help guide you brand’s tone of voice.

We hope these tips and best practices have provided a clear understanding of the differences between tone and voice, how to establish a clear voice, and how to avoid the common mistakes brands make. The easiest way to create an effective tone and voice is to humanize your brand. Approach all messaging with that persona in mind. With an audience-centric focus, you are set up for success.

Curious to see some brands with exemplary use of tone and voice? Check out these tone and voice guides for these stand out brands: Slack, the workspace chat program on a mission to make working life simpler, pleasant and productive; and Mailchimp, the marketing automated platform that helps you share campaigns and emails to your audience.

Still have questions on where to get started in developing a tone and voice that’s on point? Reach out to our team to start a conversation.