What is the difference between voice and tone?

In brand style guides, “voice” and “tone” are sometimes blended together or freely interchanged. This is a bit of a disservice.


Like “design” and “identity”, “voice” and “tone” each offer a means of describing a particular facet of the brand.

Voice

Voice is the character of the brand. These are the core tenets, the evergreen principles. Perhaps they evolve over time, but slowly; their value is routine, predictable. We befriend characters because we get to know them and find their behavior consistently aligns with our expectations.

Examples of voice characteristics:

  • Cordial but reserved.
  • Battle-tested and ready.
  • Humble generosity.

This is less how a brand speaks and more how it acts. Ideally, it transcends writing to encompass all expression: written, presented, acted. The voice of Starbucks is so much more than the copy on its website.

Tone

By contrast, tone is the expression of that brand character to the audience at hand. Tone changes all the time. It must change — that’s how empathy and relevance are surfaced. How I speak to my kids is much different than how I speak to my coworkers. (Luckily for both groups.)

Tone guidelines are hard to holistically define because they’re entirely driven by context, and the best writers tease it out through instinct. But if we were to write guidelines for tone, we might articulate it like this:

  • For first-time sales pitch: Upbeat positivity.
  • For new customer onboarding: Cheerful encouragement.
  • For emergency response: Brief, precise, and careful.

These describe how a brand literally speaks. For brand guidelines written for a particular medium or channel of engagement (for instance, a brand’s marketing automation campaigns), tone guidelines are essential.

Climate vs Weather

In essence, voice is to climate as tone is to weather.

The first is a set of defining principals, the second an expression of those principals blended with environmental variables. Climate is consistent and predictable across wide coverage; weather is highly local and changes frequently. The first is the average we take for granted, the second what we’re worried about for this weekend’s picnic.

Style guide writers and brand strategists: leverage this difference. You have two lenses with which to focus. Articulating voice is mandatory, but exploring tone for different audiences or contextual situations can be equally valuable.

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