Defining a tone of voice can be one of the more complex aspects of starting a new brand, particularly in the sophisticated luxury sector. Brand language specialist Mike Reed looks at the spectrum of luxury identities and offers his advice on how to stand out from the rest.
Imagine you’re launching a new brand into the premium market. You want your tone of voice to sound ‘luxury’. But wait. What does luxury sound like?
When it comes to defining your tone of voice, you need to get specific. Words that broadly describe your sector – like professional, or creative, or luxury – are too subjective. One person’s luxury could be another’s lacklustre.
You could look to other brands for inspiration. But it’s hard to separate a good tone of voice from a good brand generally. Do you really want to sound like Apple? Or do you just want their marketing budget?
The key is to take a strategic approach, starting with your competitors. What are they saying? How are they saying it? This throws up a whole palette of nuanced voices within your sector. Ask what you like, what you hate and where you’d like your brand to fit in (or stand out).
So, let’s look at a voice palette for the world of luxury.
‘Asprey has a long and established relationship with British royalty dating back to the 1800s when Queen Victoria awarded the first Royal Warrant.’
A formal tone is the order of the day for many premium brands, particularly British ones. From British Airways (‘To fly, to serve’) to upmarket heritage brands like Asprey, the Butler is a steady default. It’s old-fashioned, sure, but a lot of people like that. When buying into old-fashioned luxury, one expects to be addressed accordingly.
‘On a remote Pacific island, 1,600 miles from the nearest continent, equatorial trade winds purify the clouds that begin FIJI® Water’s journey through one of the world’s last virgin ecosystems.’
From department stores to luxury travel brands, it seems the more you spend, the more story you get. Even the most basic essentials come with a heavy dose of narrative in the premium sphere. FIJI Water’s long, languorous sentences are working hard to justify its claim of being ‘Earth’s finest water’ (not to mention the eye-watering price tag).
‘So this is love. An intoxicating, mysterious fragrance: vigorous grapefruit, Levantine spice and rose tangle in the moonlight.’
Like the Storyteller, the Poet aims to envelop its clientele in a rich brand world, but with a little more lyrical flair. This is a tricky one to get right – too much whimsy is simply annoying. Premium beauty and fragrance brands like Penhaligon’s and Aesop manage to get it right.
‘Saying your vodka is gluten-free isn’t unique. Grey Goose is.’
Grey Goose gets right in your face with their ‘we’re the best, alright?’ messaging and bolshy tone. And for a drink that’s synonymous with being served in swanky nightclubs with a sparkler sticking out of it, this feels like a pretty good fit. You have to respect them for taking ownership of their own pretentiousness.
‘I think there is always a need for pure design. With pure design, you don’t need so much decoration.’
Sometimes the best way to sound premium is to say hardly anything at all. This works well for fashion brands like Jil Sander, also known as the ‘Queen of Less’. Just like her collections, Jil Sander’s copy is impeccably understated. There’s barely a trace of personality in the brand’s sparse, pared-back copy. By keeping a neutral voice, they can appeal to a wider audience.
‘The steering wheel on my current car is way too round.’
Another tricky one to get right, which is probably why few premium brands attempt it. Spending lots of money is a serious business, after all. On the flip side, the unexpectedly playful Joker stands out among all of the Butlers and Storytellers. Take Jaguar. Their checklist of ridiculous excuses to buy a new car is a cheeky way of saying ‘we already know you want one’.
Or Harvey Nichols, with their tongue-in-cheek ads that use real CCTV footage of shoplifters, their faces obscured by silly cartoon caricatures, imploring them to get their freebies legally with the Rewards App.
The Joker works because it’s not trying too hard. And having the confidence not to sell is perhaps the most authentic luxury trait of all.
Tone of voice is complicated. Contextual. And how we perceive it is inherently tied up with everything else we know about a brand and the messages it communicates. There’s no getting away from this – but it helps to take time to unpack what it is you’re trying to achieve. If you start writing before you’ve decided what it is you want to say, and how you want to sound, you’re bound to run into trouble.
Whether you’re in the realm of luxury or something totally different, when it comes to finding your brand’s voice, it helps to see the full palette before you start.