Skip to main content

Experience Design

Tone versus Voice

When developing a brand’s identity (which should take into account both written and visual communication), it’s important to establish the brand’s voice and tone. What’s the difference between voice and tone? Glad you asked.
The voice is like the “personality.” It helps define who the brand is. It is distinct and helps set you apart from the competition. It’s that attribute that helps define your content as uniquely yours.
Think about the differences between the Target and Walmart brands—Target is playful, youthful, a bit idiosyncratic, while Walmart is family oriented, budget conscious and straightforward. These differences are expressed through their distinct voices
If “voice” is the personality of your content, “tone” is the mood the content creates. How do you want your users to feel after interacting with your brand? This is created by the tone.
While all your brand interactions should have the same voice, there should be different tones suited to the specific situation. Tone takes into account the situation, content type and user’s likely emotional state. It can validate a user’s feelings. The tone should always complement, not contradict, the voice.
For instance, the tone of an error message during the checkout process (where the user is likely feeling frustrated) should be different from the tone of a purchase confirmation message (where the user is likely feeling satisfied and excited). The voice of both will be true to the brand, but the tone—the nuance of language, emotion and syntax—will vary.
Developing voice and tone should be part of a company’s overall content strategy and editorial guidelines. Here are a few thoughts on how you can go about defining your company’s voice and tone.

  • Create a list of things the company IS and another to spell out what the company ISN’T.  This will help define the voice. For example:
    • We are friendly, approachable and trustworthy. We are easy to understand. We want to motivate and inspire.
    • We are not talking down to you. We are not trying to sell you something.
  • Make list of common scenarios that occur throughout your brand interactions. Then assign associated user emotions and adjectives that describe the corresponding tone that should occur during those scenarios. For example:
    • An email announcing account suspension from a service for term violation
      • User is likely confused, upset and angry
      • Tone should be matter-of-fact, clear and without judgment
    • A popup screen asking the user to sign up for your service
      • User likely feels inconvenienced, possibly intrigued
      • Tone should be lighthearted, trustworthy, easy-going

Establishing consistent voice and tone guidelines helps hone your brand messaging. It develops an emotional connection with your users on a human level. And it helps sets you apart from the competition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Natalie Kurz

For the last 10 years Natalie Kurz has helped clients navigate the rapidly changing digital landscape by guiding them through the process of creating a cohesive user-centered online presence. Her work has included branding and voice definition, digital and social media strategies, integrated marketing campaigns, mobile application design, copywriting, user interface design and Intranet development for clients in the financial, health, consumer product, education and advocacy sectors. She’s had the pleasure of working with industry leaders including Express Scripts,, Stifel Nicolaus, Protective Insurance, Northwestern University, Washington University, State Farm, Jiffy Steamer and Purina. She holds a masters degree in journalism from NYU.

More from this Author

Follow Us