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Choosing the right tone of voice for your B2B brand

May 20, 2019

Mention ‘tone of voice’ in connection with consumer brands such as Apple or Marks & Spencer, and everyone knows what you mean. But does your B2B brand have a tone of voice? Does it even need one?

Imagine a TV commercial for IKEA presented in the style of a DFS spot, or a press ad for the 7-star Burj Al Arab in Dubai presented in the style of a Premier Inn campaign. All four brands represent style and comfort – but they’re not quite the same, are they?

What is tone of voice?

If attributes such as quality, innovation and passion are what underpin your brand, then tone of voice is what gives it life. It is often the only thing that differentiates two otherwise similar brands competing head-to-head. And the way that we know this is because if you were presented with a list of biscuit types and asked to pick the one that most closely matched your B2B brand’s values, you’d be able to do it!

Tone of voice defines how you present your brand values and attributes. Ironically, in marketing it is most often associated with the written word, but to be effective it should be consistent and encompass all communications – through every medium – with clients, staff, suppliers and the outside world.

Tone of voice includes all the qualities you might reference if asked to describe an actual person’s tone of voice: are they eloquent, pithy, irreverent? Do they use short words and sentences, or adopt a more lyrical, or whimsical tone? Are they humorous, or serious, or dry? Of course, most people vary their tone according to circumstance, but they’ll usually follow a pattern consistent with their personality.

And so it is with brands.

Does your B2B brand need a defined tone of voice?

Unsurprisingly, yes. More than that, it probably already has one, although it may not be defined. If you’ve ever published copy expressing passion about your products then you revealed a tone of voice, since it’s impossible to express true passion without tonality.

That notwithstanding, the process of formally defining your company or brand’s tone of voice is important, because without it how can you be sure that it’s used consistently across all channels? Or that what you think of as your tone of voice is what others hear?

Anyone who’s received a “Computer says ‘no’”-type letter from a business that otherwise claims to be customer-centric has experienced first-hand the frustration of encountering a mismatch between brand value and tone of voice. As an editor and proof-reader, I can’t help but spot the errant apostrophes and styling inconsistencies in promotional messages I see daily, not least in copy bragging about quality and high standards. Attention to detail? Not so much.

Tone of voice makes all the difference.

Choosing the right tone of voice for your B2B brand

Your tone of voice must be an accurate reflection of your company ethos and brand values as you and others perceive them. Otherwise you’re just fooling yourself.

I’m all in favour of using market research to establish what might work best, but it really does have to start with your company, your brand, and you. If your business is family-run, highly traditional and has been around for hundreds of years, then there’s no point in presenting yourselves as the new kids on the block, chomping at the heels of the establishment. On the other hand, a tone that exudes dry wit and quiet confidence, born out of a century’s worth of experience, might go down a treat.

B2B organisations sometimes find it difficult to establish what their ‘natural’ tone of voice is. A useful exercise in those circumstances is to ask yourself which celebrity – money no object – you’d choose as your ideal brand ambassador, and why. The chances are, their tone of voice is a close match.

A similar exercise (much used by consumer magazines) involves creating a fictitious persona with all the qualities of a typical brand customer – and then writing for them. The editorial staff of a hair styling magazine I was involved with even went to the trouble of obtaining a mannequin, dressing her up, and sitting her in the office as inspiration.

Others factors to consider include: formal versus informal language, use of humour, grammar (‘Queen’s English’ versus colloquialisms), technical language, swearing, and choice and order of personal pronouns (e.g. emphasis on ‘you’, rather than ‘we’). To anyone wanting to delve further into these areas I recommend Harriet Cummings’ excellent article ‘Finding your brand’s voice’, published on the Distilled website.

Control and implementation

Clearly, since your tone of voice is as important as your brand values, you should monitor and protect it just as carefully. Governance is never sexy – but it needn’t be draconian. Having someone responsible for checking all marketing communications for style and consistency is a good starting point. (In smaller organisations it helps if they have a good sense of humour, a little common sense and a lot of diplomacy). So is having a checklist or ‘style guide’. Publications and news sites use these all the time. The Economist and The Guardian and Observer style guides are two of the best known, and are available free online. Yours needn’t be so comprehensive (The Economist’s book version runs to 264 pages), but it should include the following fundamentals:

  • How your organisation, any divisions and all brands are referred to: a surprisingly common source of inconsistencies, particularly among B2B companies. Are you ‘ABC Widget Company Ltd’, ‘ABC Widget’, or (please, no) ‘ABC Widget®’? Is it acceptable to refer to the widgets as ‘ABCs’?
  • Personal pronoun: “ABC Widget Company/It is the market leader” versus “We are the market leader”. Many companies will use both and vary it according to circumstance. The style sheet should define those circumstances.
  • Customer emphasis: “We are reliable” versus “You can rely on us”. Do you talk about the company/brand first, and then relate it to the customer/reader, or put them first and then reference how the company/brand fits the customer’s needs?
  • Technical language: It’s hard to avoid using technical language in the construction environment, but that’s no excuse for avoiding clarity. Your style guide should cover use of common terms and abbreviations, use of initial capitals (i.e only use them if it’s a proper noun), and measurements (e.g. m2 versus sq m, or sq. m., or feet, or ft, etc).
  • General language: Best practice is to use short words and sentences, and to never use two words when one will do. Avoid slang – unless it ties in with your brand’s tone of voice!

For press releases and internal communications:

  • Styling conventions: Cover the style properties of headlines, standfirsts, body text and sign-offs. Do you use one font family for all correspondence? If so, which one?
  • People naming conventions: for example, ‘John Brown’ in the first instance, and ‘John’ thereafter (or ‘Mr Brown’ or just plain ‘Brown’).
  • Initial capitalisation of words/job titles: I once encountered a chap whose job title was fifteen words long. It was a short paragraph! When referencing him (and others) in body copy I suggested we use lower case and practical abbreviations. Elsewhere we used initial capitals.

Finally, make sure that everyone’s on board. The biggest communications blunders tend to happen when the marketing team has one brand vision and the people talking to customers a completely different view. Make sure your style guide is known and available to everyone, and that the facility exists to make suggestions and update it on an on-going basis (via the appointed style guide monitor). It should be a working document.

Tone of voice is the glue that binds your brand values to the company itself, its products and its stakeholders. Time invested in getting it right will always pay dividends.

Andy Sivell

Andy edits the RIBA CPD Showcase on behalf of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

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