Once upon a time, the word ‘branding’ almost went hand-in-hand with the concept of ‘brand identity’. A company may not have been able to get by with just having a quirky and attractive logo, but there was definitely an extent to which it could harness the power of visual to its advantage. However, whilst we are still having our eyes treated to some even more beautiful brand designs nowadays, the technology that has made this possible has been accompanied by a revolution in the way that consumers engage with UK plc.
Indeed, the very nature of social media dictates that brands will no longer get away with hiding inside their corporate shell. They need to have their own personality, their own language and their own ‘tone of voice’, which can be expressed consistently across every communication platform. “The number of brands competing for people’s eyeballs or attention is huge so it is massively important that brands try and develop a personality early on,” says Peter Briffett, managing director of daily deal site LivingSocial UK & Ireland. “Certainly for small businesses, the majority of their early customer base will be early adopters; people who do respond to new and unique voices and personalities.”
In order to pinpoint a personality that befits your offering, it is first necessary to reflect on your very reason for being. “One of the things that we say is ‘know your why’ and use it,” says Rachelle Thompson, community strategist at digital agency TH_NK. “Why do you exist as a brand in the first place? What is the kind of relationship you wish to have with your customers? By defining that, you shouldn’t have any issues finding your tone of voice because you have this reference point where you can ask ‘is that us?’, ‘is that really who we are?’, ‘is that the way we would speak?’”
Essentially then, it boils down to treating your brand as a person in its own right. Thompson adds: “If you have this visualisation of what kind of person you are as a brand, then you can begin to get very clear about what words you would and wouldn’t use, what way you would respond, when you would respond and really start to define that type of person and how they would interact.”
Nevertheless, once the persona and language of one’s brand has been established, the challenge lies in delivering this across the board. If a tone of voice isn’t consistent at every possible touchpoint, the less convincing and believable it becomes. “When creating tone of voice, the challenge for lots of people now is to understand how they can sound the same on one press advert versus 140 characters in a tweet or the whole copy on a website,” comments Thompson. “But it is not just that; it is also ‘how do I sound if people encounter me in all these spaces at different times of day and with different needs?’”
Undoubtedly, the product or service behind a brand can sometimes make a persona-building exercise a little easier. Juice drinks and veg pots brand Innocent is a classic example here, with its playful branding lending itself to an equally playful and amusing tone of voice. “Their brand personality shines off all their cartons of juice and is absolutely at the forefront of the marketing effort,” says Briffett. “Whether it is a formal press release or a social media campaign, it is very consistent, and therefore they get customer engagement.” As a result, Innocent manages to appear less of a corporate entity and more a social being who consumers can relate to and engage with at their pleasure.
This isn’t as simple for companies operating in sectors that lend themselves to a more regimented approach, such as financial services, insurance and mechanical engineering. However, it shouldn’t be overlooked that consumers in these markets may differ from the demographic being targeted by the likes of Innocent. The tone of voice adapted should still chime with the message the respective firm is trying to get across and the expectations of the people they are meant to serve. “If you are in insurance, quite often one of the fundamentals of insurance is trust so creating a trusting voice is important,” suggests Thompson. “You are not always going to want to invite the cool hip teenager. Occasionally, you will actually want to have that formalised voice for the appropriate conversation.”
Yet, a step away from one’s comfort zone can still pay significant dividends, if the circumstances dictate it. Thompson uses telecommunications giant O2’s response to a consumer backlash over service problems last year as a prime example. By offering personalised and tongue-in-cheek responses to angry tweeters – as opposed to a stock company response – O2 was able to deflect criticism and turn the tide in its favour, surprising and impressing many in the process. This approach has been taken forward as demonstrated by O2’s current ‘Be More Dog’ campaign and headline-grabbing Twitter rap battles with rival Tesco Mobile.
“They got cheeky, they got playful and they began to entertain people,” Thompson comments. “You would never have expected it but the licence was open for them to do so because it was considered and it was in response to a situation.”
In this sense then, there are times when a brand can alter its tone of voice, but it must be done for the right reasons. However, for any brand with global ambition, Thompson is adamant that the focus should initially be on customers in the appropriate region. “One of the things that we always encourage is to put local content in such a way that when it is encountered globally it will still make sense,” she says. “If you haven’t secured what is going in your market, who your competitors are, what they are doing and what makes you different, your tone of voice will not speak to people in a different way because you haven’t defined yourself in a market.”
Like all brand considerations, settling on an appropriate tone of voice merits a sizeable investment of time and patience. Ultimately though, having knowledge of both yourself and your customer is key. “The major thing is to be relevant,” concludes Briffet. “If you understand who your audience is and you can communicate in their language, you have got the best chance of getting their attention.”