Brand voice: What it is (and isn't) and how to define yours

Brand voice: What it is (and isn't) and how to define yours

6 minute read

Brand voice: What it is (and isn't) and how to define yours

6 minute read

Brand voice: What it is (and isn't) and how to define yours

Paige Toomes

Copywriter and Digital Marketer

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Brand voice may sound like just another buzzword. But, in reality, it’s much more. In this guide, we’ll cover:

  • What brand voice is, why it matters for your organization, and how it differs from tone of voice
  • How to define your brand voice
  • How to create practical guidelines to keep your messaging consistently on-brand
  • How to ensure that those guidelines actually get used

Let’s start by getting a proper definition of what brand voice is.

What is brand voice?

Brand voice—a facet of brand personality—is the distinct way a brand communicates with its audience. It’s how you express the unique personality of your organization. From web copy to tweets to brochures to videos, it applies to all channels and touchpoints. It’s consistent.

Ideally, brand voice should also be memorable and instantly recognizable based on the:

  • Core messages, ideas, or points of view that run through all of your communications
  • Wording and language you use
  • Emotions you try to evoke via your brand messaging

What’s the goal? To create a voice so strong that your audience would be able to spot your content even if there were no identifying markers. But where does tone come into play here?

How does brand voice differ from tone of voice?

The two are closely related. Yet, brand voice is fairly static and high-level. Tone of voice refers more to how you say what you say in individual pieces of messaging. Unlike voice, which is consistent, tone of voice may shift depending on the:

  • Topic
  • Media outlet
  • Format
  • Customer segment you’re targeting

For example, a brand may have a casual, humorous brand voice. But what if they were to make an announcement such as the unexpected departure of one of the founders? A casual, humorous tone might not be appropriate. In such a case, the brand would likely use a more serious or formal tone.

To be clear, tone won’t always need to differ this much from your established voice. (The example above uses total opposites.) The closer your approved tones of voice are to your overall brand voice, the more memorable and recognizable it will be.

The many different types of tone of voice

What tones of voice are there to choose from? There are many, including:

  • Formal
  • Informal
  • Humorous
  • Serious
  • Optimistic
  • Motivating
  • Respectful
  • Assertive
  • Conversational

The type of tone that you use will depend on many factors like the level of formality and the subject matter. And, often, companies use a combination of tones to create their unique brand voices.

But, let’s take a step back for a second. Why invest in developing a consistent, memorable brand voice in the first place?

What is the importance of brand voice?

Brand voice matters for several reasons. Here are a few of them.

1. Brand voice differentiates your organization

Your brand voice is a big part of what sets you apart from the rest. This is particularly true in today’s overcrowded online environment. You’d be surprised how little time you have to make a lasting, positive impression on your target audience.

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that attracts attention and strengthens your credibility. Because, after all, what you say may not be unique.

A similar company or organization may have a similar message. Yet, if the audiences you’re competing for jive more with how you present that message, you can gain the advantage. (The opposite is also true, which is why it’s important to invest in developing a voice that will stand the test of time).

2. Brand voice fosters consumer loyalty and trust

Often, if we like a person, it has a lot to do with their voice—how they speak to us and make us feel. The same goes for brands. Voice and, more specifically, its emotional impact hold an impressive amount of power. In fact, it can be the deciding factor when customers must choose between you and competitors.

A trustworthy voice needs to come through in every piece of content organizations create. Even things like 404 errors on your website are a great opportunity to build trust if you get them right.

3. Brand voice encourages and facilitates action

When you’re writing to sell or persuade, voice and tone are especially key. For example, in content, you often need to “sell without selling.” A tone that’s too excited may come off as shifty, while a voice that’s too blunt could seem forceful. Brand voice and tone guidelines would prevent both outcomes and generate conversions.

Another type of content that requires a grasp of brand voice and tone of voice is microcopy. These are the small bits of copy you see on things like call-to-actions and error messages that drive users to act or help them navigate. You want your copy to provide an excellent experience throughout that journey.

3 examples of brand voice and tone worth studying

Want to see a few examples of brands that have well-established, consistent voices that audiences love?

Gong

Gong Brand Voice Example
Gong’s voice consistently strikes the balance between being conversational yet professional

Even from the title and the small snippet of the blog post above, you can already make out Gong’s brand personality. Speaking on why this voice works, Carsten Pleiser of Design Buffs says:

"Gong doesn't sound like the typical B2B software or technology company. Instead, their brand voice is particular and a reflection of precisely who salespeople are today—casual, humourous (but not silly), professional and conversational."
Carsten Pleiser
Founder and CEO, Design Buffs

An important lesson here is balance. Often, when people hear the term brand voice, they think of something clear-cut and in your face. They think their voice must be on this end of the spectrum or the other, either laugh-out-loud hilarious or 100% buttoned up and formal.

In reality, an effective voice can be subtle. It can fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum as in Gong’s case and still be appealing and recognizable. And, as Carsten alluded to, it can have nuance (e.g. humorous but not silly).

InVision

InVision Brand Voice Example
InVision’s voice is consistently professional but not overly formal or dry

Like Gong, InVision takes a more subtle approach to brand voice. The brand is direct and to the point. Confident but not cocky. Not overly formal or conversational but not overly casual or impersonal either.

And—you guessed it—this voice is consistent. Whether you look at Invision’s website, Instagram captions, blog posts, or other content, there’s no major variance. Sure, there are some differences in tone depending on the content type and topic. For example, some of the company’s social media posts are more casual than others (or than its website copy). Yet, these different tones don’t cause any friction for the target audience.

No one would go from one piece of InVision content to the next and think, “Whoa, what happened? This sounds like a completely different brand?” This underscores an important point. The tones that fall under the umbrella of your overall brand voice should never distract from your messaging.

Slack

Slack Voice and Tone Guidelines
Slack’s brand voice and tone guidelines put the brand’s voice on full display

In true meta fashion, one of the greatest exhibits of Slack’s brand voice is the company’s brand voice and tone guidelines. They define “the key to sounding like Slack,” while simultaneously embodying the voice they describe. Commenting on this, Brand Coordinator Isabel Ludick says:

"Slack has a really strong, consistent, and effective brand voice. They position themselves as masters of making things easier for companies and professionals and that's exactly what their product does. Everything about Slack is clear, concise, and user-friendly and its branding, marketing, and customer service reflect that beautifully."
Isabel Ludick
Marketing Director and Brand Coordinator, Excited Cats

What lessons can you take away from Slack’s example? Isabel continues: “Brand voice isn't something a company should struggle to get right or broadcast. It should be undeniably integrated with the very core of what your business is about.

Some brands try to create a brand voice they think their audience wants to hear. But it's not actually on par with who they are and what they offer. Trying to modify your brand voice to fit current trends or outwit competitors comes off as superficial and untrustworthy.”

"At the end of the day, transparency is at the heart of brand voice. The better you align your brand voice with the solution you provide clients, the stronger your brand becomes."
Isabel Ludick
Marketing Director and Brand Coordinator, Excited Cats


Common problems implementing a consistent brand voice

Staying on brand is an important part of any good content strategy. After all, inconsistency builds a muddled picture of your brand, which can lead to mistrust from audiences. Yet, many organizations find themselves with a whole range of inconsistencies across content.

This is particularly common in large organizations where you have lots of people creating content across different departments. And where lots of people have a say in what gets published, often with conflicting priorities. Does any of the following resonate?

  • Multiple email threads discussing the voice and tone of a piece of content
  • Spending more time than necessary and reasonable on edits and revisions
  • Key reviewers deleting or changing copy that was already approved by someone else
  • Last-minute (or, even worse, post-publishing) edits to tone of voice

Issues like these are often a symptom of internal processes going wrong. But, with a bit of brainstorming and communication, you can get on the right track. In the next part of this guide, we’ll help you find and define a consistent voice.

Who’s responsible for defining brand voice?

There is no one role that’s responsible for establishing brand voice. The person or team you choose to take the lead will depend on your organization and goals. It can be a specialist, like a brand strategist. Or a content strategist or writer. This person can be in-house or someone you outsource this job to like an agency.

Whoever you appoint, they should understand your brand values and culture. They should also have experience conducting audience research and analyzing data. This will equip them to create a well-thought-out brand persona.

In addition, they must have the writing skills and experience to do your unique brand personality justice through:

  • Syntax (sentence structure)
  • Diction (word choice)
  • Other general writing techniques

For one, solid creative writing skills are crucial for choosing tones with the power to influence readers' emotions.

How to define your brand voice: 6 questions to consider

Here are six questions to ask your content teams. These will help you define your overall brand voice and your brand tone of voice guidelines.

Good to know: It’s also a good idea to bring in design and UX teams at this stage. Use post-its, flip charts, or anything visual. Or create something in a live document where you can collaborate and make suggestions.

1. What distinct personality traits does our brand have?

Think of your brand as a person. Perhaps give it an alter-ego or imagine it as a celebrity. Are they loyal, caring, and kind? Are they edgy? Fun? Professional? What do they wear? Where do they go? Do they use slang? Abbreviations?

Brand Personality Chart
Choose a brand personality based on your brand’s characteristics and values. (Source)

2. Where do your voice and tone sit on these scales?

Nielsen Norman Group designed a tool to help content strategists create simple tone profiles. Using results from one of their studies, they identified four key tone of voice dimensions. These work on a scale:

  • Funny vs. serious
  • Formal vs. casual
  • Respectful vs. irreverent
  • Enthusiastic vs. matter-of-fact

As you decide where your voice and tone land on these scales, remember one thing. Too much of a good thing can be bad. Too much friendliness and irreverence can undermine your trustworthiness, for example. But too much seriousness can tank your likeability. Make sure you aren’t losing substance to style or vice versa!

3. What do we value?

What does your organization value? Whatever your answer, it needs to align with your target audience. In 2021, 5W Public Relations found that 51% of consumers think brands they buy from should share their values. So, make sure your tone of voice reflects your company’s values. Your audience cares because you care.

4. What is our brand not? What don’t we want?

This is an important question to ask yourself because voice is as much about what you leave out as what you put in. What brands do you hate? Why? Also, think about ways your brand could be easily perceived wrongly. For example, if you’re a university you’ll need to strike a balance between formal and informal.

5. What’s a voice of a competitor that’s great?

This is also an important step to take. Pick out phrases competitors have used that resonate with your brand and deconstruct them. What elements make up their whole tone of voice? Why do these phrases work? Then come up with a way you can be different.

6. What’s our brand mantra?

This isn’t chanting in a circle. But, still, coming up with an internal brand mantra can help to get everyone on the same page. A brand mantra is a short phrase (five words maximum) that states your positioning. This should run clear through your guidelines and you should be able to test for it. Does each piece of content resonate with this statement?

Tips for creating a strong brand voice

At this point, you'll have a good sense of what your brand’s voice and identifiable tones of voice are (and aren’t). But here are a few extra tips to help you develop a strong voice.

1. Don’t take authenticity too far

“A major mistake many brands make unknowingly is trying to be 100% authentic at any cost,” says Fernando Cabestany of Ikemi.

"Authenticity is essential, but branding is a conversation, and you should always keep your customers in mind. You can be authentic and also meet your customers where they are."
Fernando Cabestany
Brand Strategist & Consultant, Ikemi

After all, “Authenticity doesn't even matter if your customers can't relate to your brand voice. And if they can't connect with you, they won't learn about your business. ”

2. Get to know your audience

To keep your audience in mind, you first need to know your audience. One of the most common mistakes organizations make is twofold. They either guess at what voice will resonate with their audiences or they try to appeal to everyone. Sometimes both. But, as you can imagine, neither are effective.

As a starting point, do extensive market research to define who your top target personas are. From there, define a brand voice that’s both genuine and has the potential to resonate with your ideal customers. Test that messaging on members of your target market. (You can use consumer surveys, interviews, A/B tests, and other means at your disposal.) Then, adjust your voice and tone accordingly.

3. Connect all aspects of your brand

Lastly, David Bitton of DoorLoop highlights the common mistake of “failing to connect brand voice to visual brand identity.”

"Businesses sometimes get so engrossed in developing a distinctive, honest brand voice that resonates. But they fail to connect it to their brand's visual assets. This divide results in unbalanced and incoherent messaging."
David Bitton
Co-Founder and CMO, DoorLoop

It’s often helpful to let your decisions as far as messaging, voice, and tone be the guide for your organization’s visual identity. This will help to ensure that your branding is:

  • Cohesive
  • Representative of your core values, personality, and so on
  • Based on audience knowledge and, preferably, audience feedback

But we’re not done yet. Once you’ve put some thought into your branding, what next? You’ll need to turn your new ideas into brand voice guidelines.

7 steps for creating brand voice guidelines

Let’s get into how to create useful guidelines that will help you bake a consistent tone of voice into your content creation process.

1. Review existing content

This is a great time to review your existing content. Look for positive and negative examples of copy and see what needs to be rewritten. An audit can be a scary step, especially if you have a lot of content and copy. But it’s an important one for getting brand tone of voice consistent. Sometimes you can find hidden gems for the tone of voice examples, too.

So, record what you like and dislike about your current voice. Ask anyone else involved in defining voice to do the same. Then, discuss your comments and agree on what your voice should and shouldn’t be going forward.

2. Use examples wherever you can

Use good examples unique to your brand in your style guide whenever possible. Snippets from your existing content can help to make your guidelines more actionable. Greenpeace’s style guide is a good example of how you can do this.

Greenpeace Style Guide
Greenpeace’s content style guide contains everything a writer would need to know about creating content for the company

Also, be crystal clear on expectations for writers and content creators. Give context and examples of what phrases actually means. For example, you might say something like:

‘Don’t be over-the-top' which could mean:

  • Use exclamation marks sparingly
  • Use simple language
  • Don’t use lots of words when fewer will do

What about ‘be human?’ This could mean:

  • Be approachable
  • Don’t be overly technical
  • Don’t be too 'salesy'

3. Create a brand dictionary

Often, brands build up a credible, recognizable voice by using the same types of phrases and words repeatedly. Create a bank of words that you want to be used across your organization. Think of words to describe your product or service, as well as general conversational words.

4. Think about different guides for different contexts

Tone of voice is likely to change across channels and formats. Consider creating different guidelines for each. For example, you might have one each for:

  • Social media posts (and even differentiation between Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.)
  • For press releases
  • Blog posts
  • Other content types you create

5. Think about formatting and design

Don’t just make it a plain Word document. Meet with designers to make your brand guide appealing to the people you want to use it. Is the font easy to read and large enough to be accessible? Is it visual? Break up long bits of text with images.

Here’s a great example from Uber:

Uber Band Voice Document
Uber presents its brand voice guidelines in a visually appealing way

6. Make sure it gets read

There’s no point in doing any of the above steps if your guidelines aren’t going to be read or used. Let relevant team members know when the guidelines are available and perhaps have a meeting to review them together. Beyond that, make the guide easily accessible on a shared drive.

Good to know: You could also use a content creation tool like GatherContent to keep guidelines top of mind. You can embed them directly into the writing environment so that they’re never forgotten about.
Voice and Tone Guidelines in GatherContent
Embed in-depth guidelines or add voice and tone reminders as needed in GatherContent’s content templates

7. Update it regularly

Don’t think of your guidelines as static; they need to change as your brand changes. Content is a living thing—voice and tone documentation included. So, remember to update your guidelines regularly. Set roles and responsibilities and set deadlines to make sure it gets done.

Embedding a style guide in GatherContent

GatherContent's content operations platform lets you create, edit, assign and track content in one place. It works well as an alternative to Word and other pre-CMS tools. It's particularly useful for tone of voice and style guides as you can:

  • Embed your content style guide in your editing environment to keep content on-brand
  • Create different style guides for different formats
  • Provide templates for different types of content
Embedded Guidelines in GatherContent
Embed your content style guide in GatherContent so writers have it always on-hand
Want to see GatherContent in action? Learn how GatherContent can simplify and unify your content process via a free demo—recorded or live. The choice is yours!

Brand voice may sound like just another buzzword. But, in reality, it’s much more. In this guide, we’ll cover:

  • What brand voice is, why it matters for your organization, and how it differs from tone of voice
  • How to define your brand voice
  • How to create practical guidelines to keep your messaging consistently on-brand
  • How to ensure that those guidelines actually get used

Let’s start by getting a proper definition of what brand voice is.

What is brand voice?

Brand voice—a facet of brand personality—is the distinct way a brand communicates with its audience. It’s how you express the unique personality of your organization. From web copy to tweets to brochures to videos, it applies to all channels and touchpoints. It’s consistent.

Ideally, brand voice should also be memorable and instantly recognizable based on the:

  • Core messages, ideas, or points of view that run through all of your communications
  • Wording and language you use
  • Emotions you try to evoke via your brand messaging

What’s the goal? To create a voice so strong that your audience would be able to spot your content even if there were no identifying markers. But where does tone come into play here?

How does brand voice differ from tone of voice?

The two are closely related. Yet, brand voice is fairly static and high-level. Tone of voice refers more to how you say what you say in individual pieces of messaging. Unlike voice, which is consistent, tone of voice may shift depending on the:

  • Topic
  • Media outlet
  • Format
  • Customer segment you’re targeting

For example, a brand may have a casual, humorous brand voice. But what if they were to make an announcement such as the unexpected departure of one of the founders? A casual, humorous tone might not be appropriate. In such a case, the brand would likely use a more serious or formal tone.

To be clear, tone won’t always need to differ this much from your established voice. (The example above uses total opposites.) The closer your approved tones of voice are to your overall brand voice, the more memorable and recognizable it will be.

The many different types of tone of voice

What tones of voice are there to choose from? There are many, including:

  • Formal
  • Informal
  • Humorous
  • Serious
  • Optimistic
  • Motivating
  • Respectful
  • Assertive
  • Conversational

The type of tone that you use will depend on many factors like the level of formality and the subject matter. And, often, companies use a combination of tones to create their unique brand voices.

But, let’s take a step back for a second. Why invest in developing a consistent, memorable brand voice in the first place?

What is the importance of brand voice?

Brand voice matters for several reasons. Here are a few of them.

1. Brand voice differentiates your organization

Your brand voice is a big part of what sets you apart from the rest. This is particularly true in today’s overcrowded online environment. You’d be surprised how little time you have to make a lasting, positive impression on your target audience.

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it that attracts attention and strengthens your credibility. Because, after all, what you say may not be unique.

A similar company or organization may have a similar message. Yet, if the audiences you’re competing for jive more with how you present that message, you can gain the advantage. (The opposite is also true, which is why it’s important to invest in developing a voice that will stand the test of time).

2. Brand voice fosters consumer loyalty and trust

Often, if we like a person, it has a lot to do with their voice—how they speak to us and make us feel. The same goes for brands. Voice and, more specifically, its emotional impact hold an impressive amount of power. In fact, it can be the deciding factor when customers must choose between you and competitors.

A trustworthy voice needs to come through in every piece of content organizations create. Even things like 404 errors on your website are a great opportunity to build trust if you get them right.

3. Brand voice encourages and facilitates action

When you’re writing to sell or persuade, voice and tone are especially key. For example, in content, you often need to “sell without selling.” A tone that’s too excited may come off as shifty, while a voice that’s too blunt could seem forceful. Brand voice and tone guidelines would prevent both outcomes and generate conversions.

Another type of content that requires a grasp of brand voice and tone of voice is microcopy. These are the small bits of copy you see on things like call-to-actions and error messages that drive users to act or help them navigate. You want your copy to provide an excellent experience throughout that journey.

3 examples of brand voice and tone worth studying

Want to see a few examples of brands that have well-established, consistent voices that audiences love?

Gong

Gong Brand Voice Example
Gong’s voice consistently strikes the balance between being conversational yet professional

Even from the title and the small snippet of the blog post above, you can already make out Gong’s brand personality. Speaking on why this voice works, Carsten Pleiser of Design Buffs says:

"Gong doesn't sound like the typical B2B software or technology company. Instead, their brand voice is particular and a reflection of precisely who salespeople are today—casual, humourous (but not silly), professional and conversational."
Carsten Pleiser
Founder and CEO, Design Buffs

An important lesson here is balance. Often, when people hear the term brand voice, they think of something clear-cut and in your face. They think their voice must be on this end of the spectrum or the other, either laugh-out-loud hilarious or 100% buttoned up and formal.

In reality, an effective voice can be subtle. It can fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum as in Gong’s case and still be appealing and recognizable. And, as Carsten alluded to, it can have nuance (e.g. humorous but not silly).

InVision

InVision Brand Voice Example
InVision’s voice is consistently professional but not overly formal or dry

Like Gong, InVision takes a more subtle approach to brand voice. The brand is direct and to the point. Confident but not cocky. Not overly formal or conversational but not overly casual or impersonal either.

And—you guessed it—this voice is consistent. Whether you look at Invision’s website, Instagram captions, blog posts, or other content, there’s no major variance. Sure, there are some differences in tone depending on the content type and topic. For example, some of the company’s social media posts are more casual than others (or than its website copy). Yet, these different tones don’t cause any friction for the target audience.

No one would go from one piece of InVision content to the next and think, “Whoa, what happened? This sounds like a completely different brand?” This underscores an important point. The tones that fall under the umbrella of your overall brand voice should never distract from your messaging.

Slack

Slack Voice and Tone Guidelines
Slack’s brand voice and tone guidelines put the brand’s voice on full display

In true meta fashion, one of the greatest exhibits of Slack’s brand voice is the company’s brand voice and tone guidelines. They define “the key to sounding like Slack,” while simultaneously embodying the voice they describe. Commenting on this, Brand Coordinator Isabel Ludick says:

"Slack has a really strong, consistent, and effective brand voice. They position themselves as masters of making things easier for companies and professionals and that's exactly what their product does. Everything about Slack is clear, concise, and user-friendly and its branding, marketing, and customer service reflect that beautifully."
Isabel Ludick
Marketing Director and Brand Coordinator, Excited Cats

What lessons can you take away from Slack’s example? Isabel continues: “Brand voice isn't something a company should struggle to get right or broadcast. It should be undeniably integrated with the very core of what your business is about.

Some brands try to create a brand voice they think their audience wants to hear. But it's not actually on par with who they are and what they offer. Trying to modify your brand voice to fit current trends or outwit competitors comes off as superficial and untrustworthy.”

"At the end of the day, transparency is at the heart of brand voice. The better you align your brand voice with the solution you provide clients, the stronger your brand becomes."
Isabel Ludick
Marketing Director and Brand Coordinator, Excited Cats


Common problems implementing a consistent brand voice

Staying on brand is an important part of any good content strategy. After all, inconsistency builds a muddled picture of your brand, which can lead to mistrust from audiences. Yet, many organizations find themselves with a whole range of inconsistencies across content.

This is particularly common in large organizations where you have lots of people creating content across different departments. And where lots of people have a say in what gets published, often with conflicting priorities. Does any of the following resonate?

  • Multiple email threads discussing the voice and tone of a piece of content
  • Spending more time than necessary and reasonable on edits and revisions
  • Key reviewers deleting or changing copy that was already approved by someone else
  • Last-minute (or, even worse, post-publishing) edits to tone of voice

Issues like these are often a symptom of internal processes going wrong. But, with a bit of brainstorming and communication, you can get on the right track. In the next part of this guide, we’ll help you find and define a consistent voice.

Who’s responsible for defining brand voice?

There is no one role that’s responsible for establishing brand voice. The person or team you choose to take the lead will depend on your organization and goals. It can be a specialist, like a brand strategist. Or a content strategist or writer. This person can be in-house or someone you outsource this job to like an agency.

Whoever you appoint, they should understand your brand values and culture. They should also have experience conducting audience research and analyzing data. This will equip them to create a well-thought-out brand persona.

In addition, they must have the writing skills and experience to do your unique brand personality justice through:

  • Syntax (sentence structure)
  • Diction (word choice)
  • Other general writing techniques

For one, solid creative writing skills are crucial for choosing tones with the power to influence readers' emotions.

How to define your brand voice: 6 questions to consider

Here are six questions to ask your content teams. These will help you define your overall brand voice and your brand tone of voice guidelines.

Good to know: It’s also a good idea to bring in design and UX teams at this stage. Use post-its, flip charts, or anything visual. Or create something in a live document where you can collaborate and make suggestions.

1. What distinct personality traits does our brand have?

Think of your brand as a person. Perhaps give it an alter-ego or imagine it as a celebrity. Are they loyal, caring, and kind? Are they edgy? Fun? Professional? What do they wear? Where do they go? Do they use slang? Abbreviations?

Brand Personality Chart
Choose a brand personality based on your brand’s characteristics and values. (Source)

2. Where do your voice and tone sit on these scales?

Nielsen Norman Group designed a tool to help content strategists create simple tone profiles. Using results from one of their studies, they identified four key tone of voice dimensions. These work on a scale:

  • Funny vs. serious
  • Formal vs. casual
  • Respectful vs. irreverent
  • Enthusiastic vs. matter-of-fact

As you decide where your voice and tone land on these scales, remember one thing. Too much of a good thing can be bad. Too much friendliness and irreverence can undermine your trustworthiness, for example. But too much seriousness can tank your likeability. Make sure you aren’t losing substance to style or vice versa!

3. What do we value?

What does your organization value? Whatever your answer, it needs to align with your target audience. In 2021, 5W Public Relations found that 51% of consumers think brands they buy from should share their values. So, make sure your tone of voice reflects your company’s values. Your audience cares because you care.

4. What is our brand not? What don’t we want?

This is an important question to ask yourself because voice is as much about what you leave out as what you put in. What brands do you hate? Why? Also, think about ways your brand could be easily perceived wrongly. For example, if you’re a university you’ll need to strike a balance between formal and informal.

5. What’s a voice of a competitor that’s great?

This is also an important step to take. Pick out phrases competitors have used that resonate with your brand and deconstruct them. What elements make up their whole tone of voice? Why do these phrases work? Then come up with a way you can be different.

6. What’s our brand mantra?

This isn’t chanting in a circle. But, still, coming up with an internal brand mantra can help to get everyone on the same page. A brand mantra is a short phrase (five words maximum) that states your positioning. This should run clear through your guidelines and you should be able to test for it. Does each piece of content resonate with this statement?

Tips for creating a strong brand voice

At this point, you'll have a good sense of what your brand’s voice and identifiable tones of voice are (and aren’t). But here are a few extra tips to help you develop a strong voice.

1. Don’t take authenticity too far

“A major mistake many brands make unknowingly is trying to be 100% authentic at any cost,” says Fernando Cabestany of Ikemi.

"Authenticity is essential, but branding is a conversation, and you should always keep your customers in mind. You can be authentic and also meet your customers where they are."
Fernando Cabestany
Brand Strategist & Consultant, Ikemi

After all, “Authenticity doesn't even matter if your customers can't relate to your brand voice. And if they can't connect with you, they won't learn about your business. ”

2. Get to know your audience

To keep your audience in mind, you first need to know your audience. One of the most common mistakes organizations make is twofold. They either guess at what voice will resonate with their audiences or they try to appeal to everyone. Sometimes both. But, as you can imagine, neither are effective.

As a starting point, do extensive market research to define who your top target personas are. From there, define a brand voice that’s both genuine and has the potential to resonate with your ideal customers. Test that messaging on members of your target market. (You can use consumer surveys, interviews, A/B tests, and other means at your disposal.) Then, adjust your voice and tone accordingly.

3. Connect all aspects of your brand

Lastly, David Bitton of DoorLoop highlights the common mistake of “failing to connect brand voice to visual brand identity.”

"Businesses sometimes get so engrossed in developing a distinctive, honest brand voice that resonates. But they fail to connect it to their brand's visual assets. This divide results in unbalanced and incoherent messaging."
David Bitton
Co-Founder and CMO, DoorLoop

It’s often helpful to let your decisions as far as messaging, voice, and tone be the guide for your organization’s visual identity. This will help to ensure that your branding is:

  • Cohesive
  • Representative of your core values, personality, and so on
  • Based on audience knowledge and, preferably, audience feedback

But we’re not done yet. Once you’ve put some thought into your branding, what next? You’ll need to turn your new ideas into brand voice guidelines.

7 steps for creating brand voice guidelines

Let’s get into how to create useful guidelines that will help you bake a consistent tone of voice into your content creation process.

1. Review existing content

This is a great time to review your existing content. Look for positive and negative examples of copy and see what needs to be rewritten. An audit can be a scary step, especially if you have a lot of content and copy. But it’s an important one for getting brand tone of voice consistent. Sometimes you can find hidden gems for the tone of voice examples, too.

So, record what you like and dislike about your current voice. Ask anyone else involved in defining voice to do the same. Then, discuss your comments and agree on what your voice should and shouldn’t be going forward.

2. Use examples wherever you can

Use good examples unique to your brand in your style guide whenever possible. Snippets from your existing content can help to make your guidelines more actionable. Greenpeace’s style guide is a good example of how you can do this.

Greenpeace Style Guide
Greenpeace’s content style guide contains everything a writer would need to know about creating content for the company

Also, be crystal clear on expectations for writers and content creators. Give context and examples of what phrases actually means. For example, you might say something like:

‘Don’t be over-the-top' which could mean:

  • Use exclamation marks sparingly
  • Use simple language
  • Don’t use lots of words when fewer will do

What about ‘be human?’ This could mean:

  • Be approachable
  • Don’t be overly technical
  • Don’t be too 'salesy'

3. Create a brand dictionary

Often, brands build up a credible, recognizable voice by using the same types of phrases and words repeatedly. Create a bank of words that you want to be used across your organization. Think of words to describe your product or service, as well as general conversational words.

4. Think about different guides for different contexts

Tone of voice is likely to change across channels and formats. Consider creating different guidelines for each. For example, you might have one each for:

  • Social media posts (and even differentiation between Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.)
  • For press releases
  • Blog posts
  • Other content types you create

5. Think about formatting and design

Don’t just make it a plain Word document. Meet with designers to make your brand guide appealing to the people you want to use it. Is the font easy to read and large enough to be accessible? Is it visual? Break up long bits of text with images.

Here’s a great example from Uber:

Uber Band Voice Document
Uber presents its brand voice guidelines in a visually appealing way

6. Make sure it gets read

There’s no point in doing any of the above steps if your guidelines aren’t going to be read or used. Let relevant team members know when the guidelines are available and perhaps have a meeting to review them together. Beyond that, make the guide easily accessible on a shared drive.

Good to know: You could also use a content creation tool like GatherContent to keep guidelines top of mind. You can embed them directly into the writing environment so that they’re never forgotten about.
Voice and Tone Guidelines in GatherContent
Embed in-depth guidelines or add voice and tone reminders as needed in GatherContent’s content templates

7. Update it regularly

Don’t think of your guidelines as static; they need to change as your brand changes. Content is a living thing—voice and tone documentation included. So, remember to update your guidelines regularly. Set roles and responsibilities and set deadlines to make sure it gets done.

Embedding a style guide in GatherContent

GatherContent's content operations platform lets you create, edit, assign and track content in one place. It works well as an alternative to Word and other pre-CMS tools. It's particularly useful for tone of voice and style guides as you can:

  • Embed your content style guide in your editing environment to keep content on-brand
  • Create different style guides for different formats
  • Provide templates for different types of content
Embedded Guidelines in GatherContent
Embed your content style guide in GatherContent so writers have it always on-hand
Want to see GatherContent in action? Learn how GatherContent can simplify and unify your content process via a free demo—recorded or live. The choice is yours!

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About the author

Paige Toomes

Paige is an English Literature and Media graduate from Newcastle University, and over the last three years has built up a career in SEO-driven copywriting for tech companies. She has written for Microsoft, Symantec and LinkedIn, as well as other SaaS companies and IT consulting firms. With an audience-focused approach to content, Paige handles the lifecycle from creation through to measurement, supporting businesses with their content operations.

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