Brands (and bands) that get their tone right gain a significant marketing advantage.
Before their ridiculously successful Saturday Night Fever phase, the Bee Gees were a successful pop-folk band. Brothers Gibb – Barry, Robin and Maurice – created agreeable ballads with pleasant harmonies that did well in the charts in the 60s and early 70s, especially in Britain and Australia.
Then two things happened while the Bee Gees recorded the album Main Course, which was released in 1975. The first, and most telling, was the emergence of the R&B-inspired disco sound that dominated pop music for the rest of the decade. The other was the Bee Gees found their unique voice, best symbolised by Barry’s now signature falsetto.
It was a sound that was not only right for the Bee Gees, it was also right for their time. Nine of the Gibb brothers’ singles topped the US Hot 100 chart, placing them behind just the Beatles and the Supremes as the band with the most No.1s in history.
In a Rolling Stone interview in 1977, Maurice Gibb credited Main Course producer Arif Mardin with the change that made all the difference. “He showed us the right track,” Maurice said. “This was the track leading to R&B and hits, and that was the track leading to lush ballads and forget it, and he just shoved us off that track and right up this one.”
For marketers, finding the right track – establishing the right brand voice and tone – is one of the least understood but most important parts of their role. While days, weeks and perhaps months can be spent researching and crafting the right messages for ideal target audiences, both tone and voice are often ignored.
But like good design and editorial planning, getting the voice right is a first-order priority. Not only does a well-considered tone-of-voice strategy help maintain consistency across all platforms, it allows customers to gauge a brand’s personality. Crucially, it may help a brand – especially one challenging the status quo – stand out in a competitive market. It may even become the brand’s most distinctive characteristic.
In a blog on the Content Marketing Institute website, Erika Heald asks: “If your logo didn’t appear with your content, could your audience identify the content as coming from your brand? If you’re not careful, you can end up with a random assortment of voices and tones in the content produced across your marketing ecosystem that doesn’t provide a consistent picture of your brand, or even use the same language consistently.”
Tone and voice
Mailchimp’s content style guide does an excellent job explaining the role of tone and voice. It evens offers a great definition of the difference between the two: “Think of it this way: You have the same voice all the time, but your tone changes,” it says. “You might use one tone when you’re out to dinner with your closest friends, and a different tone when you’re in a meeting with your boss.”
Tone of voice isn’t just about making a brand sound “more human”. It has to be an honest reflection of what the brand represents – what it stands for. This can’t be discovered incidentally. Like any marketing strategy, it needs to be deliberate.
One marketer who understands this is Doug Kessler from B2B agency Velocity Partners. “Tone of voice is the single biggest opportunity facing every marketer – but it’s hidden in a footnote at the bottom of the marketing strategy (if it’s in there at all).”
“A voice that’s disconnected from its brand is like a person trying to keep up an accent for a whole day. It’s just not who you are, so it doesn’t ring true.”Doug Kessler
Kessler isn’t just saying this … Velocity Partners’ website proves he lives it, too. Its blog is one of the wittiest and most popular in the B2B marketing world.
Kessler recently wrote a pitch-perfect piece about the power of tone of voice – why it’s not just what you say but how you say it.
“Throughout my entire career in marketing … I’ve been baffled by how rarely tone of voice is used to make brands more approachable, memorable, likeable and buy-from-able,” Kessler writes. “This turns out to be a good thing because the brands that do understand the power of voice have a big, fat advantage over those who just don’t get it.
“Think of your favourite brands – B2B or consumer. They all have it: a clear, compelling, consistent voice. That’s not a coincidence. They’re your favourite brands because they have the likeable personality that voice conveys. And, as ‘soft’ as that sounds, it’s actually as hard and real as MQLs in a funnel and money in a bank.”
Kessler has derived a simple formula for how tone of voice is a budget multiplier: “story x voice = impact”.
“The multiplication sign is the key here: if either value is zero, the total is zero, too. A great story told in wet-noodle-speak will fall like that zen tree in that human-free forest. And a tired, borrowed, oft-told story told in sizzling prose… flops too. But get them both right – a fresh, timely story (or super-helpful guide) told in a delightful, confident voice – and the sky isn’t even the limit.”
12 ways to find the right tone
Kessler offers marketers a 12-point plan to creating a distinctive brand tone of voice:
- Be deliberate (even make tone of voice someone’s job) and create a set of guidelines.
- Know who you are – everything starts with the brand itself.
- Craft a voice strategy statement – how your tone and what you’re offering must match your customers’ needs.
- Choose three or four base notes: the foundational concepts for your brand voice (for example “fun”, “irreverent”, “professional”, “simple”).
- Pick some accent notes – how to adapt your voice for different environments or circumstances.
- Make sure your “microcopy” is right – the tone of your Q&As, what you say on the “subscribe” button.
- Use wit and charm (but always be careful playing with comedy).
- Explore a conversational style, if your brand calls for it.
- Stomp out yucky (“writerly”) words.
- Use jargon in the right amounts.
- Don’t be afraid to be negative.
- Find great writers.
“A lot of voice problems can be tracked back to brand problems,” Kessler writes. “To companies that don’t really know who they are, or who want to be all things to all people (as fatal to a great voice as it is to great marketing).
“A voice that’s disconnected from its brand is like a person trying to keep up an accent for a whole day. It’s just not who you are, so it doesn’t ring true – and it’s really hard to stay in character.
“But when you tap into something real about your company, voice becomes natural. Everyone in the company can express themselves in the voice. Because it’s not an act.”
Businesses need marketers to be their Arif Mardin, who showed the way for the Bee Gees. They need someone who can get their brand voice on the right track.