Vikki Ross podcast interview – the benefits of the right tone of voice in your messaging

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The brilliant Vikki Ross joins me on the show to discuss why tone of voice is important in your messaging. I really enjoyed this one and learned a LOT.

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(Full transcript at bottom of page.)

Vikki has been writing copy for major global brands for 24 years. She specialises in branding and tone of voice and travels the world telling businesses how to talk. They ask her to – she doesn’t just turn up and shout through their window.

She mentors at the most-awarded ad school, School of Communication Arts 2.0. She judges at international industry award competitions. She runs copy masterclasses for D&AD and speaks at global events. On Twitter, she created #copywritersunite – a hashtag to support and celebrate copywriters.

Creative Equals named her one of the industry’s Top 30 Female Creative Leaders, The Dots named her one of the Top 100 Trailblazers redefining the creative industry and Women in Marketing gave her a Special Award for Outstanding Contribution to Marketing.

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How to define what tone of voice is.
  • The damage that having a wrong tone of voice can have on a brand.
  • How much emphasis brands should place on tone of voice.
  • The benefits of having the right tone of voice.
  • What she would say to someone who feels that tone of voice isn’t a priority.
  • Tips for those who want to take an inward look at their brands tone of voice in order to understand if it’s right for their customers or not.

…and more!

As always, if you enjoyed this, and previous episodes, please like, rate, share, and subscribe to the podcast – it all helps!

Useful Links:

Podcast Anchor Page: https://anchor.fm/azeemdigitalasks

My Twitter page: https://twitter.com/AzeemDigital

My website: https://www.iamazeemdigital.com/

Sign up to “The Marginalised Marketer” newsletter: https://www.iamazeemdigital.com/the-marginalised-marketer-newsletter/

Vikki’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/VikkiRossWrites

Vikki’s Article: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/bit-branding-vikki-ross

Episode Transcript:

Azeem Ahmad:
Hello, and welcome back to another episode of the Azeem Digital Asks Podcast. Really looking forward to this because it’s a topic that I haven’t covered in nearly 60 episodes; which is shameful of me but good for the audience, because I have got a feeling that you and me are going to learn lots. The episode topic is all about the benefits of having the right tone of voice in your messaging.

Azeem Ahmad:
I have an absolutely incredible guest, who I’ve just been picking her brains off recording, the wonderful Vikki Ross. And I’m going to steal a little bit of her bio, and then she’s going to give herself the full introduction.

Azeem Ahmad:
Vikki’s been writing copy for major global brands for 24 years. She specializes in branding and tone of voice, and travels the world telling businesses how to talk. They ask her to, she doesn’t just turn up and shout through the window.

Azeem Ahmad:
Love that. Vikki, welcome to the show.

Vikki Ross:
Hi, there. Thank you for having me.

Azeem Ahmad:
It is an absolute pleasure.

Azeem Ahmad:
So I did steal a little bit of your bio there, apologies. But for those listeners who have been living under a virtual rock, would you love to share a little bit more about yourself, please?

Vikki Ross:
Sure. I’m a copywriter. I love writing copy for brands and talking to their audience in a way that’s unique to them. Like you said, I specialize in branding and tone of voice, which means I get to go behind the scenes and find out all about a brand and then find a way for them to express themselves.

Vikki Ross:
And on top of those things, I mentor young creatives, I judge industry award competitions. And the going around the world bit, speaking at conferences, like you mentioned, that’s obviously been on hold for the last year and a half or so with the pandemic. But I’ve been busy doing virtual talks.

Vikki Ross:
And it only occurred to me this week, when I had a minute just to reflect, that I’ve done more talks and workshops this year than I have ever. And I think that’s a really good sign of the health of the industry and their interest in copywriting and branding, which I’ve often had to fight for before. So I’m really encouraged that so many people want to focus on it and just have better conversations with their audience.

Azeem Ahmad:
Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. And you are incredibly busy, so I thank you very much in advance for giving me and the audience some of your time today.

Azeem Ahmad:
Let’s get right into it then. So we’re talking about the benefits of having the right tone of voice in your messaging. And I think there’s not a better place to start than the definition of tone of voice. So, Vikki, I’d love to learn from you, how would you define tone of voice?

Vikki Ross:
Well, I like to always keep things really simple and make people feel that learning what I have to say is easy. So really simply, and succinctly, a tone of voice is how a brand talks and what a brand says. But I will go into more detail to elaborate on that statement. And that is the how, the how of the tone of voice, the how a brand talks. That bit is the bit that makes a brand’s audience feel something.

Vikki Ross:
So if a brand’s tone of voice is informed the audience might feel reassured that they’re in the right place, they’re with a brand that understands their needs. So an example of that would be a bank, I guess. And if a brand’s tone of voice is cheeky, say, the audience might feel like they’re with a brand they can have fun with, like Nando’s. Nando’s, one of their tone of voice principles is cheeky. And it’s come into everyday language, people say they’re going for a cheeky Nando’s.

Vikki Ross:
A tone of voice is a brand asset. And all brand assets work together to evoke an emotion in the audience. So if a brand doesn’t make people feel anything, they’re not likely to do anything, like buy the product or click a call to action, or follow them on social, or whatever it is that the brand needs people to do.

Vikki Ross:
So that’s about the how, how the brand talks. The what bit is what the brand says. Which is slightly different to the how, it’s maybe a bit more practical and technical. But it’s the typical words and phrases that bring the how to life and reflect the category the brand is in. And it’s also the words and phrases that always connect people back to the brand; like Airbnb will always say host, Disney will always say magic, and McDonald’s will always say loving it.

Vikki Ross:
So sometimes a brand will say to me, “It’s really difficult to always be on-brand in everything that we do and say. How can we make it look like we are?” And so I advise to just use your brand words. So if you sprinkle a loving in for a McDonald’s copy, people will always think that’s McDonald’s talking, even if the rest of the copy doesn’t feel like it’s on-brand.

Azeem Ahmad:
Yeah, that’s brilliant. Thanks so much for sharing that, certainly got the cogs in my brain turning. Because sometimes, speaking purely as a consumer and not a marketer, you probably don’t even notice things like exactly what you’ve just said. And that’s a testament of how well that these sort of things work.

Azeem Ahmad:
And I think you touched on it in your answer there, but I’d love to learn a little bit more about, certainly, from your experience, how would having the wrong tone of voice affect a brand?

Vikki Ross:
I just want to touch on what you just said, if you don’t mind? About the consumer not noticing-

Azeem Ahmad:
Absolutely.

Vikki Ross:
… and that being a sign of a good tone of voice. You’re right, the consumer probably doesn’t notice. Or they do notice, but they don’t know what it is that they notice. They’re never going to say, “Oh, I buy Coca-Cola because I really like that the brand makes me feel happy.” But they do feel something, even if they haven’t put their finger on it and articulated it, because that’s why they return to the brand and become repeat buyers.

Vikki Ross:
But anyway, in answer to your next question: what effect does the wrong tone of voice have on a brand? Sorry, I was trying to remember how you positioned the question. I don’t think I’ve thought that a brand has the wrong tone of voice. But that’s an interesting question that I’m going to now look and reassess, are there brands that I think talk in the wrong way?

Vikki Ross:
But I have seen wrong executions though. For example, years ago, when Innocent, here in the UK, first came on the scene and spoke so differently to any other brand before. I remember Barclays Bank seemed to try giving their tone of voice a go. And they put a poster in their branch window that said, “Through these doors, walk the loveliest people in the world.” And it was so cringey because it just wasn’t how they spoke, that wasn’t in their tone of voice. So it felt really wrong.

Vikki Ross:
And the other thing that brands get wrong with tone of voice is they don’t think they need to use it everywhere. So Barclays, they stepped out of line with what their tone of voice was and adopted another one for a brief moment. But the consistency is really important. And often brands will be consistent in the big stuff, like they’ll use their tone of voice in the TV ads or on websites and in the shops at point of sale for example, but they don’t always use it in the small stuff, like text to customers or the cookies message or calls to action.

Vikki Ross:
And it’s really important for a tone of voice to be effective, that it’s used in everything, everywhere. Because that’s how a customer gets to know the brand at every touchpoint. And when a brand does get it wrong, it can make people feel uncomfortable. Because if they’re brought into a brand’s way of talking and then the brand talks differently, they might notice and they might wonder why. And then they might wonder if this is still the right brand for them.

Azeem Ahmad:
Absolutely. And I couldn’t agree with you more. I completely missed that one about Barclays. But, yeah, 100% cringe.

Azeem Ahmad:
So let’s move on then, you talking about brands and their tone of voice. So in my experience … which is far less than yours, so I’m very happy to bow down and learn more from you … when it comes to putting together campaigns and executions and stuff, tone of voice is not always top of the list, if it is even on the list at all. So how much emphasis do you think a brand should place tone of voice?

Vikki Ross:
Lots. Lots and lots and lots of emphasis. They should place the same emphasis they place on their logo, on their tone of voice. Because tone of voice is as much a brand asset as a logo. And brands use their logo everywhere, so they should use their tone of voice everywhere too. It’s what makes people recognize and remember the brand.

Azeem Ahmad:
Yeah, absolutely. And I think we touched on it earlier, but the benefits of having the right tone of voice. So you used the example of Barclays there, and it was completely a mile off. And earlier on, I mentioned about those brands who’ve got the right tone of voice. And certainly, as a consumer, I didn’t even notice that.

Azeem Ahmad:
What would you say are some of the benefits of having that right tone of voice?

Vikki Ross:
Having the right tone of voice attracts the right audience to your brand, and it sets up what the brand looks and feels like when you’re with them. And if a brand talks to their audience in a way they’ll find incredibly interesting, or even entertaining, they’re more likely to want to spend time and money with them and … think I said this before … to be a repeat part of that brand, like a customer.

Azeem Ahmad:
Yeah, absolutely.

Azeem Ahmad:
Okay. So these next couple of questions, I always just try to frame them with my guests in the sense of: there are people in the marketing industry who are listening to this episode and have maybe already, in 10 minutes or less, been influenced by some of the things that you’ve said. However, there are always people in the industry who are very hard and fast about, “We are always going to operate in this way.”

Azeem Ahmad:
So for those people who feel … even before the episode, and probably during, and maybe after … that tone of voice is not a priority. What would you say to those people who don’t think that tone of voice is a priority?

Vikki Ross:
I would say they don’t understand tone of voice. And, look, it’s not an unusual question, people often say this when they think they don’t have time to focus on the brand side of their brand and they just want to put a sales message out. And it doesn’t matter how it looks and feels, as long as it gets a sale.

Vikki Ross:
And they probably will get a sale. But they probably will get more sales if the message is delivered in a way that represents the brand better, because people will get more of a feel for what the brand’s offering.

Azeem Ahmad:
Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. Sadly, there will still be those people, probably long after this episode is published. But, stuff them. That’s what I say.

Azeem Ahmad:
For those people then who are listening to this episode, and, in the opposite, think, “Right. Okay. We really need to take an inward look at our brand’s tone of voice,” what advice would you give to them if they wanted to take that inward look in order to understand if the tone of voice that they’re using now is right for their customers or not?

Vikki Ross:
I would advise them to have a really good chat. I’d gather as many people from around the business as possible, and advise that they ask themselves lots of questions about the brand to determine what the brand does. So what’s its product or service? Why the brand does it? And who the brand does it for? So, its audience. Who it’s talking to. And how does the brand want to make those people feel? And look at competitors and see what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.

Vikki Ross:
So by the end of all of that discussion, research, and investigating, you find a way to talk that’s incredibly interesting, like I said before, and clearly unique to your brand.

Azeem Ahmad:
Brilliant. This has been absolutely brilliant. Before we part ways, I would absolutely love to pick your brains about a couple more things.

Azeem Ahmad:
So, firstly, let’s say people get together and they are in that meeting, and they’re asked the question, “Right. We need a quick win to improve our tone of voice.” Firstly, is there such a thing as a quick win? And if there is, would you mind sharing one or two of those, please?

Vikki Ross:
I think one idea is, lots of people find it easy to adopt a tone of voice if they imagine that the brand is a person or a character. And lots of brands come with a character, or the founder has a personality that’s influenced the brand personality. So Richard Branson, for example, big and bold and flamboyant. I mean, you could describe the Virgin brand in the same way as you describe him.

Vikki Ross:
But if you’re going to create a character, then just try and make it a really rounded character. What do they do? What do they think? What do they feel? What do they typically say? What do they like? What are they interested in? It just helps you imagine who you’re writing on behalf of.

Vikki Ross:
Or you could lean on a celebrity that perhaps the company knows well that you might not have a relationship with, they’re not your mascot, but they influence how you write. So lots of brands, if they just want to be kind and friendly and warm and relatable, they might say, “Our brand is just like Holly Willoughby.” She comes up a lot as someone who we all know is just really nice and down to earth and speaks very conversationally. So it’s always good to look to somebody that can help you, if you are looking for a quick win, for how to define your tone of voice.

Azeem Ahmad:
Absolutely brilliant, as has been all of your answers.

Azeem Ahmad:
The last one I would love to learn from you on. Certainly more recently, I’ve noticed that there are people very new to the industry who’ve been listening to the podcast and picking up tips. So if there are people who are very new to the industry and want to explore this avenue, this specialism, what advice would you give to them? And where can they start? And how can they pick up and essentially become half as skilled as you?

Vikki Ross:
Find the brands that you like, as a customer, and start writing for them. A good copywriter can write about anything, with lots of research. But a really good copywriter can write better when they have a love for the brand that they’re writing for or the product that they’re writing about. So find the brands that you love and that you use and, as I said, start writing for them.

Vikki Ross:
And an easy way of getting into their tone of voice is to copy out something they’ve already written and then carry on writing. Because you’ll feel like you already write for them. And then what you carry on writing is just seamless, or it makes it easier for you to have got in the mind of the brand already.

Vikki Ross:
And then when I say start writing for them, that sounds like you’re just getting yourself the job of writing on behalf of Nike, for example. But start writing for them and then send your work to the brand and marketing people at Nike, for example, or the agency who has their account. You can find people’s contact details online so easily now. And start a relationship with those people, and you never know what might happen.

Azeem Ahmad:
Definitely. It’s quite scary when you say it like that, you can find people’s contact details online.

Vikki Ross:
I know. Yeah. I don’t mean stalking. But I think sometimes people are quite passive in looking for a job, and they’ll apply for a job to a no name no face advert. But, actually, you could just be proactive and productive and contact someone directly and be interesting and interested, and hopefully, like I said, start a relationship with them.

Azeem Ahmad:
That is an absolutely brilliant piece of advice. Thank you very much for sharing that.

Azeem Ahmad:
Sadly, Vikki, we are nearly coming to the end of the podcast. But one thing I do with all of my guests is essentially give them an open floor for them to speak about anything that we haven’t really covered yet in the episode, within reason. So if there is anything that you’d love to cover now, the virtual or audio floor is all yours.

Vikki Ross:
Aw, thank you. Well, we’re coming up to Christmas. And so every year I put out, on Twitter, a Christmas copy bingo game. If anybody would like to join in? It’s just a bit of fun, looking for all those Christmas cliches that we find in the copy.

Vikki Ross:
And I usually moan about the one phrase that we see every Christmas in everything, which is: all wrapped up. So perhaps if I can leave your listeners with anything, please don’t ever write all wrapped up. Everyone does it.

Azeem Ahmad:
Love that, free Christmas tips as well.

Azeem Ahmad:
And you mentioned your social there. Perfect way to come towards the end of the episode. If there are people listening to this who would love to connect with you and follow you on social media, for example, where can people find you?

Vikki Ross:
I’m on Twitter, @VikkiRossWrites.

Azeem Ahmad:
Perfect. And I will drop that into the show notes.

Azeem Ahmad:
But from me to you Vikki, thank you so much. This has been a really brilliant episode. I’ve learned a lot from you. And I’m sure when I come back to edit, and when the listeners listen to this, that they will too.

Azeem Ahmad:
Thank you very much for giving me some of your time today. And thanks for being a brilliant guest.

Vikki Ross:
Thank you very much.