Who doesn’t love some good tone of voice guidelines?
As beautiful as they can look, these documents risk being useless if conceived in a vacuum. Here are some tips on how to evaluate a brand tone of voice guide for everyday use.
Branding experts love to dictate rules. It makes sense, as the brand will be handled by many different entities and a benchmark will be needed to ensure conformity.
Actually, as your brand develops, you will get more and more sets of rules on how to use the logo, the colors, and the typography. And the words. Most importantly, the words.
A distinctive tone of voice will make your brand recognizable across all media, at every touchpoint. Even – notably – the humblest ones: while you can’t convey your visual identity in a WhatsApp message or a phone call, your tone of voice will inevitably come through.
Even brand tone of voice documents, though, can be pointless. Here’s why.
The problem with the brand tone of voice documents
A brand tone-of-voice document is designed to help people who will write in the name of the brand adopt a common and recognizable language. This doesn’t just include professional communicators (agencies, authors) but also company employees of various kinds.
As with every set of rules, the hardest part is making sure it is followed by such a diverse audience. What often happens with the brand tone of voice documents is exactly what you imagine: they sit somewhere, unused and forgotten.
Is it the fault of the company? Well, sometimes the fault lies with the document itself. There are several reasons why it could be ignored.
Make sure yours isn’t like this.
Problem 1: your tone of voice is too abstract
A brand strategist wants to explain to your employees how to convey warmth. What could go wrong? Everything, especially if the strategist insists on being abstract. Vague definitions could work in a presentation, but they are useless in the field.
Show, don’t tell.
The tip: when reading it, make sure every rule is accompanied by relevant and solid examples that you would know how to follow.
Problem 2: your tone of voice is generic and context-blind
A telecommunication company, an automaker, or an ice cream parlor all live and operate in different worlds with different audiences, needs, and rules. They might need a specific way to address customers on the phone, on billboards, or even on a printed receipt.
A good tone of voice should be designed to work in your specific context. If whoever created it is not aware of your daily challenges, it will show.
The tip: make sure usage examples are specific and grounded in your reality. If needed, provide your brand strategist with some examples of your daily routine.
Problem 3: your tone of voice is too good to be true
Be wary of wishful thinking. The brand tone of voice document you received probably contains only positive traits, but it should always feel like a sacrifice.
In other terms, it should clearly state what your brand is but also what your brand is not. Otherwise, it will be of little use.
The tip: as you read it, search the document for “negative values”, i.e. what your brand isn’t. They shouldn’t be just negative (too easy) but complementary.
Problem 4: your tone of voice doesn’t feel natural
While the brand tone of voice should offer guidance, it won’t work if it’s too far removed from how your company really speaks. If your people (and you, first of all) see it as an alien language, they will reject it and just ignore it and there’s little you can do about it.
The perfect brand tone of voice is an evolution of the natural inclination of the company, requiring some effort but not a complete reinvention.
The tip: get some of your people to read the tone of voice examples and get some quick feedback. These inputs might be useful to correct the course.
And finally: don’t file it away
While the brand tone of voice documents need to do their best to be actionable, companies should do their part, too. Once the guidelines are on your desk(top) make sure to read them several times, share them with your colleagues and try to apply them for the first few weeks, even in your informal communication.
You can’t rely on the manual forever: tone of voice will only work if it becomes a second skin.
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