‘I don’t like your tone, Mister.’
According to the Purdue University glossary of literary terms, “Tone suggests an attitude toward the subject which is communicated by the words the author chooses. Part of the range of tone includes playful, somber, serious, casual, formal, and ironic. Tone is important because it designates the mood and effect of a work”.
In other words, the tone of your message dictates the taste left in your audience’s mouth. As marketers, we try to be acutely aware of how our campaigns make our audience feel, because studies have shown that consumers make purchasing decisions based on emotional impulse just as often as logical reasoning.
So, that leaves us in tough spot. On the one hand, we know our product’s success depends on reaching consumers on an emotional level. At the same time, the impression our marketing strategies leave on those consumers is a very delicate thing to cultivate, and overly sappy messages can come off as a disingenuous ploy. The way to walk this fine line is by finding a tone that naturally suits your brand, your values, and your message.
Some Thoughts About Word Choice
Word choice is tricky. Each and every sentence we compose is a tiny little reflection of our brand, and maintaining consistency in that area is as important as it is daunting. Companies that are constantly trying on different approaches to word choice appear flimsy and unremarkable to an audience that is confronted with countless solider options on a daily basis.
So don’t look at word choice optimization as a one day fixer-upper. Think of it as a long-term commitment. Even if its importance isn’t immediately apparent – write down some core values for your company’s brand and attach the adjectives that are best aligned with them. That way, when you come across a decision while writing content, you’ll have something to consult. Even if none of the words from that specific exercise match well, you’ll be accumulating a nifty word-choice arsenal to make creating content easier. Plus, little exercises like this are a great way to stay in a brand appropriate mindset, the more you practice the more seamless it will be integrated into your writing!
Brand Authority vs. Brand Arrogance
Much has been made, and will continue to be made, about the importance of brand authority. Making it crystal clear to your audience that they are dealing with a consummate professional is vital to instill confidence. Much like public speaking, marketing your brand is no time to stutter or stammer your way through a nervous diatribe.
Within that framework of authoritative speech, though, is some inherent risk. After all, Authority has an ugly cousin named Arrogance, to be avoided at all costs.
Arrogance can manifest itself in a couple different ways. One way is by treating your competitors disrespectfully or dismissively. Consumers are like referees in a sporting event: if you expend a lot of time and energy complaining about what the other team is doing, eventually the referee’s going to get fed up and look more closely for your own infractions. Much in the same way, consumers trust companies who are more concerned with building up their own brand than defaming others.
This doesn’t mean it’s always a bad idea to address the attributes that set you apart from a competitor. If you’re going to do it, though, maintain a clear-minded modesty and don’t be afraid to use humor for a little levity. Apple is one company who’s taken some heat for this type of brand arrogance.
Another way you can unintentionally enter the realm of the arrogant is to treat the customer with disrespect. Now, obviously, no company would ever set out to does this, but it’s amazing to me how many companies conflate an authoritative tone with an arrogant one. Your tone should reflect the fact that you are acutely aware of why your product provides value and the potential to provide that value excites you. It shouldn’t sound like you are scolding people for not being a customer yet. Welcome them into the fold! (If you’ve ever enjoyed the unique pleasure of being welcomed into a fold, you’ll know it comes from a place of ‘happy-to-have-you’ warmth not ‘well-it’s-about-time’ iciness.)
Tone’s Role in Storytelling
Similar to how consumers make decisions for emotional reasons more often than logical ones, they frequently choose the brand that tells the best story over the one associated with the best product. The story is what attracts the consumer in the first place; without it, they might never even see the product. A good example of this is how TOMS shoes sells its customers on the story of social consciousness. They do this by donating a pair of shoes or eyeglasses for every pair sold.
If you take a look at some of the content on their website, you can see that they are experts at using tone to maintain a consistent narrative thread (in fact, their blog is labeled ‘Stories’). Once you click into this part of the site, the structure pops out right off the bat. The pieces of content are arranged in colorfully uneven cards and entries, reminding the viewer of a visually striking scrapbook.
The best entries contained within are those that lend interesting tonal subplots to the larger narrative arc of their brand, which we’ve all come to know and love.
In an illuminating post about their local manufacturing efforts in Haiti, for example, the Director of Giving Operations uses a pride-filled tone to describe the process of building a sustainable shoe industry in the area. There’s comfortable relatability in the writing, ensuring that the immediate takeaway is not “Look how great we are!”, but instead, ‘This was a very cool, life-affirming experience we were lucky enough to have. Now we want to tell you about it.” Let’s look at some specific instances where they accomplish that.
First he starts the post off with the following description of the country and its inhabitants:
“Haitians embody the word ‘perseverance.’ No matter what happened in the past, people will continually have faith that tomorrow will be a better day … and they strive to achieve that. The country and people are vibrant.”
He uses tone here to clearly define the subject as Haiti and its people, as opposed to TOMS. This is such a compelling and naturally feeling choice. It approaches the emotionally intense content with deference to the people of Haiti, and endears us as readers to the narrative; we’re now confident in his sincerity as a writer.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that he should leave himself and his company out of the post completely. It’s a matter of using that proud tone to stress that the story isn’t compelling because TOMS is so great; it’s compelling because it was a wonderful thing to be a part of, and he and his team learned from it. An example:
“No matter where you are in the world or how much or how little you have, some basic principles exist, oftentimes the most important one being the desire to take care of family and give your children the opportunity to live a better life.”
It makes the reader more willing to go along for the ride because we’re already willing to trust that he isn’t just promoting himself or the company he works for; he’s relating a meaningful experience. This is inspiring to read and does a great job of strengthening his brand.
Ultimately, tone shapes both the first and last impression you give your audience. It helps them – whether consciously or not – flesh out their emotional reaction to the way you present your brand. The important thing is to reflect confidence without arrogance, and make your audience know you are interested in telling a story, not stroking your ego.