If you’re into big brand battles and the fall of industry titans, you’re probably watching the news about Uber’s upcoming IPO. Though the official bid date hasn’t yet been set, industry analysts are already predicting that the once-iconic peer-to-peer ridesharing app might not be the best long-term investment. As an industry insider who trades in brand identity, it’s easy to see why.
Almost anyone with a Lyft or Juno subscription will tell you that Uber has had a challenging time with its brand perception. Since it first disrupted the transportation industry in 2010, the company has faced several high-profile lawsuits over issues like labor laws, passenger safety and sexual harassment.
In the midst of all the chaos, general manager and head of cities at Uber, Fred Jones, candidly admitted the reason: the company had “never really had a brand voice.”
Uber is a sobering example of what happens when a brand neglects its tone of voice, that elusive quality that seems so natural and effortless when it’s right but jars so much when it’s wrong.
More channels, more voices
The importance of tone of voice is growing with the rise of social media. As the number of potential content channels increases, brands must produce more words to feed them. Social teams are getting bigger. Audiences are getting wider. And that means more and more people have the big responsibility of representing a brand. Giving the right people that kind of responsibility can help build relationships with a brand’s target audience in ways traditional media can’t even begin to measure up to. But getting it wrong can be a recipe for disaster. And tone of voice is a major determinant in which way a brand will swing.
So how do you find your brand’s tone of voice, and how do you make it stick?
Answering the big questions
Before you decide how your brand speaks, you must first figure out who you are.
Can you articulate your brand’s core belief? Why does it exist? What was it created to do? Can you describe your brand in a sentence? In a paragraph? In a 10-minute speech? If your brand was a person, who would it be? What sort of personality traits would it have?
These questions can seem unnecessary or even silly to brand managers, but with expert support, answering them will give you what you need to produce a tone of voice guide, starting with a list of traits: values and adjectives that capture your brand.
The key is to make this a collaborative process, a big workshop with key stakeholders across the company, from copy and social teams to sales teams to designers to marketers. Often, these people will have very different ideas of how the brand should look and sound. It’s important to have these conversations up-front and be honest about balancing sales goals with creative vision and authenticity.
It’s also important to be prepared for several rounds of revisions. It’s a classic case of only getting out what you’re prepared to put in. If the people using the guide don’t feel invested in it, why would they adopt it?
You talkin’ to me?
Another golden rule of the tone of voice guide is that you must be crystal clear about who your audience is. If you don’t know who you’re speaking to, how can you hope to strike the right tone with them?
Be open-minded, too. It might take your brand in surprising directions. Take Denny’s, for example, seen for generations as a safe diner of choice for older people and truckers. But in 2013, the brand chose to target its younger, late-night clientele.
Denny’s social media team, run by marketing agency EP+Co., adopted a surreal, humorous tone to reflect the kind of conversations overheard in diners in the small hours. Suddenly it was producing funny memes that prompted as many groans as laughs, but always generated a buzz, summed up by 2014’s Ascii tweet in celebration of pancakes. This change of direction helped build a Twitter following of more than half a million. Finding your brand’s tone and ensuring it’s properly reflected across multiple channels is far from easy.
Own it, use it
Once you have created your voice, it’s important that you own it. The tone of voice guide will be a critical tool here to make sure everyone in the company is engaged.
To make it easier to digest, create a list of just three to six words that express the company’s tone of voice. The best shortlist of these words will have some tension. They shouldn’t be words that say the same thing.
The tone of voice guide will also be full of practical components that will help employees use it. For example, a brand persona and a core belief, mission or purpose statements, 90-character descriptions and a brand manifesto. Every tone of voice guide should also end with dos and don’ts as well as relevant examples across platforms, from ad copy to email subject lines to social media posts to elevator pitches to sizzle videos that further flex the tone. The more examples writers have to work with the better.
It’s not a straightforward process, but a glance at the contrasting public perception of Denny’s and Uber should be all you need to understand the importance of tone of voice. Get it right, and you will strengthen the bond between your brand and its customers. Plus, you will almost certainly discover something interesting about who you are as a brand, too.