If your business could speak, how would it sound? And why on earth should anyone care?

By Katherine Wildman
Issue No. 05 The Brand One
June 2017

6 Min Read

Kids on a football pitch at night

Remember that night? It was way back in April 2009. Ant and Dec were their gracious and charming cheeky-chappie selves. Simon Cowell and Piers Morgan were suited, booted and ready to sink their pearly white teeth into the next person brave enough to stand before them.

Amanda Holden was all smiles as she leant back in her seat and rested her arms comfortably behind her head. And we braced ourselves as a 47-year-old woman who'd never been kissed walked out onto the stage wearing thick black tights, satin shoes and a buttercup yellow lace dress.

Looks can be deceiving

After gyrating her hips, giggling to herself and telling the Glasgow audience of her dream, "to be a professional singer," the panel of celebrities raised a collective eyebrow.

Watching the footage again, the camera pans across the audience and pauses only to pick up expressions of disbelief, disinterest and downright scorn.

And then?

Then Susan Boyle begins to sing.

And at that moment, the atmosphere changes.

Consistency is key

Before Boyle even finishes the first verse of 'I dreamed a dream' the auditorium erupts into applause. And at that moment, a star is born.

A star who has since gone on to sell millions of records, sing in front of the Queen – and even had a cameo role in Zoolander 2. Yes, really.

Boyle didn't look like a professional singer on that Glasgow stage eight years ago, and the audience and the celebrity panel certainly didn't expect her to sound like one when she opened her mouth.

Indeed, soon after that episode of Britain's Got Talent, The Washington Post wrote, "The eye-rolling public and the three jaded judges were waiting for her to squawk like a duck." And they were.

Your brand voice matters

So, what does this have to do with your business and how it sounds?

When it comes to your company and your brand, it's vital to sound like your offline readers, and online visitors expect you to. To do otherwise feels both jarring and disconcerting. And your brand's 'sound' is based on two different elements – your voice and your tone.

The power of voice and tone

Let's get a little bit anthropomorphic for a moment. Imagine your brand is a person. That your logo is the equivalent of Miss Boyle, standing there on that Glasgow stage.

When that logo, your brand, opens its mouth and starts to sing, how does it sound? And how do your listeners respond?

If you're a creative agency (yes, Ouseburn - I'm looking at you) you have a little more leeway with how the writing on your website or in your brochure sounds - and how it makes your readers feel. You can be a little bolder and a little more 'out there' than, for example, a firm of solicitors on the Westgate Road.

Why is this?

Your brand's voice is its personality, its perspective and who it is. And by its very nature, it stays pretty much the same day-to-day. It’s your brand's voice that forms the building blocks of your content, both on and offline.

Your brand’s tone of voice, however? Well, that changes all the time. When it comes to tone, it's more about a mood, a feeling – and about empathy with your readers.

How are they feeling? What are they up to? What do they need from you - and why?

Think about yourself for a moment. Your voice is and always has been your voice. It will have changed from the time you were a child and then a teenager, but it's your voice, and it's recognisable as 'you.'

Then consider your tone of voice. This will change often, depending on the situation you find yourself in, from how you might say your order in the local coffee shop to how you might ask a favour of a colleague.

And you'll speak in a different way to your parents to how you speak to your best friend, for instance. And you'll take a different tone again if you speak to your boss or an elderly relative than if you were to talk to a young child.

Your brand's tone, then, is more about responding to your reader's feelings. It's about empathy and understanding their needs - and it's always changing.

Which tone goes where?

Think about all the places where your company issues the written or spoken word. It could be your website; it could be a YouTube video, it could be an email response or a Facebook post. Each word will be ‘spoken’ in your company's 'voice', but the tone will change for each platform (or at least, it should).

Happy sad faces

In simple terms, you can consider the difference between positive and negative messages. If you need to remind someone of an outstanding invoice, your tone isn't going to be cheery and lighthearted. Instead, it will be clear, direct and to the point. This isn't the time or place for high fives and cheery hellos. Your customer may be embarrassed that they're in arrears, or angry and frightened that their debts are catching up with them.

Conversely, if you have good news to share, your tone will be celebratory, positive, cheerful and lighthearted. There may even be an emoji or two in there. Your customer will be feeling elated and happy and you can meet that mood with your tone.

How to add tone to your copy

The simplest way to add tone to your writing is this: read it out loud. Imagine the person you're addressing is sitting in front of you and talk to them.

It's all about empathy and understanding.

To get an important message across, your wording will need to be in the direct address (use 'you'). Your sentences will need to be short (between 10-16 words maximum). And I'd argue that, if you find you're adding commas, you need to be splicing your sentiments into two sentences. For added impact. (See what I did there?)

Why you should care about tone of voice

Here’s the business case. In simple terms, companies that have a distinctive tone of voice tend to gather tribes of loyal followers. People who are highly engaged with the products they sell or the services they offer. These are companies that stand out from the crowd and that make an impact.

Remember when Innocent first burst onto the scene with their smoothies and cheeky packaging? (Stop looking at my bottom!). They raised a smile in supermarkets across the land and, as a result, filled baskets and trollies – and lunchboxes in schools.

Look at the skate brand Palace. Their clothing captions barely make sense to anyone over the age of 24 and yet when they launch a new collection (my 17-year-old son informs me that this is known as a 'drop') their clothes (or 'garms') sell out in seconds. And their stuff is not cheap.

We all like people who can communicate well. People who are authentic in what they say. And we like how this makes us feel, the level of security it creates. With people like this we know where we stand. We feel trusting.

It's the same for your business.

By developing your brand's tone of voice and making sure that everyone who writes, speaks or tweets for you does so in your agreed tone, you develop customer trust, customer loyalty. And over time you’ll create a tribe of followers who will become your greatest advocates, your greatest fans and your greatest asset.

Katherine Wildman is a commercial and creative copywriter at Haydn Grey. Based on the coast in Cullercoats, she watches boats from her office window while writing for a client list that includes the NHS, HTC and John Lewis.