Tone of voice – is it a red herring?

by
November 26, 2011

When people talk copywriting the phrase “tone of voice” often pops up – as if “this is what copywriting is all about.”  Indeed, many copywriters, especially those that like to work on really big corporate brands, promote themselves as “tone of voice development and management specialists”.  It is often positioned as some higher form of copywriting, something towards which all copywriters and clients should aspire to.

Without wishing to downplay the skill involved in this aspect of copywriting (it is a skill) I think this is potentially confusing.  Unless you are a Vodafone, an HBOS, or a GE, tone of voice is probably a bit of a red herring – there are some far more important things you need to be thinking about first.

First things first

In my most recent posts (“Want your marketing to work…”) I shared a three step process for getting from a blank sheet of paper to a communication that achieves the results you want, with the least possible expense and grief.

Step 1 is about working out what to say.  Step 2 is about working out how to say it – how to come up with an idea.  Step 3 is about finding the most effective way to express that idea.

Tone of voice is part of that very last step – and if you are saying the wrong things, in the wrong way, no amount of tinkering with the tone is going to make a blind bit of difference (the phrase “rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” comes to mind).

Why big brands make such a fuss over tone of voice

Big brands spend huge sums on marketing, so they can afford to employ very good consultancies to perform steps 1 and 2 – this ensures the underlying structure of the brand strategy will be sound.  By the time the copywriter gets involved, the message, and the idea, will be sorted, so the copywriter is just applying the finishing touches – which largely comes down to expressing the agreed brand personality in the designated tone of voice.

Do you want that in matt, silk or gloss?

Personally I find this kind of work deeply unsatisfying and totally boring.  Essentially I’m doing a painting and decorating job, when I’d much rather be working on projects where I can be more of a brand architect.

In my previous post “Want your marketing to work? Express your idea in the most powerful way possible” I pointed out that a lot of big brands have nothing intrinsically different or exciting to offer, and that they gloss over this with slick production values and glib copy.  The result is a triumph of style over content – a brand that creates the illusion of offering something worthwhile simply by blowing hot air in a terrible nice tone of voice.

Let’s all commit vanillacide together

The irony is that trying to create a distinctive and exciting brand personality just by carefully crafting the tone of voice is generally a road to nowhere.  OK, Ben and Jerry’s, and Innocent, both have a very distinctive tone of voice.  But the product is distinctive too (Cherry Garcia, Fossil Fuel?!).  However, if you look at RBS, Orange, Lloyds TSB, University of Southampton, Microsoft, GE, Santander (to name but a few I’ve worked on in the past), they all have a tone of voice that’s remarkably similar.  Codified in a brand bible that makes War & Peace appear light reading, the result is a personality with all the charisma of an accountant.

OK, I understand they have to maintain consistency across all their communications, even when engaging dozens of different agencies, designers and writers.  But all the effort and expense that goes into creating these massive documents is in many ways counterproductive.  They stifle creativity and the brand simply becomes a bland.

What do you mean, we all sound the same?

The whole point of a brand, surely, is to differentiate yourself from others in the same marketplace – it all started as a way to create an obvious point of difference between my cattle and your cattle, remember?  But if you are over reliant on developing a “distinctive tone of voice” to create that differentiation you may be sorely disappointed.

One of the companies I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago insists that “Our writing should have the following characteristics: enthusiasm, confidence, intelligence, relevance, accessibility.”  So, what you are telling me is that when I write for you I shouldn’t sound bored, that I should appear to believe in what I’m communicating, that I mustn’t come across as thick, that I should try to make it engaging for the reader and that it needs to be easy to understand?

Do you really need to spend a small fortune with a big corporate communications and branding consultancy to tell me the bleeding obvious?  Sorry, I shouldn’t take it personally!  The important thing is this – which company’s guidelines did this come from?  RBS, Orange, Lloyds, Southampton University, Microsoft, GE or Santander?  Or was it Clarks Shoes, Cancer Research UK, or IBM?  Could have been any, or all, of them, right?*  The point is they all talk the same way, because that’s the way people want to be talked to!

So, getting the right tone of voice actually makes you sound very similar to any large corporation.  It’s just a detail, like using the right font, the correct colours and the approved templates.  Get this right and you are merely satisfying expectations.  It’s what you do on top of that which decides whether your brand is a winner or an also-ran.  Great brands mean something to people – and it takes more than ticking a few boxes on a brand guidelines checklist to achieve this.

Are you fat, or hungry?

If you are a big fat organisation with market leading brands, there’s a huge temptation to play it safe.  You beat your people over the head with the brand guidelines to make sure nobody rocks the boat by stepping out of line, and you continually have your tone of voice antennae on high alert.

But if you are a much smaller player, one that’s keen to eat the leader’s lunch, then a defensive strategy will not be sufficient – you are not going to poach business just by speaking nicely to people.  You’ll have to try harder than that.

Remember the great Avis ad with the line “When you’re only No.2 you try harder.  Or else”?   It makes a powerfully motivating promise and clearly differentiates the company from their nearest rival.  The tone of voice (which is one of brutal honesty) supports this – but without the message it would be mere noise.  You cannot afford to be brutally honest when you have nothing to say!  This is a triumph of substance over style – the style is “let’s have no style” You can image the client going “where’s my logo, OMG?!!!”

Avis-We-Try-Harder

 

Conclusion

If you are a small or medium sized business, and you want to grow, don’t start your marketing efforts with a discussion of your brand’s tone of voice.  Start by asking the really big questions.

Who are we talking to?  What do they want?  What can we genuinely offer that our competitors don’t?   What’s the most differentiating and motivating thing we can say to our target audience?  How can we encapsulate that in a potent idea?  And, finally….how can we express it for maximum effect through the details of art direction, graphic design and tone of voice.

*University of Southampton.  Check it out at http://www.edshare.soton.ac.uk/4735/3/Brand_guidelines_Jan_08.pdf

All those who got it right, post me a comment to that effect and I’ll give you a gold star.