April 27

Voices and Choices

Marketing, Social Media


Guest blog by Colin Cather, Brand Strategist & Founder at Brilliant Mistake Branding

If Twitter is a cocktail party, it’s one where the lights are down low.

So now, in this hashtagged room, what we say (our ‘content’) and how we say it (our ‘tone’) become the strongest of our brand-signals.

And these 140 character or less gestures will lead some people (the ones we want to speak to) our way, and they’ll let some others know that we’re not for them.

Just like any real cocktail party (the ones I’ve been to anyway), there will be someone declaring their opinions loudly, forcefully and – if they can – from on top of a step they’ve found. And there will be people listening. There will also be someone speaking in a clear, quiet voice – intriguingly, perhaps conspiratorially – and there will be people listening to them, too.

The point is – we need to know our Tone of Voice or TOV. And this – like anything else we do in our businesses, with our brands – should be deliberate. Thought-through.


If you’ve had expert help in creating your brand guidelines, your TOV will already be encoded. If you haven’t – here are two simple pointers.

Be distinct.

Just as Nicole Kidman would be horrified to step onto the Oscars red carpet in the same dress as Cate Blanchett, so, our brands’ ability to find a target, and become famous, must begin with distinctiveness. Our differentiation.

At its most sophisticated – this is part of Brand Positioning. Finding a sweet-spot, where we can be something meaningful to our clients, customers and consumers.

In the same way that Pepsi is forced to wear blue, because Coke stepped out first with an entirely red wardrobe, we must – at the very least – listen to the other voices in the room and select an alternative. Otherwise we are just flattering others with our mimicry, or we are white-noise.

The Quick Fix

  • Try examining the Brand Archetypes. (These are as crude as the Seven Basic Plots of Storytelling, but we’re being a bit crude here.)
  • Identify who the others are. Identify who you most naturally are. Maybe because you have an affinity with one of the brands they reference. Go with that one.
  • Now we have a basis for our brand identity. And how we are going to speak.

And to those who say– “a distinctive Tone of Voice can alienate…”, I say “Good.”

Pick a Step.

We’re all familiar with the idea of ‘being talked-down-to.’ Well, when it comes to our TOV, just like that guy in the cocktail party, we have to decide how high to climb – relative to our audience.

The TOV steps look like this:


Here are three pieces of brand copy:

  • PARENT: “It deserves a little respect” [Green & Black’s]
  • HIGHER AUTHORITY: “One Day You Will” [Glenfiddich]
  • CHILD: “Hello. We make lovely natural fruit drinks…” [innocent smoothies]

Sometimes, brands choose their step based on the norms – like luxury goods tend towards Higher Authority (“maybe, someday, you too could look like this”). Other times, they are electing to buck the norm. To make this one of their ‘rule-breaking’ points of difference.

Again. Make a choice.

So that your clients and consumers don’t have to.

Colin loves brands so much he made one of his own. Burnt Sugar began selling crumbly fudge at Borough Market and went on to sell in Waitrose, Tesco and other big shops. Burnt Sugar beat the confectionery Goliaths to win The Grocer’s Branded Excellence Award, the Observer said it’s “the world’s best fudge” and sweet-lovers still say “mmm.” Now, as Brilliant Mistake, Colin likes to share the love by helping businesses, big and small, to unleash their brands’ specialness.

About the author 

Mark Bower

Co-founder of Basingstoke startup @CubeSocial. Windows Azure developer, some-time blogger, social media geek & northerner down south. Google Profile

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  1. I like what you wrote about Tone of voice. It’s something i do a lot of, designing Verbal Identity for brands in Social Media. Something i’d add: there’s a lot of good stuff in Transactional Analysis – the 70s pyschotherapy theory – that basically says we operate in one of three states: child, adult, parent. in a conversation, for it to work well, we have to understand the state the other person is in to make sure we pick a suitable state to talk from. If someone is in the Adult State, don’t worry about talking to them like an adult. But don’t try and ‘Parent’ them in your tone of voice – they don’t want to be talked to like they’re a child. Hope that helps someone.

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