Editor’s Note: This is the second post in a series about tone of voice. The first post was about what tone of voice is and why it matters.

You can’t create your company’s tone of voice in a vacuum. You have to begin with your brand values. Tone of voice is how you communicate your personality in language — it’s how your brand sounds when it talks.

You may already have done some work to define your brand values, for example by developing a brand positioning statement, a vision or mission statement, some brand pillars, or some other document. It doesn’t matter what you created — what matters is that you thought seriously about what your brand is all about.

There are two ways to look at your brand values:

  1. Outside in beginning with your market
  2. Inside out beginning with your company

Let’s take a look at each one in more detail.

Brand Values, Outside In

If you want to work “outside in,” survey some other brands in your market. How do they position themselves? What are their key messages? And how do they use language to get them across?

Surveying your sector in this way has benefits. It reveals the universal values that all companies in your sector must have, just to play in the game. For example, although they may have very different philosophies, all the furniture stores mentioned below project technical product quality, commercial efficiency, and an understanding of customers’ workspace needs. And it’s hard to imagine a competitor beating them without displaying those values.

  • Office Depot positions itself very clearly as a cost leader, with a strong low-price message and simple, practical language that focuses on physical features and concrete benefits.
  • Herman Miller puts a strong emphasis on design, ergonomics, and optimizing workspace that’s expressed in language that is much quieter, more nurturing, and more refined.
  • Kinnarps is different again, drawing on its Swedish heritage to communicate a green message and a minimal, no-nonsense approach with very clean, clipped, and almost scientific language.

However, there may be other values that everyone uses out of habit or groupthink — even though they’re not essential. These are your opportunities to do something different. For example, none of the furniture stores listed above shows any trace of humor or playfulness in its tone. That could be an opportunity for a new player to establish a distinctive voice, as long as they can do it without compromising the industry’s universal values.

Brand Values, Inside Out

With the “inside out” approach, you start at the core of your business and build outward to values, then on to tone. To get started, consider questions like:

  • What makes your company unique?
  • What unique value do you offer your customers?
  • What is your company’s culture like?
  • How do you present yourself to customers?
  • What are the key messages you need to get across?

Brainstorming around these questions could generate useful ideas. If the well runs dry, you can always mix things up by using analogies or metaphors: If your company were a person, what would it be like to talk to, or hang out with? What car, film character, restaurant, or clothing brand would it be?

A Simple Framework for Brand Values

How you capture your findings is up to you. One simple method is to boil everything down to three one-word values that reflect the essence of your brand. The three values need to be distinct, but still complementary — that is, not synonymous, but not total opposites either.

Don’t be afraid of using unexpected words — the sort of words you don’t normally hear in B2B marketing. If the values are unique, the words to express them should be too. Remember, you’re looking for the things that make you different — not things that everyone in your market can lay claim to.

And don’t fall into the trap of choosing trite, non-differentiating factors such as “friendly,” “honest,” “reliable,” and so on as brand values. Those attributes are the least you would expect from any provider. They may be important to your service, but they won’t help you create a distinctive tone.

Also, avoid B2B buzzwords like “dynamic” or “proactive.” They’re clichés, so if you’re looking to be different, they put you at a disadvantage right from the start. Plus, they’re vague at best and meaningless at worst. Instead, search for sharper, richer, more colorful words that get closer to who you really are, and how you really work.

Abstract words in isolation don’t mean that much, so develop some detail around them. Make them real and practical. For example, if one of your values is “creative,” what exactly do you mean? When and how are you creative? What are you creative about? How does your creativity help clients?

As you develop your values, you build a shared understanding of what they mean. Then you can see more clearly how they’ll translate into writing style. And later on, when you’re putting your tone of voice into practice, it will be much easier to work out whether things you’ve written are in line with your tone.

Once you have your brand values nailed down, you’ll need to consider how they translate into writing style. But before you do, in our next post, we’ll look at a fictitious example of a company that’s developing its own tone of voice.

Want to learn more? Check out Acrolinx’s new eBook “Watch Your Tone: Why You Company’s Tone of Voice Matters and How to Get it Right.”