Tone of voice is one of the most important aspects of branding, but it's all too often an afterthought for B2B companies.
Take a moment to think about your favourite brands – B2B or otherwise. All of them have a unique personality, a quirk of character that's consistently expressed through their tone of voice. It's this personality that makes them so likable, trustworthy, and memorable.
Slack – the business communications company with a rock-solid brand personality – hits the nail on the head in its tone of voice guidebook:
"By being deliberate and thoughtful with the way we use language, we encourage people to feel a deeper connection with Slack."
And building a deeper, more meaningful connection with your audience – in today's world of total media saturation – is everything.
So why do many B2B companies get tone of voice so wrong?
They think tone of voice only matters for B2C brands
This assumption stems from the age-old argument that B2B and B2C audiences are inherently different. It goes something like this:
Consumers: are emotional, irrational creatures who are easily persuaded to part with their cash.
Business customers: are logical, rational, and only buy things after plenty of research.
While their buyer journeys differ greatly, there are far more similarities between the two audiences than differences. The fact is, whether they're in their suit or their sweatpants, your audience is always rational, emotional, and everything in between. In other words, they're human.
It’s therefore in their nature to make judgements about your company based on stylistic brand choices like, amongst other things, tone of voice. How you talk to your audience can mean the difference between gaining a customer and losing an opportunity – no matter which sector you sell to.
They're not specific enough
If I had a pound for every time a tone of voice document included these words, I could retire early:
"We want our tone of voice to be professional, yet approachable."
The problem with this is that every B2B company wants to be perceived as professional and approachable – of course they do. But professionalism and approachability are table stakes, the minimum expected from any business.
Other fuzzy tone of voice guidance I’ve seen includes wanting to sound:
If these are the sort of words you currently have in your tone of voice plan, it’s a sign that you might need to dig a little deeper into what your brand’s really about.
A good way to get your creative engine oiled is to think about questions like:
- If your brand had a celebrity spokesperson, who would it be?
- What style of clothes does your brand wear?
- If your brand was a radio station, which would it be?
- What brands do you definitely not want to sound like?
- How do you want people to feel when they interact with your brand?
Whatever you come up with, think carefully about how you can differentiate your brand with a strong sense of character. 'Professional yet approachable' is a good start, but isn't enough.
With a more concrete idea of how you want your brand to be perceived, you can more effectively connect with your audience. Whether that's through your content marketing, web copy, emails, social posts – practically anywhere you interact with your potential customers.
They play it safe
Many B2B brands clip their wings by deciding early on to play it safe with their tone of voice. This is understandable. Building a brand personality that stands out from the crowd can feel risky, but it’s a huge opportunity – especially in the often dry and dreary world of B2B.
Unless your product is unique enough to speak for itself, sounding like everybody else conveys to your audience that your brand is the same as everybody else’s. Put plainly, you may as well pack in your marketing efforts altogether.
Mailchimp is an excellent example of how a distinct tone of voice can make something as mundane as an email marketing platform fun and desirable. They use phrases like "side hustle", "sell more stuff", and "we've got you covered", language that resonates with their target audience of small businesses and imbues their brand with a strong sense of identity. Their online tone of voice guidelines are well worth a read if you're looking for inspiration.
The very point of branding is to distinguish your business from others, and tone of voice is one of the strongest strings to your branding's bow. Don't be afraid to flex it.
Getting B2B tone of voice right
Getting tone of voice right in the B2B sector can feel like a balancing act. Yes, you want to stand out from the crowd, but you also want to build trust and be taken seriously. Talking to an agency can be a great way of gaining a fresh perspective, but first and foremost, follow these three steps:
Actually write tone of voice guidelines
Every potential customer cares about your brand's personality, so spend time really uncovering the heart of your brand. Dig into its purpose, discover its true character, and write a set of guidelines that clearly state the tone you’re going for. It's also worth documenting a glossary of terms unique to your business, letting your writers know which phrases you like and which you'd rather avoid. This will save you plenty of time when you start proofreading.
Be specific when describing your brand
Nail down precisely how you want your company to be perceived. Leave foggy words like ‘human’ and ‘friendly’ behind and adopt strong adjectives like ‘playful’, ‘daring’, ‘reliable’ – words that will resonate with your audience and help your brand break through the quagmire of competition. Being specific in this way will help your copy be more cohesive, your personality more pronounced, and your audience more engaged.
Put yourself out there
Consider taking risks on how your brand presents itself. Yes, not every brand needs an off-the-wall tone of voice. Yes, being cautious can still be a successful tactic. But if you do nothing to set your brand apart from a tone of voice perspective, you'll miss out on the opportunity to build a stronger, more meaningful connection with your target audience.
Before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards), spend time developing a powerful tone of voice strategy that you can consistently express on your website, in your ads, and on your blog. It’ll tie all your content together, strengthen your brand identity, and set you on the right path towards B2B marketing success.