Is your brand a narcissist? Don’t let your tone of voice be more important than your customers

‘Make your brand feel more human!’ ‘Have a bit of fun!’ ‘Your brand should be a joy to interact with!’

A brand’s tone of voice is as important as its colour scheme or logo, and it’s reassuring to see so many organisations take it seriously. A good tone of voice infuses your brand’s values through every interaction. It shows what you stand for, without having to say it outright.

And yet, so many tone of voice corporate enthusiasts get it very, very wrong. Why?

Sorry, but no one cares about your brand

Creating a brand is fun, it’s creative, and it’s necessarily inward-looking. The problems can start when the branding process ends, and your company needs to communicate this new brand to its users.

Because here’s the tough truth: users don’t give a monkeys about your brand. They don’t care that you’ve decided you’re going to be ‘friendly yet approachable’, or ‘authoritative yet fun’, or whatever your tone of voice has declared for itself.

Users only care about their own needs. Maybe they’re interested in your product, and they’re trying to find out if it’s got a particular feature they need. Maybe they’re already a customer of your software, but they’re stuck on a particular task and are looking for help. Maybe they’ve had a really bad time in your shop, and want to complain about it.

In these three examples, each user has a specific action they’re trying to complete, and they’re in a particular emotional state: neutral/curious, stressed/exasperated, and angry/upset. If your tone of voice has only one approach for all communications, it’s just not going to feel appropriate in all situations.

Let’s look at some real-life examples.

Example 1: Bombas

Bombas sell nice socks. I’m in the market for nice socks. But their prices are in US dollars and I’m in the UK, so the first things I need to know are: will they deliver to the UK? And if they do, will it be at a price I’m willing to pay?

Bombas’ shipping and returns page starts with this:

Scanning the page, I pick out keywords and numbers: ‘domestic’ ‘US-based’, $3.95. Ok so that’s not for me, I won’t bother reading that section. Fine.

Next section on the page:

‘International orders’. Great, I think. And yet.

Someone’s had a lot of fun with this page. They’ve greeted me in 7 languages, they’ve presented their socks as adventuring globe-trotters, they’re telling me I’m going to love their socks.

I’ve just wasted a lot of time reading a paragraph that told me everything Bombas wanted me to know about their brand and tone of voice, but which completely failed to address my questions.

The next paragraph get’s a little closer — at least now I know they can ship them to me. But they won’t tell me for how much, and in fact the sign-off ‘jetsetting is a luxury’ sounds like a warning that it’s going to be really expensive. I doubt that’s what Bombas intended, but that’s the result of their insistence on pushing their tone of voice above my user needs.

The result? I still want socks, I still don’t know whether or not to bother shopping for these socks, but now I’m also irritated that I’ve just wasted time looking for an answer on this page.

This isn’t to say that Bombas don’t have a lovely brand — they do, and it’s what attracted me to them in the first place. But the key point is that they didn’t adapt their tone of voice to the user journey.

Example 2: Morphy Richards

Sometimes — oftentimes — frustrations with tone of voice come from impatience. Does your breadmaker really need a 109-word introduction, which essentially says only ‘read these instructions’ (which by definition, you already are)?

Morphy Richards probably thought the above intro was friendly, informative, and perhaps even building anticipation. But the business need ‘We want to communicate our brand values’ conflicted with the user need: ‘I want to quickly read the instructions so I can start using my breadmaker.’ What the user actually got: Patronised.

Example 3: WordPress

Bad content is often long content, but not always.

Take these 4 words, from WordPress:

Seems harmless enough, right? Friendly, even. Chatty.

But context is everything. I’d been struggling for hours with a far-too-complicated new Wordpress theme. It was fiendishly complex, and my patience had turned to frustration, anger, and desperation.

Then I glanced up and saw ‘How are you, Mills?’ in the top right of the screen. ‘Not so great, actually!’, I wanted to reply. ‘But thanks so much for asking — I could really do with some help.’

So I clicked the message, hoping to get help. But nothing happened.

With those 4 meaningless words, Wordpress was making it clear that while it wanted its tone of voice to sound friendly, it wasn’t interested in actually being friendly. Don’t let your brand make promises your business won’t deliver.

Nuance is everything

Getting the tone of voice right is tricky, but there are plenty of brands who do it well.

Mailchimp has an excellent guide for its writers, as does Salesforce. Both brands make a clear distinction between tone and voice. As Salesforce describes it:

‘Our voice is the core of our personality, and it should stay consistent across all of our content. Tone expresses the mood or feeling of the voice, which can change based on the situation. In other words, it’s not what you say, but how you say it.’

Mailchimp even has an entire website dedicated to getting the tone of voice right: http://voiceandtone.com, and this failure message example shows how they adapt the tone for the situation:

How to get it right

Tone of voice right is difficult, because language itself is difficult. Language is marvellously complex and nuanced, and so it’s difficult enough to communicate well when speaking one-to-one, let alone when writing to an unlimited number of unknown users.

So how do ensure your brand doesn’t fall into the trap of a narcissistic tone of voice?

1. Talk to your users. You can’t communicate effectively if you don’t know who you’re talking to. You need to know exactly who your users are, what they want, and what they need from you.

2. Branding doesn’t end with the logo. A good brand is a summary — and a conduit — of everything the organisation stands for. Write a detailed tone of voice, and make sure it is flexible enough for all of your users’ needs and situations.

3. Everyone in the company has to believe in the brand. Every point of contact between your brand and your customers needs to be consistent. For this to happen, everyone who talks to clients needs to know how to do it the right way. This includes support emails, social media messages, telephone support, and face-to-face sales.

4. Don’t let your brand be a narcissist. This is really just #1 again: let your brand be led by your users. Don’t prioritise what you want to say over what they need to hear.

Have you seen any particularly good or bad examples of tone of voice? Add them in the comments! And if you found this article interesting, please hit the ‘heart’ icon to let me know.