Published: 21 June 2011

How to use language and tone of voice to create a distinctive brand

When most people think of brands they usually think of the visuals first. All too often people forget the importance of a brand's choice of words. But a distinctive approach to the use of language (or tone of voice) is essential to be memorable.

Innocent is one of the commercial brands out there most respected for its chatty, cheeky tone. Oxfam is also recognisable within the charity sector for its bold use of language and typography. We were therefore delighted that both brands were able to share their words of wisdom with us at the last Brand Breakfast on 8 June 2011.

Follow your instinct and your personality

Dan Germain, Innocent's head of creative, shared the humble beginnings of today's well loved brand. Founded in 1998, Innocent has built its brand around five shared values: being responsible, entrepreneurial, generous, commercial, and natural. Five words that Dan admits he resisted writing down, as he believes "if we have to write them down for someone, they don't get it."

He cited Apple as one of the best known and most consistent global brands that doesn't have any brand guidelines. Innocent take a similarly unconventional approach, instead ensuring that their values are embedded deep within the business and recruitment process, so they go without saying. From its kitchen being in the heart of the building, to its "banana phone" which anyone can call at any time and relies on all staff being frontline brand ambassadors – knowing the right tone of voice and language to use instinctively, rather than through rote learning.

Listening to Dan you could be forgiven for thinking Innocent has succeeded thanks mostly to chance and bravery, but it was clear that Innocent's tone of voice was, and still is, largely intuitive. It's grown organically and is a reflection of the personalities of the people behind it. The other defining feature of the brand's tone of voice is the desire to entertain its customers and be "interesting". "Words should be interesting or helpful" claimed Dan, "because if they're not they're pointless". 

  • Charities don’t always have to be all doom and gloom 

Rachel Brown, Oxfam GB's head of market insight, gave a more insight driven approach to brand development and management following Oxfam GB's 2008 brand refresh. 

In response to audience insight that charities were considered too "doom and gloom" in their communications, Oxfam undertook a large scale project to take a more positive approach, flipping the language used to describe their mission from "against poverty" to "for humanity" – a proposition truer to the modern organisation and, crucially, its staff.

Tone of voice and language were just one part of the brand refresh, but a critical one for tackling negative perceptions. Following thorough brand research Oxfam found a tone that engaged supporters, staff and stakeholders alike: "provocative optimism". This, they felt struck the right chord for highlighting the problem but also offering a solution.

  • Base tone of voice on a clear business strategy to gain internal support

Oxfam's brand tracking research revealed that there was a lack of knowledge and therefore care for the problems they were trying to tackle and seek support for. As we all know, internal sell-ins can be more of a challenge than the task itself and key insight highlighting business benefits was needed to secure support from some who regarded language as "just a creative thing".

  • Keep tone of voice in place with an internal comms plan and tools

It is crucial that everyone within your organisation understands how you use language. Where resource allows it, create a roll out plan with staff training and examples that can act as a guide for achieving consistency and flexibility at the same time.

Following roll out, tools and processes should be in place to oversee how the new tone of voice and language is working in practice. For Oxfam GB this meant identifying a single person to have final sign off on all materials. On top of this they execute regular creative reviews of materials and regular brand tracking with audiences. It may sound like a lot of time and effort, but the added impact their choice of words have made has been well worth it.


Dan Dufour, brand strategist, The Team

Dan is one of the sector’s leading brand strategists. He has worked on brand development across all sectors including Rightmove, London 2012 and Cancer Research UK. He's best known for his award-winning work across all corners of the charity sector, including Shelter (Design Week Award), Parkinson’s UK (Design Effectiveness Award), RSPB (Third Sector Excellence Award) and Scope. Dan established CharityComms Brand Breakfast, proudly supported by The Teamand is an author of our best practice guides to branding and integrated communications.