How to select the right brand voice (and tone) for your small business

Your simplified guide to understanding (and then establishing) brand voice for your small business.

What is brand voice?

Brand voice is the manner in which a brand communicates with customers. Unlike literal voice, in the marketing sense this refers to your written style of communication.

It is used for practically every marketing touchpoint: web copy, e-mails (general correspondence like customer service and inquiries; newsletters; marketing campaigns), press releases, advertisements, social media, and even packaging.

A brand’s voice can take on any tone and style you choose as long as it aligns with the brand’s values, persona and overall branding.

Summary: Brand voice is essentially an expression of your brand’s personality in written form. It encapsulates a large part of your identity and should ideally be unique, honest and personal to your brand—and true to who you are as a company.

Why is brand voice important?

For many small businesses, settling on a distinct brand voice isn’t a real priority. It’s typically overlooked in favour of visual branding: selecting appropriate fonts, picking a suitable colour palette, commissioning a logo and finalizing style and design elements.

In other words visual branding is, understandably, where most of your attention and resources go. That’s why when it comes to voice, you might be thinking, isn’t it more important to write from the heart and get the basics like spelling and grammar right? Why is conceptualizing something like brand voice even necessary?

Let’s put it this way: Winging it in terms of how you communicate might work right now, but if you want to go the distance (and clearly, you do), then finding and refining your brand voice is essential. Here’s why.

Brand voice influences how you’re viewed

Consumers glean a lot about a brand from the way they ‘sound’. And they form lasting opinions based on those perceptions. That’s why brand voice doesn’t just impact first impressions – it plays a crucial role in the embodiment of your image. So if you’re just writing willy-nilly, with no clearly defined voice, tone or style, then you’re doing your brand a disservice.

It’s what helps you distinguish yourself from everyone else

Studies have found that among the factors that make a brand stand out more compared to its peers is memorable content, a distinct personality and compelling storytelling. And what those elements have in common is brand voice.

Put another way, if you sound just like everyone else and say the same things as everyone else, then you aren’t going to be memorable.

Brand voice contributes to engagement

Your voice helps give readers an idea of your personality. In other words it’s what humanises your brand, allowing you to connect with, engage, and endear yourself with the readers and potential customers that matter to you.

It can make or break a sale

Do you buy from people or brands you don’t like? No – unless you really don’t have any other options. Instead you actively choose to support those that you like. You know them and they have earned your trust. It’s that affinity that can very well be the deciding factor between closing a sale and losing it entirely. (Tip: Consumers invest a lot more – financially and otherwise – into your brand when there is an emotional connection.)

Summary: Your brand voice is powerful enough to sway potential customers’ view of you. It even helps to build valuable connections with customers, which, in turn, can positively impact your bottom line.

When to establish brand voice

In an ideal world, you would have chosen a suitable voice at the very beginning of the branding process. But this is the real world and things don’t always follow a linear plan.

You might not have had the luxury of time to think about your branding or had all that much marketing knowledge to start out with. You dive in, learn and adapt along the way.

Which brings me to this point: It’s never too late to define and implement brand voice in your marketing.

Step by step guide to establish your brand voice

Whether you realize it or not, you an idea of what you want your brand voice to be. It’s just a matter of perfecting it to suit your business needs. This simplified step by step guide will help you do just that.

Step 1: Get to know yourself

Before you can define and refine your brand voice, you need to get to the nitty-gritty of who you are as a business. You need to know why – but also how – you’re different from your industry peers.

That is to say, the first step is all about brand essence—the core characteristics that define you as a brand.

How do you find the heart and soul of your brand? Well, it involves getting to the bottom of some very fundamental questions.

  • Purpose: Why do we exist? What is our reason for being in this business?
  • Vision: What kind of future are we trying to build?
  • Mission: How will we create or achieve that future?
  • Values: What kind of company do we want to be? Or, put another way, who are we and how do we work?

Your answers provide the framework for defining your brand personality and inevitably shape brand identity, which you will need for the next step.

Step 2: How would you describe your brand?

Now that you’ve identified who you are at the most basic level, it’s time to personify your brand with human attributes and emotions.

This time, you’ll want to think about the following:

  • What’s the best way to describe our brand?
  • How do we want customers to describe us?
  • What should customers feel?

As hard as it may be for you to do this, you should narrow it down to just three (3) main descriptors. Those three words should be clear, accurate and intuitive. And when viewed as a whole, they should be what make you unique.

Tip: Too many adjectives may just confuse and complicate things, so narrow them down to the most pertinent ones. Stick with 3 to 5 max!

Let’s consider an imaginary ice cream brand, “Radiant Scoop”.

Radiant Scoop makes cravings-satisfying ice cream using only 100% natural ingredients—no artificial colours or flavours, no additives and no preservatives.

Radiant Scoop is also passionate about bringing great new flavours to market. In fact, they take pride in their imaginative yet super tasty creations that customers are unlikely to have encountered before.

In this case, our fictitious ice cream brand might opt for descriptors like “passionate”, “real” and “innovative”.

Step 3: Familiarise yourself with your target audience

In perfecting your brand voice, you also need to get to know your customers. Or to put it another way: Who are you trying to attract?

This is an important question because the tone and style you choose for your brand voice isn’t just determined by your personality – it must also take those you’re communicating with into consideration. You want to speak to customers, not at them or over them.

That’s why this stage requires plenty of research. Among others, you will want to examine details like:

  • Demographics: Gender, age, marital status, occupation, income, education
  • Psychographics: Lifestyle, interests, hobbies, values, opinions / attitudes / beliefs
  • Needs and wants: Preferably related to your product / service
  • Communication style: How do you they communicate with each other? For example: What kind of language do they use? Are emojis common?

Remember Radiant Scoop? Let’s get to know their present (but also future) customers a bit better.

Sample customer profile

DemographicsPrimarily female → Millennials; young professionals
Age 23 – 35
Single or married but without kids
Have an income of $60.000 and up
PsychographicsIdentify as ‘foodies’
Take pride in discovering and trying new foods
Like to share food photos on social
Consider an evening in with snacks and Netflix a great night
Place great importance on natural ingredients
NeedsA satisfying sweet treat for consumption at home
WantsExciting and decadent flavours that they can also show off about
It should be as healthy as possible, i.e. no unnecessary additives
Communication styleCasual, approachable, authentic
Use typical millennial phrases

I’ve obviously kept things short since this is just an imaginary example but you should try to be more complete. Anyway, you get the general idea of what you should be doing.

The clearer the image you have of your customers, the easier it will be to find the right language, tone and style to use with them.

Step 4: Assess the competition

Let’s start with a crucial point: Don’t copy the competition. You are you and it won’t do you any favours to sound just like another brand in your field.

Having said that, you still need to know what your peers are doing to so you can set yourself apart. For example: Take a look at competitors’ packaging copy, check out their website and examine how they’re communicating on social.

That should give you an indication of what works and what doesn’t; who they’re targeting; and how you have to position yourself to be memorable.

Step 5: Review your existing materials

If you already have copy and content, go back and take a look at what you’ve been doing. Audit your web copy, blog posts (if any), social media posts, how you’ve been responding to e-mails and so on.

Make note of the following:

  • Have you been consistent across all touchpoints?
  • What kind of tone have you been using?
  • Is the language relevant to your current or desired customers?
  • What could you be doing better?
  • Does your writing effectively convey your brand’s unique personality?

Step 6: Create brand voice guidelines

If you’ve gotten this far, you will have noticed that your brand voice is an amalgamation of personality, company culture and emotions.

You also know that brand voice should be consistent—and that it must align with your overall branding. What I mean is if your logo is playful and quirky, you probably don’t want to sound too serious or stern.

Tip: Consistency is crucial for avoiding disconnect. Customers should know that they’re dealing with your brand regardless of touchpoint. That is, whether they’re on your website, on Instagram or reading packaging copy.

That’s where building a brand voice chart can be really useful, even if you’re a small company with only a handful of employees or colleagues.

Your brand voice chart will include the following:

  • characteristics
  • description
  • dos and don’ts

You might also like: 10 editing and proofreading tips for beginners

So let’s return to our Radiant Scoop ice cream brand. Their brand voice chart might look something like this.

Sample brand voice chart

CharacteristicDescriptionWhat we will doWhat we won’t do
PassionateWe’re passionate about creating the most exciting and flavourful and indulgent ice creams on the market.Be energetic
Show enthusiasm; get people excited
Use strong verbs
Be boring or uninspired
Use vague language
Use passive voice
RealJust like we place great importance on good quality and natural ingredients, we’re also all about being real.Be honest and direct
Use casual, easy-to-understand and friendly language
Be too matter-of-fact
Sound fake or pretentious
Use marketing jargon
InnovativeWe want to give our community adventurous new flavours to love.Awaken curiosity
Be complacent
Be arrogant
Talk down to our audience

Again, this is a simplified version just to give you some ideas. You will obviously put much more thought into creating your own brand voice chart.

And if you want to go the extra mile, you’ll also add purpose, persona, tone and language details into your guidelines.

Tip: Put an actual style guide with examples together, which your colleagues can turn to for guidance or just for reference.
This would also include grammatical, stylistic and even punctuation rules. For example: We use “and”, not “&” or say “first” instead of “1st”.

Step 7: Define your brand voice

Finally, use all the insight you’ve compiled in steps 1 to 6 to define and refine your brand voice. Then you can start applying it to your copywriting.

Choosing the right copywriting tone

We can’t talk about brand voice and not touch on tone because, as you can imagine, it’s one of the most important considerations for your copywriting.

Let’s put it this way: Just as there’s a suitable way of communicating with family, friends, colleagues and superiors, there’s also an appropriate way to communicate with customers.

Naturally, that tone is not going to be the same for every scenario. You adjust according to the situation and environment you’re in. So the way you write about a product recall won’t have the same tone as when you’re announcing the launch of a brand new product. Likewise, the tone you use with an angry customer wouldn’t be the same as the tone you use with someone singing your praises.

Summary: The tone you use will depend on the audience you’re addressing, media / channel, and goals you’ve set.

The four dimensions of tone of voice

While your tone is bound to vary from time to time (e.g. Instagram vs press release), you can figure out the general tone you wish to have as a foundation. That’s where knowing what the four dimensions of tone comes in handy. It’s up to you to decide where you fit within these dimensions—and yes, you can be neutral.

Formal vs casual

Think of this as a suit and tie vs jeans scenario. A formal tone and language is less personal and doesn’t use colloquialisms or even contractions. An informal or casual tone is more spontaneous and shows a bit more personality.

Serious vs funny

There are obviously different types of humour: wacky, sarcastic, using wit and wordplay, dark / deadpan and so on. The downside with choosing to be funny is that it’s pretty hit or miss—you’re taking a risk. Who’s to say what customers will actually find funny? Will it have the impact you intended? You have to be careful so as not to offend or come across as frivolous.

Respectful vs irreverent

This is self-explanatory. Are you going to address your audience in a respectful manner or will you be more carefree? Your industry, company culture and brand personality will influence where you stand on this. For example: Would it be wise for a hospital to write using an irreverent tone? Not likely. But a surf club get away with being cheeky.

Enthusiastic vs matter-of-fact

The simplest way I view this is in terms of how much ‘energy’ or pep you infuse into your writing. One evokes eagerness and passion, the other is more businesslike and rational.

Here’s how customers might view your brand based on tone.

CasualHas personality
No personality
Creates distance
FunnyMemorable (when done well)Flippant
Suck up
Rude / cheeky
Passionate / heartfelt
Dull / no personality

As a final note on this topic, don’t forget that along with tone, you will also have to put thought into:

  • your choice of words;
  • the use (or omission) of pronouns;
  • punctuation, contractions, abbreviations;
  • word order;
  • and sentence structure.

All of these will affect your tone and naturally your brand voice.

The thing with finding your brand voice is that it’s often a lot easier said than done. I honestly get it. But if you follow the 7 steps in this post, you should be able to identify and establish a brand voice that is unique to you—and start connecting with your customers on a more visceral level.