Vox pop – February 2006

Tone of voice: valuable business commodity or meaningless buzzphrase?

Chris Bird, Word Bird

Ben & Jerry, those chunky monkeys, were one of the first to sweeten up the corporate tone of voice, thanks to their sweet and sticky language, and the richness of their story-telling. Later, Orange talked to us ‘on equal terms, in a tone of friendly respect’, changing how we thought about mobile phones. Now we’re in danger of losing our innocence, as global purveyors of hydrogenated vegetable powders seek to sound like entrepreneurial smoothie-makers, and giant multi-nationals market bath bombs in an attempt to sound lush. So… ‘Tone of voice – valuable business commodity or meaningless buzzphrase?’ It all depends on whether you get in there first, and have something original to say.

Mike Reed, Reed Words

In this post-Innocent era, I don’t think anyone can doubt the power of a genuinely original and distinctive tone of voice. However, I do think some clients get excited about ‘tone of voice’ without really appreciating what that means. It can be seen as a bit of a magic wand – “If we get a good tone of voice, we’ll do brilliantly, like Innocent.” (Like the idea that a smart new logo will save the business.) Which I think accounts for the number of people asking for something “a bit like Innocent”. When you ask about the brand, its personality, and what makes it distinctive, such clients often go a bit quiet and start frowning. And they tend to come up with a brief that says, “We want to sound professional and authoritative, but also friendly, human and conversational.” All too often, this is presented as something genuinely new and distinctive. A genuinely distinctive voice has to be grounded in the truth of the brand and its values. Otherwise it can sound like someone putting on an accent in a transparent attempt to be something they’re not.

Ben Afia

How we talk to people affects how they feel about us. They make assumption on what we say, and how. If our words and tone fit how they see the world, they might want to talk to us more. And if they don’t, they’ll look elsewhere. So much for stating the obvious. But I think the same goes for companies and organisations. The words and tone they use give us clues about what they’re like to deal with and whether we can trust them. That’s what I think tone of voice is about. So, I absolutely think it’s a valuable business commodity. What remains to be seen is how far we can take it. Innocent’s distinctive tone of voice on bottles, echoes the purity of the juice inside. And the idea of drinking unadulterated juice appeals to people who feel bad about eating loads of takeaways. It’s a great business idea, brilliantly communicated through a tone that’s attractive to a certain market. The result is an expanding business that sells lots of juice. For other organisations, like the water board, we still want to feel that what matters to us, matters to them. And a straightforward and honest tone can help them to get that message across to us… but only if they believe it.

A response from Dan Germain of Innocent drinks:

I always find it a bit odd that people might want to sound a bit like us (Innocent). It seems to me like the only thing they should ever really want to sound like is themselves. the tone that innocent uses is the one that we use when we’re talking to our mums or messing about in the pub on a Friday night. It didn’t get invented or agreed upon after a period of consultancy with some expert toners. And so what you hear from us is us. Not someone else’s idea of what we are. Of course, analysing it like this is the toughest thing of all, because it makes you sound like a bit of an overly analytical knob. and that’s the last thing we want to be. fundamentally, I believe that a company will do best when it uses its own natural voice. but that might be the tricky bit – finding out what your voice is when you’ve been somebody else’s for too long.

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