As consumers we expect brands to speak to us in a consistent tone of voice. 

We want communications that reflect each brand’s personality and fit within a defined set of characteristics.

We don’t, for example, expect Paddy Power to come over all serious and conscientious, much as it would be a shock to the system if Dior became cheeky and self-deprecating.

But finding and maintaining a tone of voice can be a difficult challenge, particularly when writing copy for a broad range of digital and print communications.

I recently attended the Econsultancy Advanced Online Copywriting Training Course where the rather excellent trainer, Tim Fidgeon, showed us a useful task for helping to identify the correct tone of voice for your brand.

Tim recommended using specific examples that illustrate each personality trait, rather than relying on vague descriptions such as: “Our brand is warm and friendly, but also cheeky.”

The problem with describing your brand’s tone of voice solely using personality traits is that they are subjective, so each trait has varying levels.

For example, my definition of ‘friendly and outgoing’ might be very different to that of a person who is genuinely friendly and outgoing.

Therefore it’s key to provide several examples to demonstrate what’s right and what’s wrong, as it helps team members to visualise your brand values.

To steal Tim’s metaphor, think of it like Goldilocks & The Three Bears. You need three examples – too hot, too cold and just right.

So if one of your brand values is ‘inspiring’, in your tone of voice guidelines provide an example of marketing copy which embodies that trait.

Then also provide two other examples to demonstrate when copy becomes too inspiring, or not inspiring enough.

It might also be useful, as we did in the training session, to have your copywriters re-write existing marketing communications to represent an extreme version of a specific brand trait.

This helps to highlight words and phrases that don’t fit with your tone of voice and gives further examples of what to avoid.

Tone of voice documents

To give an example of this in action and provide some inspiration for your own documentation, it’s worth checking out the British Council’s brand guidelines.

In the tone of voice section it has sections for:

  • Our tone of voice.
  • What our tone is.
  • What our tone is not.

So alongside the description of the British Council’s tone, it includes examples to help its writers understand what they should be aiming for.

It’s still not perfect however, as the examples are quite broad and do not specifically address each of the organisations five personality traits.

Another document worth casting your eye over is the tone of voice guidelines published by Leeds University.

It’s a comprehensive 30-page set of rules that lays out the organisation’s principles and personality in some detail.

The author offers advice on what each trait does and doesn’t mean, as well as describing how it sounds and giving a set of tips for writers.

However it stops short of providing actual examples, which would help to improve what is already an extremely useful set of guidelines.

For further information on this topic, read our blog post looking at 11 values that create an effective tone of voice, plus six to avoid

David Moth

Published 17 July, 2014 by David Moth

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn

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Comments (1)


Megan Lane, Account manager at Empathy

Can you provide another alternative to the British Council guidelines? These are locked behind a registration wall, and it seems only those with a relationship to the Council are allowed to register.

about 3 years ago

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