Setting the tone: Tips on bringing your tone of voice to life

Following an emotive global event, such as the sad passing of our dear Queen Elizabeth II, brands on social media have to make choices, starting with whether to publicly react or stay silent. The decision often has to be made at pace, without knowing how it will be interpreted in the halls of online public opinion, where people are more likely to be tone deaf. But for brands with a distinctive tone of voice that is rooted in purpose, the decision should come from already established practices and reflect what a business stands for and what their customers expect from them.

Codifying a brand’s tone of voice in this way is hugely important. Expanding it beyond founder led teams, inspiring a great team culture, moving into new products, markets and geographies or developing a brand strategy, all require a tone of voice, which is why we asked Sonder & Tell, the story-first strategy experts behind Bumble, Rude Health, and our current partner brand Wild Nutrition to speak at our Founders’ Collective earlier this year.

For an audience of 50 founders and marketeers, Kate Hamilton, co-founder of Sonder & Tell, took us on the journey of how they help brands bring out and embed a tone of voice. Below, we’ve pulled out 10 insights.

1. Start with brand. 
Sonder & Tell believe that you need a defined brand positioning to root your tone and your language. They always start with this and ask questions in three key areas around brand, customer and product:
What are your brand values and what do you believe in beyond the product?
Who is your customer and what is your brand’s role in their lives?
What is your product and why is it different to the competition?

2. Mimic your customers.
Using a technique called ‘voice of customer research’, Sonder & Tell look at reviews, forums, tagged posts and more, for words that customers use repeatedly to describe a brand or products. They then use these to shape the tone of voice. Not only is mimicry the sincerest form of flattery, it’s also a persuasive technique to make yourself relatable to someone you are speaking to. We all do it without noticing.

3. Find your difference.
Using the comparative examples of Tinder, Bumble & Hinge, Kate demonstrated how three essentially identical products can be perceived completely differently because of tone of voice positioning. Hinge is romantic, Bumble is empowering, and Tinder is fun loving. Looking at your competitors can be a great exercise to define your own position, values, and tone of voice.

4. Break the mould.
Another good reason to look to your competitors is to find an opportunity to disrupt. Many sectors have an accepted tone of voice associated with their category (e.g. ‘aspirational beauty’ or ‘quirky vegan’). So ask yourself, does this work still? Do we want to fit in or break the mould? Bloom & Wild’s successful rebrand came after they broke away from the traditional romantic associations of giving flowers and moved to focus on care and thoughtful gifting.

5. Know when to speak up.
Kate talked about brands feeling like they need a voice on every issue, but a true tone of voice should also include not speaking up when the issues aren’t relevant to give space for those opinions that are. This will not only add depth for those of your team writing the content, but also give you an online respectability that comes with not just jumping on the bandwagon.

6. Be yourself.
When thinking of the words that describe your brand, don’t choose a word that any brand could say. Every brand would say they’re ‘honest’ (even when they’re not). Try to really focus on what makes you better and different for your customers & your team culture to give you a unique tone of voice.

7. Ask your team.
Multiple perspectives from your team can be hugely helpful. Bring together your team and come up with three words that describe your consumer, your product, and who you are as a brand. Big company? Send out a survey and ask all your employees. Multiple responses will be far more perceptive than one lone opinion. Use these three words to feed into your tone of voice.

8. Not just marketing.
Marketing is central, but everyone from customer service, sales to HR should try to use it too. Using a strong tone of voice in your marketing that doesn’t thread into other ways of speaking to your customers can destroy the authenticity of your marketing. Write guidelines can help wider teams learn how to speak like your brand. Don’t forget elements like job specs, T&Cs, product labelling, disclaimers, and internal business comms.

9. Bring it to life.
Help your teams help themselves by finding examples, quotes, ideas or people that cement your tone. This will help your wider customer services and sales teams embody the tone of voice just much as the marketing teas. Encourage the wider teams to share anything they think embodies your tone of voice.

10. Get practicing!
Get teams to try out the tone of voice. Try writing exercises or picking small bits of unimportant copy from the website to rewrite. Ask your customer services team to send a draft of a standard response email in the new tone or ask HR to rewrite policies that fit your brand voice better (for a great example of HR in a brand voice check out Tony’s Chocolonely contract )

Learn more tips and insights from Sonder & Tell’s weekly newsletter The Word. Please let us know what challenges you are experiencing with your tone of voice…and if you have any comments on ours.