Let's start at the beginning
Obviously, brand identity is important when it comes to your logo, your colors and your name – they all play a part in your company's branding and help customers and fans identify, relate to and eventually purchase your products and services. This identity can even go as far as your values, your social media presence and your social responsibility activities.
But there is a golden nugget in there that often gets overlooked. Consider where you're reading this article right now... The words, those magical mono- or multisyllabic strings of letters that your user reads. Alone they may be a little boring. I admit that they need a beautiful design to really make them come alive, but just as you spend time considering what colors to use and choosing your name, you also need to define your company's voice, tone and written style – and ideally, they will go together with the visual aspects of your identity. But how do you define your voice, tone and style?
This is part 1 in a three-part series that will explain WHY you should pay attention to these areas, HOW to establish guidelines for your brand's voice, tone and style, and WHAT steps you can take to share the brand guidelines with your colleagues and freelance partners.
Why do you need a voice, tone and style guide?
Whether you're part of a company that is already international or a startup that has big ambitions, a voice, tone and style guide will begin helping you keep your identity consistent and uniform as soon as its implemented. It's a welcome tool to any new team members or freelancers who support you in your marketing, advertising or PR projects. And by providing them with these guidelines, you can ensure fewer rounds of edits and changes, which definitely saves you time and could save you money. Additionally, these guidelines can help you stay on-message no matter WHO writes your content (for example, thought leadership pieces written by your Head of Research and Development) or WHERE your content is published. And finally, it answers the question of "how do we write this?" Anyone can turn to these guidelines if they are unsure about how to sell a new product or service, how to write the title of the next blog post or how to address followers on Twitter.
What are voice, tone and style?
According to 99designs, there are six essential elements that are featured in every brand style guide: brand story, logo, color palette, typography, imagery and voice.
We're going to focus on the sixth element – voice – and expand it to tone and style as well. But first, what are they?
Voice: Your brand's personality, rhythm and word choice; related to the emotions you'd like to evoke in the reader. Are you funny or serious? Do you prefer longer explanations, or phrases that are short and to the point? Do you use scientific words, or terms that are easy to understand?
Tone: How you use your voice in different situations; according to Lauren Pope at Gather Content: "In life, we adjust our tone according to who we’re talking to and what we’re talking about, but our voice remains the same. Your brand voice is singular, but you can use it with many different tones."
Style: What your writing looks like - this includes everything from spelling and capitalization to phrasing and specific terms. This can also include a list of words not to use and explanations for why you use one term and not another.
Seeing it in action (3 examples)
It can be difficult to understand how tone, voice and style come into play if you've never really paid attention to them before. Here are three examples of these three elements and how they relate to the brand identity as a whole.
1. Swatch vs. Omega
I've written for both of these companies in the past – I worked as an in-house copywriter at Omega; and I support Swatch as a freelance copywriter – so I'm very familiar with the unique voice and tone of both watchmakers.
- both are Swiss
- both sell watches
- both are part of the Swatch Group
- both are hugely famous around the world
- Omega's values straddle tradition and innovation and its watches are classified as luxury goods
- Swatch's plastic watches feature funky designs and this company is more about pushing the envelope
Omega is grown-up, elegant, dripping in luxury. It's more than a posh accessory, it's a lifestyle. It speaks to fans, users and readers in a way that pulls them toward its products, whether they can afford them or not.
Swatch is daring and vibrant. It sometimes uses plays on words and puns, it isn't afraid to use slang, and it encourages fans, users and readers to be true to themselves by creating something for everyone.
Omega has different product collections, and depending on which product is presented on its website, the descriptions are written slightly different. Remember, the voice is the same, it's only the tone that is different because it addresses different fans. For example, the text for the Seamaster Planet Ocean uses a more masculine, bolder tone, compared to that of the De Ville Trésor, which has more elegant, flowing descriptions.
The shift in Swatch's tone is most obvious when comparing a product launch to a sports event. Though the brand voice is consistent, the change in audience - from watch aficionados on a product page to fans of extreme sports reading an event recap - calls for a change in tone.
- Omega uses UK English; Swatch uses US English
- How are the watch names and collections capitalized?
- How is the brand name written? All caps, or is only the first letter capitalized?
2. EF Academy vs. EF High School Exchange Year
EF Academy was my professional home for two years and I was responsible for establishing its voice and ensuring consistency in voice and style across the marketing and sales materials. I didn't work for EF High School Exchange Year, but we often compared notes because the customers are similar. The offers, however, are very different.
- both are part of EF Education First
- both offer students the opportunity to study abroad in high school
- both attract high-school aged students from around the world and bring them to the US and UK
- EF Academy places a greater focus on preparation for university
- EF HSEY is only for one year of high school; EF Academy offers 1- to 4-year programs
- EF HSEY brings students to a mostly American or British school; EF Academy is a school made up of only international students
EF Academy is serious about academics and emphasizes higher education and the path to a successful career. It is intelligent without being condescending; serious without lacking adventure; and expert without being snobby. It walks a fine line between addressing students who want to travel and parents who want their children to get a good education and be happy.
EF HSEY promotes cultural exchange, exploring a new area, learning a new language and living with a host family. It's dreamy, exciting and writes with the feeling you get in your stomach when you're about to embark on a new adventure.
In this example, both organizations adapt their voice when speaking to students and parents. Which makes sense – both want something different out of the experience. Parents want to know their children will be safe and supported while abroad, so texts speaking to the parents focus on these aspects of the academic experience. Students are more interested in traveling, meeting new friends, learning a new language, so this is how the product is presented to them. Keep in mind here that both organizations adjust their tone to fit the audience, but their voices are still distinctive.
- How are the names of the programs written out?
- How are the USPs embedded into the text?
- Which is presented first - school locations or school programs?
- When gathering testimonials from students and faculty, how are they attributed?
This example is a bit unique because it's not comparing two similar brands with different voices, but rather demonstrates how tone can change within a company. MailChimp is a B2B business, that is, it links businesses/brands/companies to customers. In its voice and style guidelines, MailChimp outlines its voice and tone, and a specific mention about its mascot, Freddie. The guidelines also include details and information about writing different things such as blog posts, newsletters, legal content and technical content and texts for translation. This is a next-level voice, tone and style guideline – it shouldn't be considered your starting point, but can be seen as a goal. There's even a word list that includes spelling and structure of certain terms and phrases.
I personally like these two points:
- From the "Writing Blog Posts" section:
MailChimp is a fun company, and we want our blog to reflect this. Feel free to throw in a joke here and there, or link out to a funny GIF or YouTube video when appropriate. Just don't overdo it.
- From the "Writing for Translation" section:
MailChimp’s voice is conversational and informal. However, in some cultures, informal text may be considered offensive. Check with your translator to see if this is the case for the particular language you’re writing for.
If a brand is a person, then their voice and tone are how they express themselves. And that's why it's so important that voice, tone and written style get as much attention as the brand's appearance. There are several platforms and avenues that you'll need to consider - social media, product lines, interaction with the press versus with customers - but the best place to start is with general guidelines that outline the overarching voice.
In part 2 of this series, I'll go over how you can begin creating these guidelines for your brand's voice, tone and style. Not only will you need to know what details to consider and how to define these aspects of your overall brand identity, but you will also need to know how to structure the information.
What you can do in the meantime is explore companies and brands that you would consider your competitors and find examples of what you do and do not like. Jot down your observations. We'll come back to this later. You can also speak to some colleagues and ask them what adjectives they would use to describe your company/brand and its voice (think: friendly, smart, young, informed, luxurious, casual). And if you need some help with this part, or the next parts, SO Many Words is here for you.