Tone of voice: A guide and examples to standing out in a noisy market
If you have an amazing message to share but no one’s listening to it, have you really shared it?
Saying the world is a noisy place is an understatement.
Today, anyone who wants to create content and share their thoughts can. While this is fantastic, as it offers a level playing field, it also means that more people are competing for your ideal prospects.
There are two keys to standing out today: be different and consistently show up consistently.
How do we do that? By having a strong, clear, and memorable tone of voice (TOV).
The tone of voice is how your brand communicates, how it expresses itself. The words it uses, the formality of its message, and the personality it injects into it all form part of a brand’s tone of voice.
There are different tones of voice brands can opt for:
A tone of voice can adopt slangs that are relevant to some sub-groups or keep the language approachable and relevant to all.
Think of how a person could behave and apply this to brands too. If we opted for super technical language, we’d drop a word like anthropomorphism here… which is closely connected to giving a brand a tone of voice.
There are several reasons why having a clearly distinguishable tone of voice is fundamental for you to succeed.
The foremost of which is: a busy marketplace.
Peep Laja, CEO of Wynter, puts it best when he says that:
There have never been as many brands as there are today. […] That means that what used to be good enough effort is not enough anymore.
He goes on to explain that there are only two ways a challenger can compete with an established category leader:
The worst thing that can happen to a promising, ambitious brand is to fall into the trap of being an also-ran. That means being yet another player that says the same thing as its fellow competitors. Fully forgettable, its message lost in the noise.
Additionally, a clearly defined brand voice guideline is a reliable ally in ensuring consistent messaging. A consistent and predictable tone of voice is fundamental to building trust. Trust is a key ingredient to the customer acquisition process (no savvy buyer spends a four-figure sum, or above, with a brand they do not trust).
A clear and consistent message cements a brand’s unique selling proposition (USP) in the mind of the audience, planting a seed ahead of them entering the buying window.
However, clear and consistent is not enough. Brand being a key way to compete with a category leader, the message and the story need to be compelling and different.
Different, because if it’s the same as the leader or every other competitor, there’s no incentive to pay attention.
And compelling because a message needs to be compelling enough to move people away from inertia and towards action, through a compelling call to action which resonates with the audience.
By being consistently and compellingly different, any challenger can work towards growing their market share and genuinely competing with the market leader.
Before you get started with developing your brand’s tone of voice, let us remember one of the most fundamental truths there is in marketing:
You don’t communicate for yourself. You communicate for your audience.
Your audience defines how successful your messaging is, and therefore, it all must start with them.
What we're saying here is: get to know your market. It sounds obvious when said like that, but really immerse yourself in their world. Identify:
This is where most people stop, and by doing so, they never quite reach their full potential. Go deeper, much deeper, and really listen to how they speak, what is occupying their conversation, what do they rave or moan about?
The most underrated channel to understand how people speak is online reviews. Explore how your target market is talking around your category, product, and competitors.
For example, Asana customers share their thoughts on G2. Several mention that they “can’t imagine work (life) without Asana”, or a series of superlatives you probably haven’t heard in a while such as debonair, affable, or a husky tool to describe the impact it’s had on them.
This provides great insights into how people view their solution, how it impacts their lives and how to position their messaging in the future. When you analyze your competitor’s customers, don’t just go for the extreme reviews on Capterra, TrustRadius, or G2.
There’s a lot of value hidden in two to four-star ratings to those who want to understand their target audience. They’re neither raving nor raging, and because of that, they bring subtle nuances to what they have to say.
It helps you understand what they wished existed and what their priorities are, in contrast with other features. The more nuanced views offer you a richer understanding of your target audience and allows you to prioritize before you even start putting pen to paper on your own tone of voice.
Do look at reviews for complementary products you know your ideal customer profile (ICP) tends to buy. Look at how people talk on those. Look at other websites on TrustPilot or Feefo, to expand your horizons behind the usual B2B tech-driven platforms.
Finally, if your ICP is quite senior in their field or if they’re highly specialized in a domain, why not listen to podcasts they listen to or listen to them directly. Find them on LinkedIn, look at interviews they’ve given, and actively listen to the words they use.
Knowing your customer is only one side of the equation. No brand can put a powerful tone of voice in place, one that hits the mark and resonates with their ideal clients without really understanding what their brand stands for.
At this stage, look at what your brand values are. If you don’t have any, turn to your company’s values, which you use internally. Complement these with your mission statement or raison d’etre for the organization.
It is fundamental to be well acquainted with those.
Otherwise one may risk building a tone of voice that just doesn’t align and fits loosely. Like wearing a pair of shoes that is one size too small, attempting to shoehorn an incompatible tone of voice with your values is a painful and rarely successful experience.
Call out your point of views. Don’t be boring; give ideas of how one can go about defining POV + TOV and relevant exercises.
Having said that, what you stand for is as important as how you communicate it. Try not to be too plain. Instead, grow comfortable with becoming somewhat polarizing.
Having strongly-held beliefs that form part of a brand’s vision will likely repel part of your target audience. However, it will also make sure your ideal persona will gravitate more closely to your brand and become more inclined to engage and buy from you.
The typical example here is Patagonia. If you’re a climate change denier, you won’t be ever caught wearing anything by Patagonia. If you genuinely care about sustainability, you’ll strongly gravitate towards the brand. And if this isn’t a topic you feel strongly about either way… it’s still an option you’d consider nonetheless.
The old adage of appealing to everyone means appealing to no one is central to this. If you believe cold calling is dead, say it, loud and clear. If you think email marketing is underrated, again, be vocal.
The key here is that if you’re trying to challenge a category leader, having a broad messaging is going to limit your customer acquisition and growth.
You have to regularly measure your brand's tone of voice to see if your target audience resonates with it or if new trends require you to swap your TOV.
In fact, your buyers' profiles might change in time. This calls for a re-analysis of your tone of voice and its efficiency.
To run a tone of voice test, start by listing down all tone profiles (i.e. words and phrases) that define your brand. Think about how you want people to think of your website, product, voice, and general brand.
Then, you'll need to consider these four dimensions:
Create sample messaging snippets (e.g. paragraphs that go on your landing pages, sample answers your support team can use, social media posts, etc.) to reflect your brand's tone of voice. Have members of your target market go over these examples and "grade" them based on the four dimensions above to see if your messaging matches your ideal tone of voice.
But how does one go about defining their brand tone of voice?
There are a plethora of options for brands to choose from. Far too many to quote and this would deserve its own article altogether. Let us look briefly at a few options:
The best way to learn what your brand should sound like is to ask people who are already emotionally bought in into it.
Ask your colleagues how they’d describe how the brand should sound, what they’d like it to say, and what its personality should be. Go one step further and ask your customers about it.
There are several ways by which you could capture that information from your customers, without relying on surveys.
Assuming you know your ideal client well, fill in an empathy map or go through some jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) to get closer to how they think and feel. This should inform you on their general attitude to your category and the problem it solves.
Understanding this provides helpful inspiration in terms of how to talk to them.
Another process in a somewhat similar line would be to simply ask the question “If our brand was a person, what would they be like?”.
This method requires you and your team to fast forward 3-5 years down the line and describe a future where you have defined an irresistible tone of voice guideline.
Imagine it’s been so successful, you have been asked to compile it into a case study to be taught in business schools.
Let your imagination run wild and like in any brainstorming, no judgment of ideas.
Run the exercise and only then reflect and see what would be plausible. Reflect also in terms of how people engaged with each aspect of the tone of voice: what got people reluctant or ecstatic?
Once you have landed on a tone of voice that you think may well work for you, the first step is to test it.
Testing is a process that is often overlooked as teams justify that corner-cutting by saying they don’t have enough time and resources or they need to get to market as soon as possible.
While being agile and working at pace is laudable, going out with an untested tone of voice can be an expensive mistake. One that’s likely to slow you down rather than provide you the early results you expect.
The first way to validate your new tone of voice is internal validation:
<blog__custom-tooltip>A concept common in User Experience (UX) design, fake door testing consists of putting forward to users a solution that doesn’t exist. <blog__custom-tooltip>
Create a fake brand that will communicate with the tone of voice you have landed on. Positioning this messaging as coming from a different brand to yours protects you from pre-existing associations your colleagues have towards your brand.
By presenting this new competitor as an upcoming threat and asking for feedback, you will receive honest and often blunt or even harsh feedback from stakeholders, as their preservation instinct will be triggered.
Using a fake competitor as a decoy provides you with the most critical perspective on your intended messaging. Understand which ones you’ll be comfortable with and which ones you feel can be prevented, remediated with minor fine-tuning. The latter are likely to be centered around arrogance or excessive use of jargon and buzzwords.
Try not to completely overhaul your messaging on this feedback. Your internal audience is unlikely to be your ideal customer. They’ll zealously be negative towards any messaging you put forward.
<blog__custom-tooltip>A pitching fest is another great approach you could apply in combination with, or instead of, fake door testing. <blog__custom-tooltip>
The concept is simple: provide colleagues with your brand voice guidelines and challenge them to pitch your product to a panel of leaders using the new positioning and tone of voice. Don’t forget to add in some form of reward at the key for the best pitch.
On top of being an entertaining process, it will be an insightful exercise as it gives you an indication of how naturally colleagues are able to adjust to the new tone of voice.
This exercise will also provide you with inspiration on terms, turn of phrases, and narratives or metaphors that you could repurpose.
The reactions to those competitions will tell you a lot in terms of how that new tone of voice resonates with your colleagues. This makes it a powerful test to see how aligned to your brand values the TOV really is.
While it’s not yet an indication of whether you found message-market fit, it does provide you reassurance (or flags issues) on how suitable that tone of voice is.
<blog__custom-tooltip>Internal testing is not enough to help validate if your tone of voice was working. Until you take it to the market, you’ll never find out if you’ve actually landed on message-market fit.<blog__custom-tooltip>
You could decide to just start communicating with the new tone of voice for a month or two and then analyze how this impacted your metrics. While a viable option, it has several limitations we need to bear in mind:
Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that if you’re an established leader, you can’t be changing your mind all the time. When you’re a category challenger, you likely don’t have the luxury of time or cash flow to justify this.
This is where buyer intelligence comes in. Buyer intelligence allows you to shortcut this validation process from weeks or months to days, if not hours. Indeed, the right message testing solution can provide you with virtually instantaneous validation, with results landing in less than 48 hours.
Message testing is the perfect solution for anyone who’s serious about buyer intelligence. It provides marketing leaders with an extensive network of experts to call upon to provide targeted and relevant feedback on your messaging.
Using a buyer intelligence solution such as Wynter offers marketing leaders rapid, detailed, and actionable feedback on their proposed brand tone of voice, in private.
Brands have a safe space to iterate and improve on their messaging until they find message-market fit. In doing so, you’re able to ensure your marketing communications hit the mark before being published. This is because they’re propelled by the ideal tone of voice and messaging which resonates with your audience, saving time and money in the process.
If you made it this far, I assume you’re keen to get some brand tone of voice examples, right?
Alright, let’s look at a few types of tone of voice!
Monzo is a FinTech player from the UK which offers both B2C and B2B services. One of Monzo’s values is that of being transparent. How do they showcase this? By sharing their brand voice guideline in the open, so their audiences know what to expect.
This LinkedIn post below is a great example of their tone of voice in action. You can clearly see that they use a very relatable sight: that of Google predictive search results, just when they’re recruiting for someone to take care of those activities. They clearly communicate their ambition while keeping a playful tone (e.g. ‘the best job ever’) and a healthy use of emojis.
Gong, an AI-based tool to help salespeople do better and convert more has a very distinctive and recognizable tone of voice across their content.
Gong’s Operating Principles can clearly be noticed in how their brand voice guideline translates into content. Their principles include: Challenge conventional wisdom, No Sugar, and Act now. All can be clearly read in the few posts they did on their LinkedIn page.
These posts are about being informative, giving people the edge, backing everything with data, and challenging the established convention. Go on, tell me the advice to “cut the features slide” did not send a shiver down your spine?.
Coming back to the banking world, we have Tide, a digital bank for SMEs in the UK and India.
While that personality feels very ‘business-y’ at first, you may still see elements pop out and really deliver in terms of how they seem themselves.
For example, the below tweet showcases their modern and dynamic stance. They’re helping people understand how TikTok, a platform with little penetration from a business point of view, could support them in starting and growing their business.
Slack often comes up and receives praise for its friendlier type of tone of voice. Shared as part of their Media Kit, Slack’s tone of voice is defined with precision.
This is obvious even in the more unusual spots. For example, release notes for their mobile apps. These updates are conversational, friendly, and quite witty overall.
Even when they don’t feel their changes are meaningful enough to go into details, they still put their personality forward. They do this by making some of their best and most popular release notes:
Finally, to conclude this list of brand tone of voice examples, let us look at the project management tool Asana. Their tone of voice is composed of four elements: empowering, purposeful, quirky, and approachable.
The following examples of their recent LinkedIn activity highlight how unpretentious, unconventional, and quite informal their tone of voice in communication is. They could be quite bland, but they bring a certain degree of humanity and relatability that really hits the mark.
Crafted carefully and with a message-market fit validation, a distinct and memorable brand tone of voice serves as a powerful competitive advantage.
It provides an opportunity to stand out from the noise in ever-busier categories and carve out a space in markets that are dominated by established players. For the latter, keeping in tune with your audience and making sure your messaging hits the mark will cement your position.
The real question is, however: How ambitious are you with finding your brand’s tone of voice?
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