I fear I may have been wrong about how tone of voice can build brands

At the end of the Financial Services Forum’s webinar, How Financial Services Brands Can Use Words To Stand Out, earlier this week, I was feeling pleased with myself.  I had asked a question which, I thought, had revealed the fatal flaw in the thinking of both the panellists and revealed them both as men of straw.  Other webinists, (webicipants?  webinarians?   webendees?) I felt sure, would be grateful to me for setting them straight.

What had happened was that in addressing the event’s title, both panellists, one client-side and one agency-side, had made the absolutely bog-standard, heard-it-a-thousand-times presentation:  write in simple, conversational language, stick to short sentences, use the word “you” a lot, don’t be pompous or formal and whatever you do, no passive verbs.   I came back with the almost-equally bog-standard, heard-it-a-thousand-times challenge to all this, which is that if all FS brands follow this same set of rules they won’t “stand out” at all, they’ll just sound like everyone else.  There has to be more to achieving differentiation than just replacing old-fashioned Rulebook A with new-fangled Rulebook B.

At this, the speakers almost audibly stroked their chins for a few moments and then replied that yes, that’s pretty much right, it isn’t really about differentiation, it’s just about connecting with consumers and being accessible and engaging, which would make a nice change from the way that most FS brands have used words in the past.

Leaving me, obviously, feeling smug and self-satisfied in my belief that I understood the contribution language can make to brand differentiation very much better than either of these two speakers, who seem not to understand it at all.  To make the point, I’d highlight a handful of businesses where a distinctive tone of voice – usually instigated by a founder or other principal – has had a huge effect on brand perceptions:  Tom Baigrie at LifeSearch comes to mind, and Justin Urquhart-Stewart at Seven Investment Management, and Mark Polson at The Lang Cat, and kind of Holly Mackay at Boring Money, although I can’t help thinking that these days Holly needs to be careful if she wants us to understand that her firm’s name is meant ironically.   Role models like these tell us how you do it, I’ve always thought, not just a stupid generic rulebook about passive verbs.

Except that when I come to think about it, there is an obvious and, I fear, show-stopping objection to my role model-based approach.  All these businesses are small, and in some cases very small, as in tiny.   And in each case, the TOV-originator is actually personally and more or less single-handedly responsible for writing in the firm’s tone of voice.  It isn’t the case that there’s a whole bunch of people at LifeSearch writing like Tom, or a herd of felines at The Lang Cat who sound like Mark.  There may be one or two other people who can have a reasonable stab at it, either within the organisation or at any external agencies they may work with.  But although I’ve never seen a letter from LifeSearch chasing an overdue payment, or an email from Boring Money acknowledging a change of address, I feel pretty sure that they don’t sound as if they’ve been written by Tom or Holly respectively.

And, importantly, nor should they.  It would take an enormous effort to achieve that level of consistency, and what would be the point?  If the accounts department clerk receiving the letter from LifeSearch noticed the tone of voice at all, they’d just think it was rather odd.

It’s at this point that my long-held but slightly fuzzy theories about all this start looking wrong.  I suppose I’ve always thought that the stick-of-rock principle applies to TOV just as much as it applies to visual identity:  in the same way that everything should follow the visual style, the same goes for the verbal side.  That letter from LifeSearch should be written on the right stationery (God, who uses stationery?), in the right font, with the right logo, following the right layout – and in the right tone of voice.

But the problem is that the more genuinely distinctive and idiosyncratic the tone of voice, the more it’s going to be difficult-to-pointless-to-impossible to stretch it across the business.  Sure, if it only comes down to some simple rules of effective communication – simple language, short sentences, no passive verbs – then it shouldn’t be impossibly difficult to get all writers on board.  But if the voice is, say for the sake of argument, “crazed Glaswegian headbanger”, it’s not going to happen.

All of this leaves me in need of a new theory.  It would be ridiculously counterproductive to argue that crazed Glaswegian headbangers should tone down their outstandingly distinctive and readable style in the interests of achieving more consistency across the business’s output, and anyway I doubt if Mark can write in any other style.  But, on the other hand, if we’re acknowledging that others in the business are never going to sound like that, then there goes any possibility of consistency.

I dimly sense that the answer to this may be – as so often in consultancy – a sort of pyramid, where the business’s front man or woman writes in the full strength, 100% proof version, and others aim for something more diluted.   If I think about my own writing, I could easily come up with a list of a couple of dozen quirks that others could quite easily learn to adopt – extensive use of dashes and brackets, controversially long sentences, frequent appearance of lists, slight overuse of modifying words like “slightly, “reasonably” or “fairly,” etc – which could ultimately achieve a voice which would be both reasonably distinctive and reasonably consistent.

But until I develop this vague theory into a clear concept, with a defined process and an intended outcome, the best I can offer is a tone that’s either distinctive or consistent.  And that’s not really contributing an awful lot to the brand.