Tone matters. If you’ve ever been told to “watch your tone,” you already understand why: Volume, inflection, and facial expressions contain just as much information as a sentence’s literal content. Businesses convey tone through writing, and writing tone is a powerful marketing tool. Defining tone for your brand can help you build a connection with clients and refine your marketing strategy based on your target audience preferences.
What is tone?
Broadly defined, tone is the relationship between speaker (or writer) and what they’re saying or talking about. This tone definition applies in both literary and branding contexts. In literature, tone is a literary device that communicates the writer’s attitude toward the content. For brands, tone is the overall feeling of the language you use in brand materials. Tone reveals your brand’s attitude toward the subject you are discussing. Writers convey tone through word choice, sentence structure, sentence length, and the use of figurative language like metaphors and similes.
Here are examples of brand tone at work:
Tone example 1: We are absolutely over the moon, dancing on the rooftops, and beyond thrilled to be opening our new location in Tribeca next month. Come on over and join the party!
Tone example 2: We are proud to announce the opening of our new location in Tribeca next month. We hope you’ll join us for our grand opening.
Although both describe the same event, the general character of the language differs. In the first, the writer creates an enthusiastic, lightly ironic, and informal tone through figurative language (“over the moon” and “dancing on the rooftops”), word choice (“thrilled, “party”), and a loose, conversational sentence structure that contains colloquial phrases (“come on over”) and the three different descriptors of the brand’s excitement.
In the second example, the author creates a more reserved, authoritative, and formal tone through word choices like “proud,” “announce,” and “grand,” as well as shorter sentence length.
Brand tone vs. brand voice
Although brand tone is an element of brand voice, the two terms are not interchangeable. Brand voice is how your brand speaks to its audiences. It remains consistent across all channels and brand communications. Brand tone reveals your brand’s feelings about the matter it is discussing. It changes depending on the subject at hand.
To understand this difference between brand voice and brand tone, consider the following analogy. You’re talking to your witty, optimistic friend about two separate events: an upcoming birthday party and a recent breakup. Your friend remains her witty and optimistic self in both discussions, but because she feels differently about the two events, she sounds different when you switch subjects.
Your friend’s personality traits (wittiness and optimism) are analogous to brand voice. They inform everything that she says and don’t change depending on context. The way she sounds when discussing a specific event is analogous to brand tone, and it changes according to how she feels about the subject matter.
Factors that influence brand tone
Although your brand’s voice will stay consistent across channels and platforms, you’ll likely modify your tone depending on audience segment, outlet, content, and current events. Here’s how those factors can affect your brand tone.
- Audience. Tone preferences vary by audience. If your brand speaks to both recent college graduates and mid-career professionals, you might use a more conversational tone with the former group and a more formal tone with the latter.
- Outlet. Different platforms and outlets cater to different audience segments, and tone preferences also vary by platform. You might use a formal writing tone on your website, a conversational tone on LinkedIn, and a light-hearted tone on Facebook.
- Content. Brand tone varies depending on the subject. For example, your brand might sound excited and optimistic when launching a new product and respectful and reflective when discussing the passing of an icon in your industry.
- Current events. Brands also modulate tone to account for events that affect their target audiences. For example, you might avoid a jocular, ironic tone in the days after a natural disaster or adopt a celebratory tone when an athlete breaks a major Olympic record.
Examples of brand tone
These brands are excellent examples of how companies employ tone to speak to their audience in a distinctive and endearing manner.
The writer creates a positive tone with word choices like “believe” and “right,” an informal tone with word choices like “heck,” “wanna,” “’em,” and a conversational sentence structure that includes the colloquial aside “well.”
Manitobah Mukluks makes footwear inspired by Indigenous traditions and supports Indigenous communities through programming focused on arts, education, trade, and leadership. The company’s mission statement reads:
In this tone example, word choices like “rooted,” “vibrant,” and “community” create a grounded, inviting feel, while the more formal sentence structure conveys authority and intention.
Death Wish Coffee
Coffee roaster Death Wish Coffee sells mugs, apparel, brewing supplies, and coffee beans with an extra kick of caffeine. Its homepage features irreverent, in-your-face copy like “Mugs up, mother functioners” and “Coffee that slaps.” Death Wish Coffee’s About page demonstrates how a brand with bold voice can modify tone according to subject matter, reading:
While word choices like “blah beans” and “a lackluster life” are true to the brand’s edgy voice, the first sentence differs—because the content is company identity, Death Wish substitutes its irreverent, ironic tone for an authentic, direct, and earnest statement of the company’s goals and values.
How to define your brand’s tone
Defining tone for your brand follows a step-by-step process. Here’s an overview.
1. Research audience demographics
Before defining tone, it’s helpful to know who you’re talking to. Evaluate your target audience demographics, including gender, age, education, interests, values, and media consumption preferences.
2. Consider your mission and values
Your mission and values statement determine what your brand stands for, which can help you identify appropriate tones. If your brand is fiercely committed to equity and inclusion, you might embrace a passionate and defiant tone when discussing legislation that runs counter to your values. If you value fun, harmony, and collaboration, you’ll likely adopt a lighthearted, approachable tone.
3. Find inspiration
Research competitors, peers, and brands you admire and keep a list of tone examples that align with your brand voice and goals. You can also further leverage your audience research during this phase: find successful brands that have your same target audiences and look for common themes in their use of tone.
You might even find inspiration talking to the people in your life—note how they speak about different things, and how their tone conveys their attitude or mood.
4. Identify tones that suit your brand
Sort your list of tone examples into categories, grouping examples with a similar overall feeling together. Then take a step back and ask yourself how you would describe the character of each category. You’ll come away with a list of tones that align with your brand voice.
5. Create a tone guide
Defining tone for your brand requires you to identify when and where each tone will be used. Creating a tone guide can help you set parameters. For example, you might say your brand is:
- Always authentic, empathetic, and upbeat
- Sometimes playful, principled, and heartfelt
- Never snarky, sappy, or boastful
Include a few tone examples under each tone to provide the foundation for your written content. You might also include notes about where and when each tone is appropriate. If you plan to embrace a more playful tone in advertisements and on social media channels, note that here.
Defining tone for your brand FAQ
Can brand tone affect perception of a brand?
Yes. Tone reveals how your brand feels about what it is saying, which is just as important as the factual information you convey. Defining tone for your brand can help you build connection with your audience, encourage engagement, and differentiate your brand in the marketplace.
Can brand tone help connect with a target audience?
Yes. Understanding how your target audience responds to tone can help you make connections. For example, younger consumers might prefer a casual, ironic, informal tone, while older consumers might gravitate to an authoritative, formal tone that fosters trust.
Can brand tone vary?
Yes. While brand voice is consistent across all communications, brand tone can vary for different products or services. The same clothing business might use a cutesy tone to describe a baby onesie, and a straightforward, practical tone to describe medical scrubs. When defining tone, you can approve a range of tones for use in different circumstances.