Opinion Series: Tone of Voice

by Diane Lindquist on 05/22/2014 | 7 Minute Read

Simon Forster, Creative Director of Robot Food, explores thoughts on tone of voice in this opinion series.

"You wouldn’t choose a logo, font and colour palette that looked like someone else’s. So why tone of voice?"

As brands embrace personality in the scramble to stand out, a strange irony has occurred: they’re starting to sound the same and ‘tone of voice’ has become code for ‘the annoyingly chatty wording on packaging’. Especially in the UK. 

Let’s first define tone of voice. Essentially, it’s the catch-all term for the way a brand speaks across all touchpoints (including packaging). It’s the way to let the world know why a product’s so great and worthwhile. Any old patter won’t cut it. 

Consider it this way: if a brand is a human being, then the logo, font and colours are the clothes, and the handshake and conversation you go on to have is the tone of voice. How you look and how you sound are locked in an unbreakable partnership. So once your fantastic looks have grabbed consumers’ attention, it’s your tone of voice that builds the relationship. 

Authenticity is everything 

Your brand is an indestructible base and wellspring for everything you do. It’s there to authenticate you, so your values, personality and tone have got to be authentic, consistent and complementary. Otherwise why bother? Substance and differentiation are also vital. Yet, browse a random website or pick up some consumer packaging, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d read it all before. 

The innocent effect 

Consumers can spot a ‘me too’ from twenty paces. Yet in the race to engage shoppers, brand values are being cast aside for the sake of a shortcut to consumers’ hearts and minds. Too many brands sound as though their tone of voice is off the peg, rather than made to measure. 

For well over a decade now, UK brands especially have defaulted to a whacky, often childish over-familiarity, often in the first-person, which has long since reached saturation point. Articles have even been written and Tumblr sites created objecting to the patronising, sycophantic, nauseating effects. 

It's not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to sound approachable and friendly. But is it appropriate and relevant for every consumer brand? Have things got so bad that consumers are turning to their coffee, cereal or snack brands for friendly banter and surrealist riffs? If humour or whimsy is a genuine part of your brand, all well and good. But every element of tone of voice should have its origins in the brand blueprint. The death knell has been sounded for shallow chit-chat. 

In the UK, this epidemic has been given a name: the Innocent effect. Innocent, a UK drinks brand founded in 1998, is as famous for its funny, irreverent tone of voice as its drinks. As other brands watched Innocent’s rise to superstardom via its tone of voice, they wanted a piece of the action. But while many copycats have since become wallpaper, fifteen years down the road, Innocent’s clear-cut tone endures because it’s founded on simple, strong brand values, which are beautifully expressed across all their communications. 

Established in 1978, Ben & Jerry’s must’ve been one of the very first to turn tone of voice into an art form. Their packaging and website is a pleasure to read, and you can see how their strong values have steered their style and content, e.g. you have to be confident in your vision to name one of your flavours Phish Food. The whole Ben & Jerry’s brand experience feels natural and cohesive. Like a person, there are subtleties, nuances, even room for the odd inconsistency. But the authenticity always shines through. 

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Lishi is a UK artisan tea brand. They believe in tea as an art form, which their poetic, esoteric tone of voice celebrates. ‘This is the taste of winning at hide and seek’ (Silver Needle tea); ‘This is the taste of wearing the only hat in a crowd’ (Iron Goddess tea); ‘This is the taste of flying a kite in a field’ (Chrysanthemum tea). The simple, modest pack designs show the language off to full effect. 

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Another great example of strong values leading tone of voice, is Lush. They’ve been producing handmade cosmetics in the UK since 1995; their new ‘Mask of Magnaminty’ is a typical product name. Evangelically ethical, they believe in doing the right thing. After winning a court case against Amazon, they trademarked the name of Amazon’s MD, Christopher North, and released a range using his name with the tagline, ‘Rich, thick and full of it.’ The pack language also references Amazon’s other ‘contentious business practices’ with a tongue-in-cheek irreverence. 

A little less controversially, UK chewing gum brand, Peppersmith, revolutionised the category with its playful, eco-thoughtful pack designs and personable tone of voice. Two of their brand values are ‘Be challenging’ and ‘Have integrity’, and the pack designs and language demonstrate these perfectly. 

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Shepherds Purse is a UK-based cheesemaker. We at Robot Food created their new brand, pack designs and tone of voice to communicate their quality ingredients, artisan values and sense of humour. Their packs are now a talking point at the countless food events they attend every year. 

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Premium UK supermarket, Waitrose, has won awards for their tone of voice. In just a few words, the deceptively simple language on their own-brand range evokes respect for provenance, a love of creative cooking and their famous passion for quality. 

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Know thyself! 

These examples all prove one thing: that a successful tone of voice is always a true, clear expression of the brand’s unique personality and deeply held values. Yes, it’s important to engage people but if that engagement isn’t anchored in the brand, you risk looking inconsistent, lazy or derivative. 

You simply have to know who you are, i.e. what you’re doing, where you’re going and what you stand for. If you need spreadsheets, brand pyramids, and a suite of PowerPoint presentations to explain who you are, then it may be worth going back to the drawing board to simplify things. By investing in a strong brand, brand managers will be able to create genuine differentiation which will lead to a more credible, enduring tone of voice. 

Once brands make a conscious effort to sound like their best selves as opposed to their competitors, they’ll see more success and longevity. It's the only way to stand out in a crowded marketplace. Obviously, there’ll always be some crossover in terms of who brands are talking to and how they want consumers to feel. But people are ready to be engaged beyond gimmicky affability. With over a million words in the English language, and limitless means of expression, there’s really no excuse for following the herd.

About Simon Forster

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Simon is founding Creative Director at Robot Food. He's a fearless, entrepreneurial creative, who exhibits both strategic and commercial awareness. 

He consults on brand strategy and product innovation, and his broad expertise enables Robot Food to combine creative solutions with sound commercial strategies. He excels in art direction and has a way with words, particularly when it comes to developing brand personality with tone of voice. Above all though, he has vision and knows how to grow a brand.


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