Insights November 3, 2020

What exactly is tone of voice anyway?

Living Word
By Living Word

Tone of voice is an element of branding which it can be tempting to write off as ‘fluff’ in order to allow you to can carry on with ‘more important things’. But a look at some of the world’s greatest brands – you know, the kinds you would recognise in an ad even if the brand name had been concealed – reveals many lessons.

One such lesson is the importance of consistency, and not just in terms of the visual side of things, but also when it comes to what is being communicated and, crucially, how it is being communicated. The latter is what we, as language professionals, know as the tone of voice.

Tone of voice unwrapped

So what’s left behind if we unpeel the layers of the term ‘tone of voice’? The voice is essentially defined by the characteristics and personality of a brand. How would the brand communicate if it were a person? The voice is constant and consistent across media and platforms. Take the marketing platform Mailchimp as an example. In its tone-of-voice guidelines, the brand describes its voice as humorous and conversational: “We play with language to bring joy to their work. We prefer the subtle over the noisy, the wry over the farcical. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

The tone, on the other hand, can vary depending on the context. As Mailchimp says: “Mailchimp’s tone is usually informal, but it’s always more important to be clear than entertaining. When you’re writing, consider the reader’s state of mind. Are they relieved to be finished with a campaign? Are they confused and seeking our help on Twitter? Once you have an idea of their emotional state, you can adjust your tone accordingly.”

When a customer has sent out an email via the platform, Mailchimp confirms with a “High fives! Your email is in the send queue and will go out shortly.” Indeed, in many cases, a high five is just what’s needed at that point.

Why is a defined tone of voice important?

A strong brand is a trusted brand – not necessarily an easy feat. When a brand consistently shines through with a clear voice in everything from customer service interactions to social media posts, the target audience is much more likely to respond with trust and, in the best-case scenario, loyalty.

But having a tone of voice is also about creating a distinct brand, one that stands out and strikes a chord with its audience. Take Bumble, the female empowering app for dating, friendship and networking, which is busy taking up space. “Might as well add falling in love to the list of mad things that happened in 2020” and “You can tell the grandkids you met when kissing was illegal” are headlines from outdoor ads with subtle Covid-19 references, executed with the brand’s witty and distinct tone of voice, characterised by an uplifting confidence.

What about translation?

So what does tone of voice have to do with translation and transcreation? Everything. A tone of voice is essential to global brands in order for them to ensure a unified and consistent voice and on-brand messaging in all target markets. That’s why it’s crucial for every transcreation brief to include relevant information about the brand’s tone of voice – a truly essential piece of information that enables word magicians to convey the right message with the right voice in the target market. When your tone of voice is explained clearly in writing, it is much easier for the linguist to tailor the target copy accordingly – and the linguist will know whether it’s appropriate to tone it up or down, depending on the given culture.

How do we define the tone of voice for our brand?

Do you want to sound knowledgeable? Playful? Smart? Trustworthy?

Here are a few things to consider if you haven’t already nailed your brand’s tone of voice:

  • First, take a long and hard look at your brand. What is its personality, and what are its values? How would you describe the brand if it were a person? What does it care about?
  • Second, who is your target audience? How do you want to make them feel? What do they care about, and how do you best add value to their lives? What do they go to you for? When you know your target audience inside-out, it’s much easier to work out how to speak to them in a way that hits home.
  • What words do you use? And what words do you avoid?

When you have a clearly defined tone of voice and use it consistently across all platforms, media and target markets, you’ll be able to create distinct content that builds a stronger brand and connection with your audience – also across borders.