Published: 18 January 2012

Looking beyond the big picture: conveying brand through language

Words matter, especially when we’re trying to change people’s hearts and minds. No one remembers what colour tie Martin Luther King was wearing when he told us he had a dream. Similarly, three years after Obama blazed his way into the White House, it's the rallying and much imitated cry of “Yes. We. Can” that we recall, rather than the campaign visuals.

So why have we started to think less about what our brand sounds like? Often, we’ll spend a great deal of time making sure our brand communications – website, DM, annual reports – look like they’re coming from the same organisation, but less time making sure they sound like they do. Which is a great shame, because when you have a strong brand voice – and when it is used consistently – you have one of the most powerful means available to you of building an emotional connection with your audience.

Consistent tone of voice 

An organisation that always gets this right is Amnesty. Whatever the medium, its voice is the same: defiant, provocative and one that demands you listen. And it always has been. Compare its legendary press ads from 1987 with its more recent piece of direct marketing from 2007. While Amnesty has moved on visually, 20 years later its voice is still recognisable and as powerful as ever.

It’s also important to ensure you have the right brand voice for your organisation. While we might admire Amnesty’s hard-hitting copy, if we’re working for an animal sanctuary it’s probably not going to be right for us. Here, we might consider adopting a softer and more supportive voice.

Getting it right 

Macmillan Cancer Support and Cancer Research UK are two examples of charity brands who, though working in similar arenas, adopt different, but equally effective, brand voices. Compare the warm, emotive and personal voice of Macmillan to the cooler, more remote and professional one of Cancer Research UK; entirely appropriate as one focuses on direct support and care, the other on research and information.

We live in a world saturated with words. But the rise of social media gives us many opportunities to develop our brand voice and ensure that what we're writing is right for us.

Here are three ways to get a great brand voice:

  • Be yourself.

Shakespeare wrote “To thine own self be true” and it's worth bearing the Bard's words in mind when you're deciding on your own brand voice. It can help to picture your organisation as a person. Are they a formal, slightly remote professional you'd go to for some solid financial advice? Or are they a friendly, cosy person you'd sit down and have a cup of tea with? Remember, it's about what your organisation sounds like, not you as a person; just because you’re a bon vivant with a witty turn of phrase, doesn't mean your organisation is. This is why it's often worth getting a copywriter involved. Writing in voices other than their own is what they're good at.

  • Write it down.

Just as you have guidelines for your visual brand, you should have guidelines for tone-of-voice: a document that clearly outlines what your organisation sounds like, ideally accompanied by a few examples (if you need some inspiration, take a look at these great guidelines from Oxfam and the NHS). And make sure it’s not just something that sits in the folder marked 'Brand Guidelines', but is circulated to everyone who writes for your organisation (and that definitely won't just be the people in the communications team).

  • Use it.

See every opportunity you write something as an opportunity to reinforce and play with your brand voice. So whether you're tweeting, blogging or writing an email, see it as a chance to remind your audience exactly what your organisation is about and why they should listen.


Emmie Spencer, strategist, Neo

Brands can shift products or they can shift thinking and behaviours. It’s the latter that most interests Emmie and inspired her move from working in commercial advertising to working at Brighton-based brand communications agency Neo. Making the complex simple is her skill and her obsession, whether that’s uncovering a brand’s purpose or crafting a piece of copy. Emmie is the strategic and creative lead on many projects at Neo and provides creative support across all its work.