I heard Eddie Izzard on the radio yesterday. Or it could have been Jimmy Carr. Hard to tell, really.
Obviously, that’s ridiculous. They’re both very different – not just in accent, but in tone of voice. You could transcribe them and still easily tell them apart.
Now let’s flip it to advertising. If you took most ads and removed the visuals and logo, could you tell which brand it’s for just from the copy?
Usually, the answer’s no.
Over the years, I’ve read lots of brand guidelines, and they usually boil down to a tone of voice which is, basically: nice.
And it’s nice to be nice. Safe, cosy, inoffensive. But we know from psychology studies that people prize novelty. When something’s unusual, they notice it more, and remember it better. So when everyone speaks the same way, no-one stands out.
A useful way of looking at tone of voice is to think of it as a brand’s personality – its emotional state. There’s a classic improvisation game called Emotional Rollercoaster. The performers (or players as they’re known) start a scene, then the audience calls out a series of emotions, which the players have to incorporate into the scene. It’s exciting to watch, especially with more unusual emotions.
When it comes to brands, there are plenty that sound upbeat, and all food brands are apparently passionate, but what about other emotions? Where are the brands that sound annoyed? Or hyper?
The upside to this sameyness is that there are lots of distinctive tones of voice just waiting to be used. And to see the potential rewards of adopting one, just look at the brands that do have a distinctive tone, like Innocent, Old Spice and Honda.
So, how do you find a fresh tone of voice?
Here are a few suggestions:
Get to know your audience
The better you know them – their thoughts, their preferences, their actions – the better you’ll know how to address them.
Have second thoughts
Think of a nice, unarguable tone of voice. Throw it away. And think of a more unusual one.
Go to extremes
Take an existing tone of voice and push it further. Beyond passion lies obsession or fanaticism – both richer, rarer territories.
Do the opposite
Consider the tone of voice you’d expect from a category. Then run in the other direction. How about a radio ad for a van that doesn’t feature a cockney geezer? Or an ad for a luxury watch that does?
Much under-used, so much more attention-grabbing. Introduce us to a high-street bank that doesn’t try to be warm and friendly. Or a divorce lawyer who’s truthfully ruthless.
Either way works: give a diet brand a grumpy tone. Or give a charity ad about starving third-world children a funny tone. It could be distasteful. Actually, it’s Comic Relief.
So, move beyond thinking about your brand’s USP, and give it a UTP – a unique tone proposition.
You just need to be brave. (Or shy, disgusted, elated, angry, nervy, optimistic…)