5 traps to avoid when rolling out a tone of voice

Communicating a new brand voice through your organisation is a classic change-management challenge. Here are some key mistakes to avoid…

Let’s keep this centrally controlled – we don’t want everyone weighing in

True, if everyone in the business has a say in the sign-off of your new tone of voice, you’ll end up with the marketing equivalent of the proverbial camel (‘a horse designed by committee’). But that needn’t mean that interested parties shouldn’t get the opportunity to have an input into the process.

When we work with clients on developing tone of voice, we start by sending out a survey to relevant stakeholders – especially anyone who will need to understand or work regularly with the new voice (or at least a representative sample of such people, depending on scale).

In the survey we ask some simple questions about how people think the voice is working now, its strengths and weaknesses, which competitors are worth learning from, how they think the voice needs to evolve, and so on. This way, people feel they have been part of the journey to the new voice and are likely to be more receptive to its eventual introduction. The resultant voice is likely to be more practically useful too.

Let’s keep this away from Legal and Compliance

It’s tempting to divert discussions about a new brand voice away from those teams we think might challenge our creative efforts most, such as Legal or Compliance. But doing this is to set yourself up to fail. What after all is the point of developing a tone of voice that your key content reviewers can’t sign off?

The most effective tone of voice development projects I’ve seen have involved key players like Compliance or Legal from the outset. In one case I saw a tone of voice project that was actually initiated by a finance provider's Compliance team , who saw it as a regulatory duty to produce clearer, more approachable finance copy that wouldn’t confuse customers.

By being part of the voice development process rather than being positioned as the killjoys who sap all the creativity, stakeholders like Compliance get a better understanding from the very beginning of what you’re trying to achieve, which can massively improve sign-off further down the line. They can save you effort by helping you steer clear of ideas and approaches that will never get approved – and also indicate ways of communicating that, sometimes to the marketing team’s surprise, they find completely unobjectionable.

Let’s just focus on some high-profile examples – that’ll give people the flavour

Tone of voice guidelines that just focus on big showpiece items such as TV ads or billboard posters can be quite frustrating to the people who have to use your tone of voice guidance every day in lots of less glamorous ways.

If all I have to go on is a poster slogan or a big media campaign, how will I know how to translate the new tone of voice into a sales confirmation email or a Facebook post or a claims letter or an FAQ?

All of these (and many other low-key examples too numerous to mention) are vital brand touchpoints where tone of voice can play a big part in cementing a relationship, delivering a difficult piece of news, making important but unglamorous information easy to understand, and so on. Really effective tone of voice guidelines will include lots of examples of how to use your brand language in these less glamorous channels.

‘Voice is mostly about mood and personality – let’s create some very visual guidelines so everyone can feel what we’re going for


Actually tone of voice is mostly about language. I’ve lost count of the number of brand guidelines that devote reams of pages to colour palettes and image cropping guidelines, but only a cryptic paragraph to how write in the new brand voice (no doubt illustrated by a billboard ad developed by an agency).

If your voice isn’t being used consistently, you don’t really have a voice. And the only way you can get people writing in your voice is to give them lots of practical guidance – annotated tonal values, examples to emulate (and avoid), and useful copywriting pointers.

Let’s give a talk on the new tone of voice… with a test at the end to see who’s got it

The idea that people can be schooled in your new brand voice in the same way that they can learn the key points of anti-fraud legislation or how to operate your new CMS is, I think, a flawed one.

True, some things can be prescribed – you can (and should) start a list of words to use and avoid. For example, an insurer might decide to ban ‘pedal cycle’ as too pedantic or officious, and always say ‘push bike’ instead. But voice is a fuzzy and approximate concept, and an element of subjective judgement will always play a part. It’s never going to be possible to look at a piece of copy and say ‘that is 100% in (or out of) our tone of voice’.

Better to highlight good examples, put together practical guidelines, and run training sessions where people get to practise writing in the new voice. Appoint a group of tone of voice champions you trust to keep an eye on new materials, highlighting strong examples and providing feedback on where copy is going astray.

This post originally appeared on CMO.com

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