Getting tone of voice right in a rebrand: A cautionary tale

5 minute read

Do you know what ‘tone of voice’ is?Or what your organisation's tone of voice is?If you’re a marketer of any kind, you will probably think of it as one of the aspects of an organisation’s overall brand identity.If you’re a content writer of any kind, you will know of tone of voice only too well, because you’ve likely been the one who needs to take some high level, often ‘fluffy’ guidelines and apply it to new or existing content – either for your clients, or the organisation you work for (if you’re in-house).

What is tone of voice and why is it important?

In short...It’s not what you say.It’s how you say it.It’s the way sentences are put together, the words that are used - and how they sound. All of this equates to the (intended) ‘personality’ that content communicates to the audience.

Mailchimp is a brilliant example of this. Here’s an extract of their voice and tone guidelines from their content style guide:

An excerpt from the Mailchimp voice and tone guidelines.

No surprises at all then, when their users see content like this:

An example of Mailchimp content which is in-line with the voice and tone guidelines.

Tone of voice is a powerful tool that can help an organisation succeed in influencing and persuading its audience.It isn’t a fluffy phrase, or a bullet-pointed one-liner in your branding guidelines; it’s something which needs true skill to define, with the hardest part being how you weave it into all branded content.

Yet it remains tricky to execute, especially when it comes to being able to both define and roll out an appropriate and effective tone of voice successfully.

To gloss over it in a rebranding exercise, or to not give it the attention it deserves as a stand-alone project, may lead to losing out on the long-term rewards that can be gained when it’s done right.

The pitfalls of treating tone of voice as an afterthought

I’ve seen first-hand that tone of voice can be misunderstood and undervalued.I once worked in-house for a business who had hired an external branding agency to help them carry out a full rebranding exercise.One of the last things they delivered to the company was a tone of voice guidelines document.It had what you’d expect to see within it I guess, so for example:

  • The organisation’s brand values
  • The organisation’s ‘personality’
  • How this links to the end user/customer
  • How informal vs formal you should be in content
  • Rules on wording conventions (specific to that organisation)
  • A small collection of example sentences
  • Quickfire writing tips

...but when it came to rolling the guidelines out, turning the tenets of our new tone of voice into real content resulted in a not-too-happy set of senior managers.This was because the guidelines that had been signed off and supplied to in-house marketing were doomed to fail from the moment they were conceived. There were many reasons for this.

The tone of voice guidelines were created by strangers

They were created by a third party who weren’t embedded in the culture or values of the organisation. This meant that the resulting document contained things which were not fully aligned with the thinking of our senior managers, such as the recommendation that the tone of voice was far friendlier than what the business had been used to for the previous 15 years.To be fair to the agency involved, they had probably received the most scantily-clad of briefs when it came to the tone of voice part of the rebranding exercise. I imagine it went something like this from senior management:

“We want the content to sound like it’s for an intelligent friend of ours who works in our audience’s industry”

Is that enough to go on, branding agency? Probably not.

The in-house marketing team weren’t involved in the creation of the tone of voice guidelines

The organisation didn’t get their in-house marketing team involved on this task, so we couldn’t influence or work with the external agency as closely as we should have done.It was a shame, as we were closest to all existing marketing content and therefore would have been well placed to comment and give some helpful input.Additionally, with our knowledge of both the company culture and the very strange and quirky internal politics at play, we probably would have helped to navigate the guidelines through to a much more ‘durable’ result.

The final document was, essentially, quite superficial

Because the final guidance content was too high-level, so it was lacking in any real substance when it came to the marketers needing to apply it.There were no proper examples of how you’d apply the tone of voice ‘rules’ in real life, and no testing on the intended audience (or internal audience for that matter), took place. It may as well have been wrapped in a bow and put on a shelf for all the use it really was for the marketing department.

Senior management didn’t know what it really was

Other than knowing it was part of the branding exercise, senior managers didn’t pay the guidelines much attention when it was up against all the pretty new logos and colour palette work they could look at.

That was the time to bring their in-house experts along to help, but for whatever reason, they didn’t really open the forum so we could properly contribute.

This meant the guidelines were created in isolation from marketing, and when we started to set about integrating this wonderful new tone of voice into fresh content for the new website we were building, we were the ones who got it in the neck.

Seeing the company’s new tone of voice applied in real life for the first time was when senior management suddenly realised that they weren’t wholly comfortable with their new shiny way of talking after all.

“This isn’t us.” (They signed off the document)

“It’s too friendly.” (They said they wanted friendly)

“It’s not professional enough.” (They were ok with tone of voice being more informal when it was proposed)

“It’s too Jack and Jill.” (No idea)

As it happens, we had hired a freelance content writer to support us in creating a stack of new content for the website we were building, and this poor bloke was the one who got the direct blame for not making a success of the initial content.

Yep.The truth of the matter was that if anyone was to blame, it was senior management. They had totally underestimated what tone of voice was all about, and could not visualise how the proposed tone of voice guidelines would be applied and rolled out.

Starting your tone of voice exercise the right way

If there was a moral to this story, it’s that if an organisation wants to create or refine their tone of voice guidelines, it’ll likely need more thought than perhaps expected.

Starting it ‘the right way’ means that...

  • The right colleagues are involved from the start. That means senior management, members of the board, your marketing or digital team - perhaps your department heads too
  • Everyone is engaged with the purpose and direction of the project from the beginning. It reduces the likelihood of any challenges later on, and makes rolling it out far easier
  • You should think practically about what your tone of voice really needs to include, from cover to cover. You want it to be a useful guide, not a piece of propaganda that makes your organisation just ‘sound’ good. Consider how any new tone of voice ‘rules’ will be practically applied - and even conduct some user testing if you can. Try to test-run our draft guidelines by creating a few long-form and short-form pieces, a marketing mailer... microcopy even. Does it work?
  • You keep whoever’s signing off on the guidelines involved throughout the process

By investing in tone of voice guidelines upfront and involving the right people, an organisation can start a genuine journey towards becoming a recognised and trusted source of information.I know, it’s not the easiest road to take when trying to fulfil this aspect of a massive rebranding project. But, the potential pay off in getting tone of voice right can spark long-term, significant benefits not only for your organisation, but for your target audience too.

After all, what better way is there to effectively connect and engage with them?

Checklist

Content Style Guides Checklist

A free checklist to help you plan, create, disseminate and maintain a content style guide.

About the author

Fi Shailes

Fi Shailes works at digital agency CLD as Head of Digital, with previous experience in financial services, fintech, IT and local authority / not-for-profit organisations. She also freelances in all things social and content at Digital Drum.

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