Sales & Marketing

I like your tone

Many companies get carried away with colour palettes and logos but investing time in establishing a consistent tone of voice is just as important for a successful brand

Pick up a copy of The Sun and The Guardian on any given day and you will find that the same news story has been covered in very different ways. Take the case of John Darwin, the man who faked his own death in a canoeing accident in 2002. In December 2013 he was arrested again for leaving Britain against the terms of his licence. TheSun.co.uk reported the story with the headline, ‘Canoe come with us’, with the sub-heading, ‘Darwin in airport arrest after Ukraine love bid.’ Guardian.co.uk covered the same story with the headline, ‘Canoe man John Darwin arrested for unauthorised trip to Ukraine.’ The sub-heading read ‘Convicted fraudster who faked his own death to collect insurance was free on licence but banned from leaving Britain.’

The two styles are markedly different, with one using a short, clever pun to grab attention, as well as introducing a more gossipy element, and the other offering a much drier and more informative take. Both newspapers have a clear tone of voice tailored to their specific audiences and businesses need to take the same approach when reaching out to their customer base, regardless of the medium.

Targeting your audience 

Brands often invest a lot of time in the design element of their branding, ensuring the logo reflects the company’s values – and looks modern, luxurious or cutting edge for example – and that signage and staff uniforms also reinforce a particular message. However, tone of voice is often neglected. It means that companies that want to be seen as friendly and approachable can risk alienating people by using an overly formal or corporate tone on their website, even though they might have invested in training call centre staff to use certain language and word patterns to communicate the company’s amenability.

Identify your business personality

Establishing a brand is all about understanding and identifying your company’s personality. It is about knowing what makes your target audience tick, and being clear about how you want them to view you and respond to you. Achieving consistency of voice has always been an important consideration across the various communication media – from direct mail to TV adverts – but it is even more imperative in the age of social media. Not only do companies have to ensure they are adopting a consistent and accurate tone on their websites and email communications, but they also have to ensure that the image they convey across the various social media platforms serves to reinforce the company’s character and values.

Working with the medium

That said, tone of voice will necessarily vary slightly from medium to medium, depending on the objectives of the communication. For example, is it a brand awareness exercise or do you want to prompt a particular action? Is it a customer letter about price increases or an email campaign launching a new product? Social media by its very name also has a very distinctive role in marketing. It is a social arena, and while brands must ensure that their blog posts, or those on Facebook or Twitter for example, underline their core values, they must adopt a conversational tone, as if they are speaking to their audience face to face.

"Establishing a brand is all about understanding and identifying your company’s personality. It is about knowing what makes your target audience tick, and being clear about how you want them to view and respond to you."

Playing to the crowd

Some brands are synonymous with ‘fun’ and customers expect something frivolous. For example, the slightly irreverent Innocent Drinks recently tweeted, ‘STOP WHAT YOU'RE DOING. At 16 seconds past 15 minutes past 2 today, it's going to be 11/12/13 14:15:16. START WHAT YOU WERE DOING AGAIN.’ 

At the other end of the spectrum, a professional services brand like PwC UK, has a more formal identity to appeal to a business audience, adopting Twitter for informative tweets such as, ‘Do your staff feel able to speak up when they suspect a breach of ethics or values? Read our updated report.’ When it comes to websites, Innocent Drinks adopts a consistently flippant tone, with its company information reading, ‘Hello, we're innocent…and we're here to make it easy for people to do themselves some good (whilst making it taste nice too).’  On the other hand, PwC uses very corporate language to reflect its own personality and meet customer expectations.

Like The Sun and The Guardian, both Innocent Drinks and PwC have fostered loyal followings and customers expect a certain brand experience. Tone of voice underpins each one’s distinctive personality, strengthening the overall customer relationship. Identify the voice that represents your company’s character and brand values, and stick to it.

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK