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  • Writer's pictureDylan Parry

What's in a tone of voice? It doesn't have to be *everything*.

It's hardly controversial to note that the majority of tone-of-voice projects fail to produce an interesting or memorable voice. One reason for that may be a shortfall in the attention and investment allocated to writing within most branding processes. But I think another reason – the one I want to talk about here – is that the voice is often designed to reflect the entire brand strategy or set of values.

So if the brand is – for example – about being ambitious, supportive, intelligent and curious then the temptation is to try and embed all of those traits in the voice.

Well that sounds logical, you might say. And you'd be right, to a point.

But pause a moment. Would we ever expect so much heavy lifting from each of the visual brand assets, like logo, typeface or colour palette? No. We understand that these assets express the entire brand in combination, not in isolation. Likewise, we should see brand voice as just another of these assets – a piece that forms part of a whole – and not ask it to carry an impossible load1.

The best brand voices emerge from a singular thought or point of view.

Take Palace Skateboards, for example. Their writing stands unique, in the commercial space. But does it read like a set of four brand values translated into copywriting? Hell no it doesn't. It reads exactly as it is: someone chatting shit and having fun, in a way that their customers like and identify with. Analyse it and you'll realise that word choice, syntax and cultural references are bang on. But over-strategised it certainly ain't.

Palace Skateboards camo dog coat listing

One of the interesting things about the Palace Skateboards voice is that it feels like – and I mean this with the utmost respect – a bit of a happy accident, and not something that fell out of a branding project. Another example that feels more branded is the oft-celebrated Oatly. Dig around on Oatly's website and you'll see that part of the brand strategy is – like so many others – about driving a positive change. In this case, turning us onto oat milk – sorry, oat *drink* – instead of dairy.

It's easy to see how an overly linear, rational thought process might've translated such a mission into a worthy tone of voice that conveys all the positive change-making while also lacking any real distinctiveness. Instead, Oatly's voice is rooted in a kind of in-your-face irreverence that jumps out from the shelf and the fridge (and those big silly billboards).

That's not to say a brand's voice should be disconnected from its strategy.

You can see the dotted line that runs from Oatly's voice back to its strategy, and that is its readiness to be completely different. It's so comfortable in its skin, and having so much fun, that it brings the cool factor to both the category (itself still a challenger) and Oatly.

Such a voice lends itself well to hammering the dairy industry when the time comes – no accident of course. But the point is that the voice isn't overburdened by needing to serve multiple brand adjectives. It's fairly singular in its intent, rooted in a simple attitude: a light-hearted refusal to fall in line.

So how do we create voices like these?

I think it starts with taking a more lateral look at the brand and its sector. A bit like how the best advertising starts with taking a sideways look at a single insight. What jumping-off points are there for a voice? What's the brand's distinctive point of view? What sort of attitude could this inform?

Then put pen to page and see what springs forth.

1 Naming can suffer from this same over-burdening. Stipulating too many requirements at the start of your naming process is a sure-fire way to give yourself an impossibly uphill task.

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