Coronavirus has put tone of voice at the top of the agenda. And it’s changing the way brands approach their communications as a whole.

For a long time, tone of voice was like dishwasher salt. Everyone knew it was important, but no one really knew why – and they certainly didn’t want to spend money on it.

When announcing a brand refresh, agencies would talk enthusiastically about the new tone of voice. All too often, it was just talk. The ‘voice’ amounted to a few words – ‘human’, ‘engaging’, ‘down to earth’ – buried on page 347 of the brand book, after the bit about web-safe fonts. That was it. There was no guidance about what this actually meant outside of a campaign, no deeper plan for how the brand could communicate in a compelling and distinctive way.

Meanwhile, the brands that were ‘famous’ for tone of voice – like the omnipresent Innocent – reinforced the notion that the whole thing a bit silly, and only worth spending time on if you wanted to sound wacky.

Coronavirus, however, has changed this picture.

Rewind to Lockdown #1, over a year ago. Brand managers and agencies didn’t know what to do. Should they still run their campaigns as if nothing had happened? Should they keep quiet? Or were people sitting at home dying to find out what their favourite chocolate bar manufacturer was doing to keep them safe?

An awful lot thought the latter. The result was a barrage of bland corporate statements about ‘unprecedented times’ and ‘getting through this together’, summed up in this supercut. These are some of the world’s best-known brands, worth billions, but at this critical moment, they all sounded exactly the same. I defy anyone to hold any of these ads in their minds for more than ten seconds.

One way of understanding the problem is that these brands only knew how to talk about their own products and services. They didn’t have a distinctive way to address other topics – like, for instance, a global pandemic. When forced to go off-script, they were all at sea.

There were exceptions. KFC censored their ‘It’s Finger Lickin’ Good’ slogan (a gift, certainly, but one they handled deftly). Nike said the same things as everyone else, but managed to do so in a distinctive and credible way. Which is, of course, exactly what a tone of voice is supposed to help you do.

A few months on, we’re seeing more brands take tone seriously. It’s one of the reasons Lloyds Banking Group chose to take their creative services in-house. Modern businesses are publishing organisations, communicating with customers in more and more places about more and more things, with campaigns only a small part of the puzzle. Their needs were changing long before coronavirus, but coronavirus has accelerated the shift.

We recently worked with Heinz to create their first-ever masterbrand tone of voice. Heinz realised they were communicating as single brand – through their website and social media – more than ever. But no one had pinned down what that should sound like before. And Heinz aren’t the only ones. Most of our clients aren’t asking us about campaigns: they’re asking how to carry their brand into everything they do, without annoying or exhausting people.

From our perspective, all of this has frankly been a long time coming. The brand book-with-a-section-on-tone-of-voice was never fit for purpose. While the visual parts of a brand can easily be codified in a set of rules and templates, words are more slippery, because everyone uses them.. Building a voice requires a deeper kind of engagement – one that touches sales, and customer service, and HR, and so on. This is the work we’re now being asked to do.

A related trend is the rise (and rise and rise) of brand purpose. While purpose statements themselves are often trite and reductive, they reflect the close scrutiny brands now find themselves under. It’s not just what they say in their ads that matters. It’s what they say on their website. It’s how they treat their employees. It’s the sustainability of their supply chain. A brand with a clear voice can address these questions in a consistent and engaging way. A brand without one is fighting a battle on many fronts. And there will only be more fronts as time goes on.

I know we’re all sick of predictions about the ‘new normal’ – the pandemic changes that will prove permanent. But here’s mine. The current focus on brand voice isn’t a temporary blip that will unblip as soon as people can run out-of-home ads again. It reflects a fundamental shift in how brands engage with their customers, bigger and more enduring than any campaign. The genie is out of the bottle – or rather, the brand book. And people are wondering why it was ever trapped in there in the first place.


This article was originally published in Creative Review.