How Tone of Voice Differentiates a Brand

By Joe Pelissier on 9th December 2020

Most successful companies have a tone of voice that differentiates them as a brand. You might be hard pressed to describe what it is but if you are a client they are constantly sending out tone of voice signals to help you connect with them. Some are triggered by visual imagery, others by how sounds and words connect with your heart and mind.

Smiling woman in shop

Often it’s the result of a style of communication that is consistent across multiple channels. Layer upon layer of tone of voice that starts to become familiar and which over time creates a sense of trust. It can lead to the desire to make a purchase as well as the desire to be a part of the brand’s community.

Despite the success that tone of voice delivers, too many brands ignore it as a way to differentiate themselves from the competition. It’s as if tone of voice as part of branding is something only large organisations do. This is a mistake and a lost opportunity because tone of voice defines how we connect with a brand.

Whether it is a conversation with a call centre, the online purchase you made or the email reply from the supplier, it is tone of voice that describes how you feel after the engagement.

Whenever someone engages with your brand, they are communicating with the brand representative. If the engagement does not communicate something positive or memorable, then you can be confident that your tone of voice is not congruent with the client’s expectations.

The 4 differentiators of tone of voice

When a brand has a tone of voice that connects with its audience, be it a visual, verbal or written level, tone of voice triggers four things that act as brand differentiators. These are feelings, memories, relationships and trust.

1. Feelings

How you instinctively feel about it. These feeling are either positive, negative or somewhere in the middle. It’s why the Net Promoter Score (NPS) is so popular. The language we use to describe our experience with a brand says it all, “They’re okay, I suppose. Seemed a bit distracted perhaps.” “He was really pushy.” “She was really friendly and very helpful“.

It is the simple words that speak volumes. They are the ones that determine whether you will tell your friends about your experience, do something proactive with the brand or nothing at all.

2. Memories

Making a connection with a brand produces memories. We store memories in our subconscious and then recall them based on the past experience and the emotional feeling that was produced. Quite often our return to a brand is driven by whether our last encounter produced a positive memory.

The warm, friendly message you received on making an online purchase or the delivery driver who arrived on your doorstep with a smile on his face, each contains a tone of voice that creates either a positive or negative memory.

Memories also evoke stories. These range from the nightmares that you are quick to share, “You just wouldn’t believe what happened to me the other day...” to absolute delight, “Nothing was too much trouble, she understood exactly what had happened, I even ...”

Brands who have customers that share stories based on positive memories are tone of voice winners.

3. Relationships

The right tone of voice triggers a relationship based on the connection the brand representative makes with a customer. At a basic level that connection is as simple as showing some empathy. At a more advanced level it’s the willingness by an advisor or sales person to take the time to understand what is important to the person to whom they are talking.

Whilst personality influences behaviour, what lies behind this is the willingness to communicate in ways that are congruent with what the brand stands for. It then becomes a win-win – for the customer, the brand representative and the company.

It explains why the top sales professionals have loyal groups of customers who regularly return to them for advice whether buying a new car, the latest item of fashion or some new tech.

4. Trust

We like to make a purchase or do business with those we trust. Some brands, such as banks, work hard at doing this by projecting an image of trustworthiness. Lloyds Bank with its “By Your Side” campaign, aligns itself with Mental Health UK as if to confirm that it is ‘by your side’ if you experience mental or financial difficulty.

It’s an excellent example of the projection of a tone of voice to make you feel you can trust them. Whether this is true is not the point. At this level they are only focussed on triggering emotions that project them as a financial business that cares not a hard-hearted one.

However, it’s important to remember that real trust from tone of voice come from behaviour. We only really trust a brand if the person we are dealing with does something that allows us to give them our trust. i.e. they do what they said they were going to do.

It comes back to expectations. If the person you are dealing with listens to you and talks to you in ways that you find agreeable and follows up by doing exactly what they said, then you are more likely to trust them.

Successful brands know that tone of voice create feelings, memories, relationships and trust. They also know that if these are favourable it leads to better brand advocacy.

The payback from all of this is clients sharing stories about the fantastic experience they have had. When that starts to happen you can be sure that your brand tone of voice is starting to differentiate you from the competition.

Your Brand Fingerprint

Two British researchers, Gordon and Restall (1992) came up with the term ‘brand fingerprint’ as a way of describing why people choose to purchase from some brands and not others.

Linking many of the elements of a brand fingerprint is tone of voice and the role it plays in awakening feelings and associations that are stored in our memory.

The fingerprint is split into four parts:

  1. Feelings – the emotional response the brand triggers
  2. Smell – the evoked smell of the store, the product or the packaging
  3. Hearing – musical associations, slogans or product sounds
  4. Visual – logo, packaging and advertising.

Each of these four parts interact with each other and at times some are more dominant than others. Depending on your business, you might weight one more than another.

Tone of Voice as part of Brand Fingerprint

If you apply the brand fingerprint model to three different types of brand, Fever Tree, Lloyds Bank and LV= you can see how tone of voice works as a differentiator for each of them.

For many, the lead print is visual. Understandably it is used as a gateway to forge an emotional connection with the customer.

Fever Tree – ethically sophisticated

Hands mixing a drink with Fever Tree

Fever Tree communicates luxury and sophistication about its mixers with an ethical earthiness that describes the different places in the world it sources its ingredients from. It makes great effort to show from where they come, the authenticity of those who grow them and the sense of pioneering adventure behind this.

As a result it communicates a feeling that the premium product you like is ethical and sustainable.

The Fever Tree tone of voice appears open, honest and transparent but with a twist of adventure and sophistication.

They source the best ingredients from far away places and show them in ways that are quite sophisticated.

Lloyds Bank – ‘we’re ordinary people too”

By Your Side

Lloyds Bank whilst also visual, has more of an auditory tone of voice. When not using it’s famous black horse as a memory trigger, it often associates itself with everyday people voicing their concerns and anxieties. As if to say “we’re ordinary people too, just like you. We hear you.” You see this in many of its commercials and even on their banking app.

Lloyds Bank intentionally uses an informal, everyday tone of voice, one they feel will resonate with their target audience. And they repeat it frequently so as to build this picture of familiarity which in turn will lead to trust.

Informality in tone of voice is a very powerful tool as it reassures and is non-threatening. However, using it well is hard as you risk becoming too casual which is damaging.

LV = you’re one of the family

LV= Welcome message

The insurer, LV=, like Lloyds Bank, plays up the fact that it is a brand that understands ordinary, everyday people.

LV= goes a step further by focusing on the feelings it evokes through excellent customer services and by treating customers as if they are part of one extended family. For LV= feelings and family are the differentiator in its brand fingerprint.

In 2020 they were voted joint 1st place for the UK’s car insurer for customer service based on a UKSCI survey. Perhaps of more significance is the fact that through Reevoo they say that “99% of our customers would buy from us again.”

It suggests their customers like the way they are treated and and have no reason to move to a new insurer. As there is a high customer churn rate after one year, it indicates that the tone of voice is a successful strategic tool in reducing this.

How to use tone of voice to differentiate your brand

Implementing a successful tone of voice takes time and it will fluctuate and evolve over months and years.

To begin, follow this 5-point checklist:

1. Values

Re-visit your core values. Within these is the DNA of your tone of voice. If your values are a reflection of what you stand for and believe in, then you want to communicate this in your visual, written and spoken communications.

2. Brand Identity

Do you have a brand identity? This is the distilled essence of who and what your business is. It is not just about your logo and how you look but about how you behave, your working environment, the product or services you sell and how you communicate. Ideally, there should be congruency across them.

3. Touch Points

What are the main touch points for your customers to interact with you? Is it mainly online, through social media, via the telephone or in face-to-face meetings? How effectively do you establish relationships via these touch points? How mindful are you of how tone of voice influences and shapes those relationships?

4. Channels

What are the media channels you use to generate an awareness and a demand for your products or services? Are they consistent in terms of identity and tone of voice. How frequently are you publishing and promoting your brand tone of voice?

5. Tone of Voice Dimensions

The NNGroup, the user-experience research group, talks about The Four Dimensions of Tone of Voice:

  1. Funny – Serious
  2. Formal – Casual
  3. Respectful – Irreverent
  4. Enthusiastic – Matter of Fact.

Where does your brand tone of voice sit within this? Or, where would you like it to be?

I like to add a fifth dimension:

5. Loud – Quiet

This is because with so many brands fighting for our attention all of the time, your noise level in terms of visual design and frequency of appearance is influential. However, in the ‘noisy’ world we operate in, ‘quiet’ as a dimension is sometimes equally effective.

If you are willing to make the time to do this, you will quickly start to notice how influential tone of voice is and where it is weak or strong within your business.

Be a Brand Diamond

The two researchers, Gordon and Restall, went a stage further with their Brand Fingerprint concept by suggesting that a successful brand is a diamond with different facets.

Diamond Ring with Facets

Each facet communicates a different meaning:

  1. Brand Saliency – the relevance of the brand to different groups of people, the more relevant you appear the better.
  2. User Imagery – pictures of those seen to use, enjoy or benefit from the brand.
  3. Occasion Imagery – the context in which the brand is used, whether it is a product or service.
  4. Services Imagery – how helpful the brand is in looking after its customers.
  5. Product / Service Imagery – how customers perceive the product or service in terms of how it works or operates.
  6. Brand Personality – how the brand thinks, communicates and behaves and the feelings this evokes in the customers.

Each of the facets has an intrinsic value. And the more valuable each appears to a customer the more valuable the brand diamond.

However, which are the facets most closely connected to tone of voice? To some extent tone of voice is present in all of them. For me, the important ones are:

  • User Imagery – as it is visual pictures and aural sounds that help us to connect with a brand
  • Services Imagery – as this is where you get closest to the brand, whether speaking to someone physically or connecting via the telephone or some digital channel
  • Brand Personality – the sum of the parts. This is where all the different facets come together and where, if you have done your job well, your brand sparkles and shines.

How valuable is your brand in this context? Is there an identifiable tone of voice within your brand or within any of its facets?

In conclusion

Ronnie Scott's

Ronnie Scott was a jazz saxophonist who set-up the eponymous jazz club, Ronnie Scott’s, in Soho in 1959. As a place it had a special vibe and attracted great jazz players and singers such as Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Buddy Rich and Nina Simone (Yes, I was there).

Ronnie died in 1996 but his club lives on. It’s one of the most popular jazz venues in the world even though he and his co-founder Peter King are long dead.

Why? Ronnie invested considerable time and energy in how people felt when they came to his club. When not playing music, he personally introduced his acts and mixed with his public. He wanted them to have a great time and to enjoy his passion for music as much as he did.

Yes, Ronnie Scott’s was famous for its music and still is but the reason it continues to thrive is that its founder created a brand that had a feeling that was different to other clubs. It’s brand fingerprint was so strong and the brand facets so clear, that even after his death it was possible to keep it alive.

The four differentiators of tone of voice are present to this day. The feeling that Ronnie Scott’s is a fun place to go to. An expectation of powerful memories and stories as result of the experience. Relationships with both the environment and those who work there so that you trust the club to give you an amazing evening.

The things that make a brand successful are not always what it appears to be but the hidden ingredients that work together to connect with you emotionally.

Give some serious thought to tone of voice. You’ll discover it is a more powerful, far-reaching and longer-lasting brand ingredient than you imagined.

If you found this article helpful, why not read:

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