Published: 4 June 2013

Expressing Mind’s values through tone of voice

Too often people underestimate the importance of how words and images need to work together for maximum impact. We also live in a world where many social media platforms are predominantly word-led, like Twitter.

At CharityComms’ recent communicating core values through tone of voice seminar my Good Agency colleague, Reuben Turner took to the stage to share how we’ve helped Mind ensure its brand values shine through all the charity’s writing.

For Mind, words matter because they can exclude people. They can hurt. They can make people feel small and powerless. But they can also show someone that they are cared about, understood and listened to. Words can empower and strengthen.

What is tone of voice?

‘Tone of voice’ is simply the branding shorthand for the style of language an organisation adopts to express its personality. A brand’s personality can, of course, be expressed visually in colours, fonts and graphics. It can even be expressed in sonic mnemonics (like the Intel tune). But it can also be expressed in the words it chooses.

Why is it important?

To create a meaningful and memorable tone of voice, it is important to fully understand the brand’s personality. If the brand is youthful, energetic and quirky, the language used will be very different to a brand with an established, traditional and reassuring personality. It is also important to clarify the relationship the brand is to have with its audiences – is it an authoritative expert, a supportive friend, a campaigning trailblazer? A good charity example is the difference between Cancer Research UK Race for Life (Oi Cancer, we’re coming to get you) and Macmillan advertising (No one should face cancer alone, with your support, no one will).

The tricky bit is when your brand needs to act in different ways for different audiences. You may find yourself in any one of these situations or similar:

  • I have to talk to someone with a learning disability. And the Health Secretary’s chief adviser.
  • I have to talk to adults with autism. And people who’ve never heard of autism.
  • I have to tell someone to stop smoking. And console someone who’s just lost their husband to a heart attack.
  • I have to convince someone to rehome an ill-treated dog. And tell someone to stop ill-treating their dog.
  • And in Mind’s case, I have to convince someone to support my mental health charity. And talk sensitively to someone with a mental health problem.

Defining Mind’s personality

The first step with Mind was defining the personality we wanted to express: it’s crucial that you establish where you are and where you want to get to.

A brand audit found their existing language was very formal and policy driven, using phrases like ‘mental distress’, which research showed was a barrier to engagement. Analysis of other mental health brands (Sane, Rethink Mental Illness, Mental Health Foundation and Time for Change) helped us clarify Mind’s future brand positioning as the charity for anyone experiencing a mental health problem to turn to for advice and support first.

To bring this positioning to life we defined four brand values which would encourage a more supportive personality, while still enabling enough flex for both fundraising and campaigns:

Real (never fake or abstract)

Mental health problems happen to real people, in real settings. They are part of everyday life, Mind should communicate in a way that reflects this, using everyday language and believable imagery.

Personal (never cold or corporate)

Mental health is rooted in personal experience. So Mind needs to communicate less like an organisation, and more like a group of people who care passionately about our cause and everyone affected by it. As one example, refer less to Mind in the third person (“Mind’s services”) and talk more about themselves as a team (“our talking therapies”).

Compassionate (showing that we care)

When people with mental health problems feel that no one understands, Mind needs to show them that someone does. While expertise and professionalism are important, they need to be balanced with warmth and empathy.

Courageous (never shying away from difficult topics)

Mind talks openly and freely about issues and topics that are hard to discuss. It’s brave when it fights for respect for people with mental health problems. It’s fearless when it campaigns for change.

Putting Mind’s brand values and tone of voice into practice

Sadly Reuben warns of an uncomfortable truth with tone of voice projects. It’s really easy to write key messages, brand values and tone of voice guidelines. Phew. He also believes it’s relatively easy to write good copy. Hurrah. But it’s really hard to write key messages that will get used, guidelines people can follow and good copy that uses them. Ouch.

So how do we overcome that barrier and make sure values run through a charity’s use of language from its vision right down to its choice of punctuation? Simple. We make things as practical as we can.

With Mind, we brought the brand values to life in both a range of standard descriptions (short, medium and long) and a fundraising case for support. We also provided practical examples in the brand guidelines of how to use them in practice and for different purposes.

We reviewed Mind’s recent use of language across online and printed communications prior to the CharityComms seminar one year on. It was great to see everything working in practice as intended across services, fundraising and campaigns: Words that show someone they are cared about, understood and listened to, words that empower and strengthen.

Dan Dufour, brand strategy director, The Team

Dan is a specialist in brand purpose at The Team, creative brand design agency: aligning the dynamics of your brand to a compelling idea, inside and out. He’s worked with major Whitehall departments and some of the best-known charity brands, including Shelter, Parkinson’s UK and RSPB. He is a founder of CharityComms’ Brand Breakfasts and author of our best practice guide Branding Inside Out.