Your brand’s tone of voice is essentially a way for your brand to communicate its personality.
The way you communicate your brand must be consistent across all of your brand properties. Well-written and clear tone-of-voice guidelines are one way to achieve this consistency in your communications, particularly in a large organisation with multiple marketing teams in different geographical locations.
With today’s complex communications landscape, brand personality is often expressed across a wide range of channels and properties. This might include websites, apps, multiple social media channels and print as well as TV and radio. Your tone of voice needs to be expressed consistently across all of them.
Tone of voice is particularly important in a competitive environment where you’re trying to make your brand stand out from the crowd and ensure it is memorable to your audience – and for the right reasons.
Adapting to new markets
As you enter new markets, you’ll likely need to adapt your brand personality, even if only very slightly. That’s because audiences from different cultures have different expectations for how brands should communicate with them.
An individualistic brand may seem selfish in a collectivist culture, or a confident brand voice could come across as arrogant in an environment where people are more reserved. Get it wrong and you may inadvertently alienate your audience and negatively impact your localisation efforts.
However, this doesn’t mean that you need to change the brand’s personality. It merely means you are adjusting the tone of voice so that the brand is received as intended. This is how you’ll succeed in conveying the values you want.
Remember: each society has its own values and expectations about communication, particularly when it comes from unfamiliar brands.
Of course, it’s not just about toning things down to avoid causing offence. You also need to think about how your tone of voice is going to show your audience that your brand aligns with their core values.
Motorbike brands are a good example of how brands adapt their approach for different markets. In individualistic Western countries, motorbike brands tend to communicate values such as freedom and adventure.
The tone of voice tends to be inspiring, strong and uncompromising. In more collectivist countries, the same brands talk about responsibility and how their brand and its products support society and the family. In these markets the tone of voice tends to be concerned and caring.
That’s why the Honda UK website talks about performance, competitiveness and continuous improvement, while the Honda Thailand website talks about helmet safety, the family and supporting the community. In each market the brand aligns with the values of that society.
Here are some useful questions you can ask yourself in order to properly adjust your brand’s voice to new markets:
- How are the audience’s core values different to those of your home market?
- What language, dialect and vocabulary do they use and what’s their preferred communication style?
- Are the audience used to formality or informality in brand communications?
- How are things usually sold to them and what puts them off?
- To what kind of humour do they respond best?
All these questions boil down to asking – how do you best communicate with your customers in order to increase your chances of succeeding in a foreign market?
Tone of voice for interactive content
It’s hard to get your brand’s tone of voice right even when you’re dealing with fairly static content, such as the ‘About us’ page copy on your corporate website.
It’s often even harder to make that tone consistent if you’re trying to help your audience do something themselves, such as navigate a product page or complete a transaction via an app. It can be hard to convey tone of voice when you’re communicating practicalities, too. By necessity, you need to be clear and concise in your content.
A good tone of voice needs to express personality without getting in the way of what customers are trying to do. If your content is too quirky or long-winded it can obstruct your audience when they’re trying to complete a task, such as browsing a product description. Tone of voice should never be absent but it should never interfere with a transaction or navigational content.
Avoid alienating your audience
Your tone of voice might give your brand a distinct personality, but it shouldn’t be one that alienates anyone in your audience.
Here are some things you definitely need to avoid:
- References that your audience might not understand. That includes references to TV programmes they may not have seen or sayings they might not be familiar with.
- Anything that might cause offence. Don’t alienate sections of your audience by being ageist, sexist or otherwise insensitive to local culture.
- Being too wordy. Your audience is time-limited when it comes to completing a task on your website or in your app.
- Using language that includes jargon. Research shows that content written in plain, conversational language is easier to read and understand.
Tone of voice for apps
The app market is highly competitive and it can be a challenge to find a way to differentiate your product from others. Your app should stand out by being useful – not because of its highly unique tone of voice.
One good example is call-to-action buttons. It’s better to give these clear and consistent labels such as ‘Continue’ rather than coming up with new inventive or ambiguous labels.
Restrain brand personality in favour of ensuring great UX and allowing your users to complete tasks efficiently. Your quirky brand personality stops being cute very quickly when it’s jeopardising actual functionality and confusing users. That’s true even if your audience is really engaged with your brand.
Bearing dialects and vocabulary in mind
Your tone of voice may have gone down a storm in your home market, but that doesn’t mean you can just transpose it to another market without any adaptation.
You also need to do some market research, not just into what spoken language they use, but also their specific dialect. Arabic is a good example of a language that’s spoken across a wide range of countries but which has dialects that aren’t always mutually intelligible to all Arabic speakers.
In addition, you have to make sure you’re using the correct vocabulary for your audience. For instance, despite its linguistic homogeneity, the United States has striking regional differences in which words people use for different things.
Take carbonated drinks, for example – they are referred to as pop in the northern states, soda on the coasts and coke in the southern states. Not only is it important to get it right so your audience relates to what you’re saying, but it’s also vital for SEO.
You want to ensure your website content is visible in organic search results when customers form their queries using local synonyms.
In an ideal world, brands would have the resources to optimise their tone of voice for every market that they enter. In reality, there’s rarely enough time or resources to adapt tone of voice to every target market. If your brand is likely to be going international soon, it’s best to have a tone of voice that can adapt easily to new markets.
One possible solution could be to pick a tone of voice that’s likely to be palatable to multiple audiences even in disparate markets. This approach is particularly helpful if you’re working across different markets that share the same language, such as English in the UK, US and Canada, or Spanish in Spain and parts of Latin America.
Bear in mind that, even if markets share the same language, that doesn’t mean they are culturally similar.
For instance, US audiences are accustomed to a harder sell than UK ones. Similarly, the Spanish spoken in Spain is much more formal than that of Mexico so you need to take these differences into account when localising content and adapting your tone of voice for each market.
If you plan to bring in translation teams soon – you can help minimise work, time and costs for translation by making your tone of voice and content a bit more translation-ready. Prepare your content for translation by:
- Minimising puns and wordplay
- Avoiding idioms and other language-specific expressions that are hard to translate directly
- Avoiding market-specific cultural references that don’t have clear equivalents in other markets
However, if you really want to create content that engages and converts, then you need to consider transcreation rather than translation. In addition, you can opt for creating content specifically for those markets by using native, local copywriters.
Keeping your national identity
Sometimes it’s an advantage to keep your brand’s foreign accent when moving your tone of voice to another market. In the UK, Australians are seen fairly affectionately as being friendly and informal. Australian beer brand Foster’s has enjoyed great success by living up to that stereotype with a series of ads fronted by two likeable Australians that embodied these values.
Brands should be aware that playing to national stereotypes doesn’t mean it’s okay to simply transpose the tone of voice from your home market in the hope it’ll be received as a charming brand personality in its own right.
Audiences still have unique expectations for how they want to be communicated with. Those expectations are likely to be not only unique to each market but also to specific target audiences within them.
Adapting tone of voice at scale
If your brand is entering multiple markets simultaneously, the task of adapting your tone of voice for each one and localising your content is a difficult one.
It involves not only native-language expertise but creative flair and a deep understanding of the behaviour and preferences of local consumers. It’s tempting to rely on native-language speaking staff in regional offices to reduce costs but this is not recommended.
Translation involves more than simply speaking another language. Even if an in-house employee were able to produce an accurate translation, it may not remain true to your brand values and it is extremely unlikely to be consistent with other markets.
While these may seem like small details, cultural and linguistic variations in tone-of-voice adaptation can make or break your international expansion. Make sure you work with a team of in-market localisation experts who really understand your brand in order to increase your chances of success.