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Dare to be different!

How to build a brand tone of voice that's authentic, unique and gets you noticed.

Stay weird neon sign

Conversations about tone of voice often lead to words like 'honest', 'clear' or 'consistent'. At first glance, these tonal values (words that describe your brand personality) sound pretty good. After all, we like honest businesses, clarity helps us communicate and staying consistent across different touchpoints allows customers to build up a solid picture of who we are.

So, what's the problem?

Let's say you're defining a new tone of voice for a software brand called SoDifferent, which prides itself on standing out from the crowd. You choose 'honest, clear and consistent' as their tonal values. Great, job done! Their writing's now easy to read, they're building trust with their customers and their team understands how the voice should sound across all channels.

But what exactly is that voice? And how is it different from their competitors? It's unlikely that rival businesses hope to sound confusing, tell obvious lies or sound completely different on their website and in their emails.

Compare Nike with Dove. Both honest, right? Or Starbucks with the BBC. Both clear. Tesla and Nando's? Consistent. But none of these brands sound the same. So, how do you level up your tonal values to find something unique that builds a strong, differentiated brand voice with an authentic personality?

How to create a better brand tone of voice

To hone in on a voice that's specifically your own and sets you apart in your market, it's a good idea to think about your voice in terms of pairs of tonal values rather than individual words. So, rather than concentrating on 'clear', you might think about 'high-brow' vs 'inclusive' or 'playful' vs 'straightforward'. Different brands might choose one end of the spectrum or the other. Each one could work. Compare this to 'consistent' vs 'inconsistent'. It's unlikely anyone would choose to go after 'inconsistent' as a tonal value.

So, let's look at Nike and Dove again. They're both honest, clear and consistent but we can be more specific about their tonal values. Nike is bold, uncompromising and motivational, Dove is softer, more reassuring and supportive.

We see this in the words they choose:

Nike – Now, believe, dream, sacrifice

Dove – Real, curves, beauty, wonderful

How they present these words:

Nike – Statements, short sentences, full stops

Dove – Questions, shareable hashtags

And the things they talk about:

Nike – Inspirational athletes at the top of their game, world records, taking risks

Dove – Diversity, the negative impact of filters, mental health

Mix and match

Once you've chosen three or four key values, you can start exploring how they work together. Pairing 'high-brow' with 'playful' might lead you to a voice like perfumer Penhaligon's, who introduce their best-sellers with:

From eternal classics to olfactive icons. Discover Penhaligon’s most coveted concoctions – anyone within sniffing distance will be just dying to know where it’s from.

Whereas pairing 'playful' with 'inclusive' might bring you to a tone of voice more like Nando's. Their napkins feature phrases like:

Wipe that smile on your face

Let's see how this unfolds

For the bits your tongue can't reach

This is your opportunity to see what fits best with your brand. If these combinations don't sound right, it's time to try something else. Keep adjusting the values until you're happy they communicate your unique brand positioning.

How much is too much?

Thinking about pairs of tonal values rather than individual words also unlocks a sliding scale that you can start to play with. If you've chosen 'clear' as a tonal value, you're unlikely to ask the question, 'exactly how clear do we want to be?' Whereas, if you choose 'rebellious' vs 'respectful', you can ask, 'how rebellious'? A little bit cheeky, like Nando's? Or full-on punk, like Brewdog?

By placing values on a sliding scale, you can find the balance that's right for your brand. You can experiment with words and phrases to find your niche. Some words might not feel rebellious enough, others will sound too disrespectful and need to be dialled back. And it gives you a valuable tool to compare yourself with your competitors. Where do they sit on the scale? Do you need to tweak your voice to stand out from a crowd of conformists?

Adapting your tone of voice

Once you've agreed on your tonal values, you can start thinking about how these can be used across different customer touchpoints. It's important that customers recognise your brand voice every time they interact with you but you can emphasise different values at different times. For example, your social media posts can be more playful than your user guides, your homepage more inspiring than your service pages, and your welcome email warmer than your terms and conditions.

Focusing on values that sit on a sliding scale gives you that flexibility. Whereas, you're probably not going to say, 'we'd like to be really consistent on social media but less so in our printed comms'.

Do clarity, honesty and consistency still have a place?

Absolutely. You should always aim for clear, well-edited writing that sounds like a real person speaking – it's best practice. But remember: your competitors are doing the same thing. These aims should always underpin everything you write. But if you're looking to create a one-off voice that gets you noticed, you need to headline tonal values that are unique to you.

Need help narrowing down your tonal values, analysing your competitors' voices or finding the stretch that feels right for your brand tone of voice?

I can help with that. Why not get in touch?


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