For the most part, we’ve been talking about visual interpretation—design. Now I’d like to cover something adjacent but different: the brand’s verbal expression, language, and behavior, or what we call tone and voice.
Strategy, tone, and design are definitely in a relationship but … it’s complicated.
In the hierarchy of marketing, tone and voice flows directly from brand strategy, and it supersedes design.
Brand Strategy => Tone & Voice => Visual Expression
Let’s break this down:
Brand strategy is a mix of internal guideposts, mission, vision, and values. The language you use within your walls to discuss strategy can become consumer-facing, but more often it influences what you say and how you say it to consumers.
Tone and voice translates strategy into words, behaviors, vibes, and relationships you build with your audience. That audience may be consumers who buy your products, retail partners your sales team interacts with, or your suppliers. Tone and voice defines how you’re going to fulfill the promise your brand makes to the world. And it ensures consistency so that everyone speaks from the same phrase book.
Design, or creative, renders the tone and voice of the brand in a visual way that delivers on the brand promise and meets business objectives. Design is font choice, color palette, visual library of illustrations or photos, and so on. Design reflects tone, which reflects strategy. If your brand voice is soft, and comforting and casual, then your font choice shouldn’t be aggressive and angular.
How to Build a Brand’s Tone and Voice
When we advise food and beverage companies on building a brand strategy playbook, we don’t go from the strategy work straight to the design execution. There’s a step in between: defining the brand’s tone and voice. So what does that look like?
Most brands have a design standards guide that governs things like logo usage and photographic style. We take it a step further and develop a brand bible—a rich, comprehensive document that incorporates everything from how the brand delivers on its mission, to how it talks with customers, to how it responds in a crisis. All that, plus typefaces and color palettes and other visual elements. The brand bible is literally that: A reference that defines every bit of visual and verbal communication.
In creating the brand’s tone and voice, we use the 12 classic brand archetypes. It’s a tool that marketers are familiar with, and a great way to use analogy to home in on the brand’s persona. Brand archetypes include the Hero, the Explorer, the Caregiver, and the Sage. By defining the archetype—either one of the traditional archetypes, a riff, or a combination—we can start to get a handle on the language, emotional tone, and communication style.
We also develop phrasing for the brand’s mission and vision. This might take the form of a manifesto (which could be used internally only or externally as well). It includes short, medium, and long versions of the mission for use in different ways. Some of this language should be consistently used verbatim, like gospel, but we also give people other language and tools so they can scat. These foundational words and phrases, married with the emotional tone and communication style, informs how we write every single bit of copy, from sales decks to social media posts.
From Verbal to Visual Expression
From there, we create a mood board, sort of a scrapbook that captures inspiration for how the brand looks in the wild. It incorporates imagery showing the consumer and their world, and how the brand fits into their lives. Out of that research emerges a visual system of type, color, and imagery.
In the olden days, design would pull the tone and voice forward, because design was stronger than writing. (Unless you were in the advertising business, where hotshot copywriters led the charge.) Today, the brand’s persona defines visual expression.
One watch-out though: Tone and voice, like design, must be anchored in the brand’s strategic foundation. I have seen it hundreds of times, when the copywriting is so creative and “cool” that the agency or internal team reverse-engineers the brand strategy to map to it. This is not brand strategy. A disconnect between mission, tone, and design is a recipe for confusing, alienating, and infuriating your audience. More to the point: When creative misses the mark, you risk failure in terms of meaningful performance (growing audiences, adding reach, getting velocity, and making a profit).
Successful brands understand who their potential customers are, how they think, what they need, and where they spend their time. Great brands that achieve long-term relevance arrive at these insights through a brand strategy framework that makes writing for said consumers intuitive rather than forced. Defining the elements below will help tone and voice deliver against strategy instead of redirect it:
• Purpose (why you exist)
• Promise (what will you do and how will you do it)
• Values (what will you stand behind even if it’s painful)
• Emotion (what’s in it for your employees, trade partners, consumers)
• Context (when, where, and how will someone know that they belong to your brand)
• Audience insight (what do they need to hear from you to opt-in)
• Competitive and category research
Case Study: A Brand with a Distinctive Voice
At an industry event in Chicago recently, reps from Hershey, Pringles, H-P, and Liquid Death shared the stage for a panel discussion. And those three mega-brands were agog at Liquid Death. Liquid Death’s countercultural tone and voice are so inclusive to a net new audience—they’re not about selling water; they’re an environmental company disguised as a water brand.
But the skateboard dude and tattooed mom don’t care about the brand’s mission to kill plastic packaging—they just care that the product is cool. They want the tall can with the logo that looks like it’s for a heavy metal band with rad type and skull graphics. The brand’s persona drives creative execution, all in service of the mission.
For more insight into how Liquid Death’s brand voice came to be, check out Diana’s Gooder podcast interview with Liquid Death’s CBO, Amy Friedlander Hoffman. Unsurprisingly, her personality was totally on brand.Need some guidance on shaping your brand’s tone and voice? That’s our thing. Let’s get in touch.