Making it happen since 1988

The new tone of voice

By Adam Reynolds on May 26, 2016

Why your brand’s voice doesn’t need a beard and tattoos.

If you’re in any doubt about the importance of tone of voice, take a trip back in time with me to 1997. We can see Liam Gallagher, swaggering about on stage, whining this line through his floppy fringe…

‘All my people right here, right now, know what I mean?’

It just sounds right.

Now imagine Tony Blair delivering the same line, complete with his trademark pauses. Take it away, Tony…

‘All my people…right here….right now…know what I mean?’

See the difference?

Only, for many brands, trying to talk like someone else has been an active pursuit for years now. Instead of being true to themselves, and writing in a way that reflects their values, brands have fallen over themselves to sound like Innocent, the smoothie makers.

Ever since, we’ve endured everything from crisp packets and breakfast cereals to cash machines and pub menus trying to be our best mates. All cosy, chatty and oh-so witty. Hey, we’re just like you, let’s hang out! Look at us, we’re bonkers – bet you didn’t expect that from a building society!

While I’m a big advocate of writing something as you’d say it in person, the line was crossed. When everyone says the same things in the same style, it just becomes noise. Instead of standing out, the band-wagon-jumpers blend in. Only noticeable by their stench of ‘me-too’ desperation.

But wait, what’s that heading in our direction? Why it looks a lot a new tone of voice. Move over, chatty, matey Innocent speak. Your flippant chumminess has tested our patience for long enough. It’s time to get serious. It’s time to talk in artisan terms.

This change has been on the cards for a while. Post-recession, hipster culture rose, the flat white economy developed and small-scale manufacturing of everything from bread to gin allowed a slew of artisan makers to emerge.

Big brands weren’t slow to catch on. Walking through a supermarket these days, you’d be forgiven for thinking all the production lines had shut down. Hairnets and blue plasters cast aside. Dust gathering on the conveyor belts where processed quiches once whizzed by.

In their place, every single item destined for the shelves is being hand-made. As you stroll through the aisles the words jump out from the rustic styled packing…artisan, authentic, hand-crafted, traditional, farmhouse.

Any day now crisp packets will stop pretending they’ve known us since primary school and have been to every birthday party we’ve ever had. Instead they’ll adopt a far more po-faced tone, earnestly telling us the precise temperature of the oil the crisps were cooked in. As well how many times they were stirred (by hand, naturally) and in what direction to achieve the perfect crispy crunch.

Not to be outdone, Domino’s introduced a range of artisan pizzas. As though they had flour-dusted, Italian octogenarians toiling away at traditional wood-fired ovens in every franchise, kneading dough with gnarled fingers. The reality is far less romantic.

This appropriation of the authentic is at best lazy, at worst patronising and misleading. Applying terms for genuinely hand-made items on to things produced on an industrial scale treats consumers like mugs.

The overexposure of terms such as hand-crafted, authentic and rustic also leaves them devalued. The copycats cannibalise their own pilferings. Leaving a trail of empty, played-out words in their wake. Style stands proudly over the slain substance.

So what’s the solution? For starters, stop trying to sound like someone else (or everyone else for that matter). Brands rightly invest a lot in the way they look. They should do the same with the way they talk. Write in a tone that’s unmistakeably you. That expresses your values, positioning and product. So if you covered the logo, you’d still know which brand it is.

This shouldn’t just be the preserve of big brands either. The Manchester menswear retailer Oi Polloi has a wonderfully distinctive voice (that’s often copied but never equalled by their competitors). Their success lies in being themselves; independent, informed and effortlessly cool.

At the other end of the scale, can you imagine Apple or Ikea trying to sound like another brand? Or adopting the default tone of the day? Of course not. They know who they are, what they want to say and how they want to say it.

Our industry talks a lot about the need to engage with people. Treating them with respect goes a long way to achieving that aim. First Direct does a brilliant job of this. They talk to you as an adult, in a warm, intelligent tone. They’re friendly but never over the top, like OMG we’re your bestest friends forever. Crucially their language represents their black and white approach to banking.

As we wave goodbye to the Innocent era, let’s make the artisan era short lived. Let’s make sure brands don’t wholesale adopt the artisan voice of beards and tattoos. Most importantly, let’s usher in the individual era, where brands talk in the only voice that matters – their own.

A version of this post was first published on The Drum.