As marketers, copywriters, and all-round-brand-folk, we live and breathe tone of voice. Our clients’ branding guidelines form always-at-hand bibles for tonal color and intensity (and if clients don’t have any, we ask them to fill out a very specific questionnaire). We seek vocal branding resources: from blogs like this to books like this. We know something good when we see it. We open our eyes, expand our minds, and pay attention. You could say we have a hyper-awareness of tone of voice—and how it can help or hurt a brand.
But what exactly is tone of voice? It can be hard to pin down, let alone capture it in writing. The best, simplest, and most insightful definition I’ve heard thus far is by copywriter Nicolas DiTempora:
“Tone is attitude. Attitude is tone.”
Brands like Apple, Nike, and Innocent are known for having strong tones of voice. We love the clever, witty, cool, or inspiring vibe of their copywriting. But those are merely surface qualities. What creates those qualities is attitude.
In this case, the attitude is how a brand feels about its product, service, or the overall category it’s in. Are you excited? Appalled? Hopeful? Wistful? Irate? Tickled? Let’s take a look at a few examples of tone of voice in action—and how it reflects a brand’s attitude.
Oscar Health Insurance
Oscar feels… Health insurance is ridiculously complicated and overpriced.
So they speak…
To the absurdity of the status quo, and suggest that there’s a simpler, more affordable way.
Wild Turkey Bourbon
Wild Turkey feels…
Life is too short for less than the best—live well while you can..
So they speak …
With a proud haughtiness and mock disdain for those who settle.
Domo Business Analytics
Domo feels… Any business that isn’t making data a priority isn’t even in the game.
So they speak… In a quietly challenging way that says to business leaders: “Well, are you serious or not?
So we can see here that tone is an outgrowth of a belief or attitude a brand holds. Next, let’s take a look at a few practical approaches for discovering those beliefs or attitudes for your brand.
Striking the right tone—some approaches
So where do you begin when trying to strike a tone in your marketing communications? Here are a few strategic questions you can ask yourself to get things going.
Approach #1: Where is the conflict in your industry?
Some industries are stuck in the stone age. Others are over-hyped. What’s the current problem everyone is talking about in the industry—and what’s your point of view on how to solve it?
For instance, here’s a social post we wrote for our clients at Ezra:
1 in 9 men will get prostate cancer during their lifetime. Current prostate cancer screening methods often require a prostate biopsy (yes, through your bum. 😮). Ezra is a pain-free and fast alternative that uses MRI & AI. Get started today.
Ezra believes in a more humane, less painful approach to cancer screening. And that shines through in the conversational and compassionate tone.
Approach #2: What is the reality vs. the possibility?
Often people need to be awakened to a new way of doing things—one they didn’t even realize existed. Much emotion can be found in the space between how things are and how they could be. See if you can define those two poles.
One of our recent clients, Wilson Wehmeyer, PLLC, is a law firm focused on building long-term relationships with clients. So we landed on a phrase for their hero website copy that conveys this sentiment:
Lean on us.
Wilson Wehmeyer is a nimble legal team dedicated to the success of your enterprise, its future, and you.
Approach #3: What’s not being said that needs to be said?
Is there some truth hidden in plain sight that none of your competitors is willing to say? Is there an injustice that’s being ignored? There’s always a behind-the-scenes conversation happening. See if you can tap into it.
Our clients Norman Bobrow & Company are a NYC commercial real estate brokerage that’s built their reputation on straight talk and unflinching honesty. So they say what’s not being said, plainly and simply—and it creates a compelling tone:
Lease up for renewal? Know what you’re entitled to.
When it comes to commercial lease renewals, understand this:
The landlord is not your buddy. You’re paying his mortgage. Putting his kids through college. No one owns a building in Manhattan for charity.
But also hear this:
It costs the landlord money if you leave. And time. These are painful, and he’d like to avoid that pain.
The best deal for you might not be about dollars per square foot. It might be about flexibility. Or getting your place spruced up—paint, new lights, faster WiFi. Maybe it’s about securing a few months of free rent. What matters is how we can capture value for your business—and get exactly what you want.
To sum it all up…
Here are the key takeaways to remember about tone of voice:
- Tone is attitude. Attitude is tone.
- Attitude comes from how a client feels about their product, service, or industry
- The more emotional the attitude, the stronger the tone.
- Use strategic questions during the CSS to find the tone
And, of course, if you need a hand striking the perfect tone—give us a holler today.