Check your tone: why good writing sets brands apart

Check your tone: why good writing sets brands apart

How a brand speaks and writes is as important as how it looks. As clever copywriting makes a resurgence, we chat with AUFI agency Nihilo about how businesses can find their voice

Words and design have always been natural partners. Take a trip back to the 50s, and adverts featured entire paragraphs of copy, lovingly crafted to extol the virtues of the brand or product. Over time the images got bigger and the words got smaller – not necessarily in size – and it felt like the relationship became increasingly fragmented. But more recently, writing in the realm of branding has experienced a creative resurgence.

“When I started working in design, which was about five or six years ago, I didn’t really see anyone talking about writing – there were always copywriters, but it wasn’t really considered at the same level as design” says Margaret Kerr-Jarrett, co-founder and creative director at brand agency Nihilo – which is part of the AUFI network, and has worked with companies including Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works. “But in the last few years, it’s exploded. Agencies are talking about it and awards are talking about it.”


“I think from the typical branding world, people have become very jaded with the old definition of branding, which is logo, type and colour palette,” agrees Emunah Winer, fellow co-founder and creative director at Nihilo. “People are beginning to open their eyes to all sorts of disciplines that you can experiment with that are equally on the table as visual design, writing being one of them.”

It makes a lot of sense. Brands are managing a growing number of platforms and formats, and the need to establish a tone of voice that carries across all of them is greater than ever. How does your business sound in print advertising? Is it different to a TV ad? Will people know it’s you, when they come across an Instagram caption, or a Tweet? Businesses have to build a character that can comfortably, confidently and creatively live across all of these – and the way they use language is a major part of this.

“Good design on its own may not really get you the results you’re looking for,” says Kerr-Jarrett. “Everyone’s looking for what else can help to create that connection and resonance with the audience.”


So how does a brand find their voice? And then how do they express it across all the many places they live? Companies often turn to a tone of voice document, but that only works if the foundational work has been done first. Nihilo recommends that brands that want to avoid sounding the same as everyone else spend some time finding their “core truth” or “core concept”, and build their tone of voice from there. That means avoiding the temptation of looking at what other brands are doing – Nihilo prefers to draw inspiration from the wider world of history, geography, art, literature, music and science – and understanding that there isn’t a single set of rules or formula for success.

“I would say be brave, and identify that core concept and truth, and then stick to it. If you really hone in on that, it’s going to be a lot easier to be authentic and differentiated in your voice.”

Margaret Kerr-Jarrett - Co-Founder & Creative Director, Nihilo

“If that's real and authentic it’s not going to be the same as everyone else, because every company is doing something different and has a different set of voices that they’re working with; different people,” says Kerr-Jarrett. “I would say be brave, and identify that core concept and truth, and then stick to it. If you really hone in on that, it’s going to be a lot easier to be authentic and differentiated in your voice.”

“I’d like to add to that: think less about what you think the customer wants to hear, and more about what you want to say,” says Winer, “which is so anti- this idea of thinking only about your customer, and that whole marketing gimmick.

“It’s such an overused term, but there’s this idea of authenticity and actually saying what it is you want to say, and then stopping thinking about it. It’s often an over-thought and over-formulated, and that’s the opposite of what consumers want today when they’re so inundated with information.”


Establishing tone of voice can be tricky, and applying it across different touchpoints can require a very high-level in-house writer or team – something that’s not always feasible for a business, particularly in the early stages. The solution might not be a rigid tone of voice document but instead a “visual and verbal toolkit” that provides a set of flexible assets brands can draw on and build from.

This might include a range of customer-facing headlines and sentences that can be used to piecemeal together different messaging systems as the brand evolves, as well as examples of how to address different audiences. It could also include a brand lexicon, explaining what words or industry terms are used and in what context, as a way of building the voice. Guidelines that include sentences such as ‘we’re funny but not irreverent’ or ‘we’re human and warm’ are usually unhelpful.

“I’d almost venture to say it’s about telling a brand what they can’t do, and then letting them do everything else besides.”

Emunah Winer - Co-founder & Creative Director, Nihilo

“We’ve found if you focus too much on the quality of that voice as opposed to what that voice actually says then it’s going to get lost so quickly,” says Kerr-Jarrett. “My recommendation would be to develop an array of verbal tools you can pull from, and that will be a better teacher to your staff than a set of guidelines.”

“I’d almost venture to say it’s about telling a brand what they can’t do, and then letting them do everything else besides,” says Winer. “It shouldn’t feel so limiting. When we create a brand, we want it to feel expansive – like you can do anything within this framework, and that’s what empowers brands, not a rulebook.”


This might feel like it goes against the perceived wisdom that branding is all about consistency, but it’s more about viewing consistency through a slightly different lens. It’s less, says Kerr-Jarrett, about having the sentence structure used in exactly the same way, or ensuring every single LinkedIn post and 404 page uses puns, and more about brand language speaking to that memorable and recognisable core truth identified earlier. “Maybe they’re using language at a higher level and in a more creative way, and that’s what’s so distinctive about it,” she adds. ”I think it’s more about a commitment to using language to its utmost, as opposed to making everything match.”

And using language to its utmost doesn’t necessarily mean infusing every piece of copy with flourishes. For example, a recent Nihilo project saw the pair work with Decibel – which provides in-home kidney care and dialysis. “Our goal was just to actually validate what the patient was going through in a real way, and that was a little bit shocking but it was very simple and validating and straightforward,” says Kerr-jarrett. “It didn’t involve a lot of language-bending, it was really saying what it is, and that’s surprisingly uncommon for brands to do.

“All the sugarcoating and glossing over and dumbing things down? People don’t necessarily need that.”