“Don’t use that tone of voice with me!”
It’s possible — if not overly likely — you heard that one once or twice while growing up. Take the wrong tone and you wouldn’t need a second warning that it wasn’t the most suitable way of talking to your parent.
However, marketers are not afforded the “luxury” of such a stern-yet-insightful speaking-to. Readers aren’t quick to give the benefit of the doubt. Speak to them the wrong way and you might not get soap in the mouth, but you will surely feel the sting when customers reject your blog posts and social media pages, or even products.
More than ever, readers want to make an emotional connection with the brands they follow or give business to. They want to read content that speaks to them — not at them, and not past them. As a marketer, you should know your target audience and how to make that content click. But the task, as ever, is a bit harder than it seems.
- Empowering and Uplifting – Dove
- Friendly Yet Informative – LaCroix Sparkling Water
- Professional and Ambitious – CloudSmartz
- So Far Out There It’s in Another Galaxy – Skittles
- Just Straight Up Out of Pocket – Duolingo
- Would You Like Fries With That Sick Burn – Wendy’s
Developing a Tone of Voice
Writing in a way that appeals to your readers entails a lot of things. At the top of the list of considerations is tone of voice.
The phrase “tone of voice” refers to the persona your content takes on. The manner in which you speak to your online readership decides how engaged they are, how educated they become or how motivated to take action they grow. Your tone of voice should encapsulate all that your brand and your customers value. It should also reflect the manner of speaking those readers are most familiar with and be appropriate to the intended audience.
So, if you were a cosmetics brand trying to reach millennials on social media, you might use a fun, lighthearted tone that is peppered with emojis and lingo designed to connect with a younger audience. Like, u totes get it, right? The moar your customer digs the writing, the shibbier. Want a ride-or-die readership? You best get that writing on fleek.
However, say you’re trying to grab the attention of the C-suite audience. Your tactics would likely shift 180 degrees. The suits would probably respond best to a tone that is highly professional, is condensed into short, quick-hit sentences and is authoritative. You want to appear knowledgeable. You want to inspire. You want to provide thought leadership and cultivate an executive following that looks to you for solutions and ideas.
What Goes Into Tone of Voice?
While a brand’s voice can be largely understood in theory, it can be a bit more challenging to pull off in reality. You will have to marry brand personality with grammar, customer engagement with rhetorical devices. Translating the ideas in your head to the words on the page can make for a tricky process, but not impossible. All it takes is looking at the recipe for tone of voice. A dash of diction here and some active voice there, some alliteration to taste, and presto you’ve got your tone of voice.
While the exact ingredients may change — blog posts focused on upper management may want to trade those hashtags for hard stats — there are some common elements of any tone of voice that you will want to address when formulating your own brand’s personality. These include, but aren’t limited to:
- Etymology: You don’t have to be an English scholar to understand the importance of historical context and meaning of words. Applied to tone of voice, etymology simply means understanding which words are best suited for particular uses.
- Sound: The sonic qualities of words — how they sound when pronounced — can play a big role in developing a tone of voice. Using devices like assonance or consonance can create fluid, easy-to-read writing that’s almost lyrical when read by customers.
- Syntax: This is basically the arrangement of words, the structure of language. It may come into play when you want short, staccato sentences. There’s no fluff. The point is underscored. The audience’s time is respected. Or, you may want to convey a headier type of thought with denser phrasing that weaves in and out and maintains an artistic quality that endeavors with soaring brand language to engage the reader and inspire in them a thought, an idea, a meaning. See how easy that is?
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Brand Tone of Voice Examples
Now for the main attraction: some examples of brand tone of voice that can help demonstrate the varying degrees of personas and how they might inform your own tone of voice. Each business will have its own needs, but there’s plenty to take away from brands active in shaping a distinct tone of voice:
It would make sense for a company that sells beauty and self-care products to craft a tone that is encouraging. Dove is a premier example of a brand that has cultivated personality traits that emphasize responsibility, having linked its name with the greater movement to empower consumers (especially women) and raise awareness of body positivity. You’ve likely seen the billboard and ad campaigns Dove launched with models of all colors and sizes, but supporting it all is a tone of voice that is soothing, inspirational and friendly.
These qualities are easily recognizable in posts the company makes on social media, as well as its website. The way Dove glowingly describes its mission is reinforced by the affirmative language it uses to resonate with readers: “beauty is a source of confidence,” “self-esteem education,” “realize full potential.” The brand promise is made clear with these words.
The beverage du jour of hipsters and moms alike, LaCroix has skyrocketed to the forefront of online-savvy brands. LaCroix’s tone of voice is a lot like its product — bubbly; and that goes a long way in building personality and connecting with readers or social media followers.
There’s only so much you can say about carbonated water, but that fact doesn’t box in LaCroix, which offers readers valuable content on everything from keeping flowers fresh with LaCroix to creating cocktails with a favorite flavor. Images are a big theme with LaCroix — those colorful cans need to be advertised somehow! — but the captions or blogs that accompany them are carefully written to speak to a customer on a personal, informal level, which helps LaCroix foster relationships with its audience.
There’s a lot going on beneath the surface of the actual words. While the phrases may be short and concise, they relay a brand personality that’s fun, approachable and interested in having a good time with friends! The more the tone of voice emphasizes these qualities, the more customers associate LaCroix with social settings, friends and recreation.
CloudSmartz, a Brafton client, embodies the brand tone of voice you want in speaking to decision-makers, management or executives. Writing about tech can be pretty difficult, even with a knowledgeable audience. There are a lot of abbreviations and jargon for readers to cut through before reaching the heart of the message; and even if they know what SDN-WAN is, the clunkiness of phrasing can make reading awkward.
However, CloudSmartz breezes by those obstacles with a brand tone of voice that is at once both aspirational and grounded. The possibilities of the cloud make such forward-thinking writing a fit, but it needs to be tempered in a way to still resonate with business leaders. Check out this example from for a clinic in how to nail down such a persona:
The title “Virtualized Service Providers: The Next Stage of Telcom Evolution” sets the blog up to be in the vein of thought leadership, which CloudSmartz pulls off by making the writing accessible and not unwieldy, like most tech content can get.
You’ve seen the Skittles commercials, you’ve cringed at the ads, you’ve wondered what the hell is going on — but you’ve also likely tasted the rainbow, as Skittles’ marketing implores you to. While being in the candy business might afford Skittles some lee-way in getting weird, you certainly don’t see Almond Joy or Nerds pushing the outer boundaries of strangeness quite like Skittles.
But the thing is, the Skittles tone of voice works! All the talk about Skittlespox and being the rainbow should be enough for any consumer to think twice, but Skittles has built a brand persona that is adored for its wackiness. Some social media highlights of recent include:
When you think of one of the world’s best-known language-learning tools, Duolingo, it likely conjures up memories of those lessons you were totally planning to take before that trip abroad. But there’s probably something else that comes to mind: the company’s neon green mascot, Duo the owl.
Have you taken the time to scroll through their TikTok account?
Duolingo has never been known to mince words when it comes to reminding users to take their language lessons. In fact, in the company’s 10 years, it’s become a widespread meme online to joke about their tendency to sway more in the aggressive direction than passive. So it was hardly a surprise that when the Duolingo social media team joined Tiktok, they came out swinging.
From videos documenting Duo the owl’s obsession with singer Dua Lipa to outright threatening users to practice their language of choice (“Spanish or vanish”’), there’s only one way to describe Duolingo’s tone: out of pocket.
In the comment section, “Duo” interacts with almost every viewer, and as you can see here, it’s never that nice. But with over 1.5 million followers amassed in less than 5 months since Duo’s introduction to the app, the antics of everyone’s most-feared owl are definitely proving to be a hit.
By leaning into the meme and having fun with it, Duolingo proves that staying true to your brand and your audience’s perception of you is the best way to find your tone.
When it comes to sassy brands online, there’s one OG that stands out from the rest: Wendy’s. Yes, that Wendy’s. The beloved fast-food chain featuring the founder’s daughter as a logo.
When Wendy’s first joined Twitter, the brand primarily stuck to business as usual: promotional content centered around the holidays and deals they were running. But as you can see for yourself, the holidays the account is talking about now are far from your warm-and-fuzzy family memories.
Unlike Duolingo, Wendy’s was never known for branding like this. In fact, when the team first re-launched their Twitter account with a sassier tone in 2017, it was quickly known as the roast heard round the world.
Although it doesn’t necessarily align with Wendy’s original branding, the reason this tone worked as well as it did was because it was the first of its kind. In an internet filled with advertisements and constant pop-ups, Wendy’s cut through the noise by being unapologetically different.
So while they may poke fun at other restaurants as well as their own customers, the honesty and (usually) light-hearted roasts on the account help the brand to stay at the top of every burger lovers’ mind.
Tips to Develop Your Brand Tone of Voice
While it helps to take your cue from these brands, in the end, your brand’s tone of voice has to be unique to your business. It may take some time to reach that point, but here are some basic tips to ensuring your tone of voice fits your brand, your needs, your message and your customers’ expectations:
Create a tone and brand voice guidelines: Tone can seem a bit like a nebulous concept, making it harder for businesses to grasp. However, you can take control by creating a set of standards or a voice guide to define your brand’s tone and govern how it’s used. Each organization should have a working set of standards for what the tone sounds like and how brand values are communicated.
Be consistent across channels: Building a reputable brand tone of voice means keeping it consistent across channels. Skittles is as weird on Twitter as it is on the air or in blog posts. This consistency helps foster familiarity: A customer reading your articles and then transitioning to a social media account should have the same experience in interacting with your brand, and tone of voice is central in creating that continuity.
Take a page from industry peers: Although there is no one right tone, what industry you operate in will have a lot of say in how your tone of voice is formulated. After all, nonprofits will maintain a very different way of communicating than a corporation would. Mapping out your tone of voice could be improved by looking at what peers and competitors in your space have done. This might either help you develop a tone along the same lines to connect with readers, or tell you a totally different approach to tone that could help you win over new customers.
It will take some time to perfect your company’s tone of voice, but using these strategies will help you take the first steps in building that recognizable brand identity.
Editor’s note: Updated November 2021.