Brand Tone: It’s All About How You Say It

Brand tone is not an easy thing for businesses to get right—or sometimes even articulate. Sure, you can put a product on television and social media to sell, but how that product is presented makes a huge impact on how your audience views your product, and, perhaps more importantly, your brand as a whole.

In advertising, the color palette, design, talent choices, and copy all need to say something about your brand and speak to a specific audience. More often than not, the how those things are said is much more important than the what.

A good example of tone in advertising was the revival of Old Spice in 2010. Their branding efforts worked to target a younger generation of consumers through clever copywriting on the packaging, bold new scents, and groundbreaking television campaigns. Rather than be a men’s deodorant playing up the sporty and aggressive (Degree) angle, or the old sex-sells (AXE) approach, Old Spice marketed itself as the creative, dynamic option.

With ad spots that appealed to a wider audience in an engaging way, and didn’t alienate the women, (who do the buying), in the room, Old Spice convinced everyone their products may be worth trying. The new tone worked. Old Spice was successfully repositioned as a young, fresh voice in the bathroom market, rather than just a soap or deodorant used by everyone’s grandfather. Alongside new brand messaging, sales were up: Old Spice was suddenly topping AXE and competing with Degree. 

In just over four months of the campaign’s rollout, Old Spice saw sales of their Red Zone Body Wash increase 60% compared to the previous year. That’s certainly a figure worth the brand shift!

Another prime example of how tone can carry a campaign to a higher level is what Beats by Dre did in 2013. Beats was known as an expensive brand of electronic headphones and speakers, but they didn’t necessarily have an edge on any other big electronics brand. Beats had endorsement deals with many popular musicians, largely through their namesake rapper Dr. Dre’s influence. The problem was, simply having a rapper feature their product in a video wasn’t growing the brand in a dynamic way.

Beats took their brand in a compelling direction with their “Hear What You Want” campaign. In the first rendition, Kevin Garnett, an NBA superstar, arrives at the opposing-team’s stadium and is heckled by fans. The normally loud-and-aggressive Garnett simply puts on his headphones and walks confidently past everyone around him as Aloe Blacc’s “I’m the Man” plays in his ears.

Putting the headphones on an athlete made the brand work for a broader audience. Suddenly, Beats wasn’t just for wannabe rappers or young people wanting flashy, bass-heavy equipment. This new, empowering tone of ignoring negativity and focusing inward connected with athletes, sports fans, and even half-interested onlookers alike.

The athletes in the spots weren’t treated as highlight reels or caricatures, but as real individuals subjected to pressure and criticism. This campaign propelled the Beats brand message beyond the world of electronics and into the realm of creative storytelling, championing its endorsers in unique ways. This new brand tone reminded everyone of the interconnectedness of music, sport, and self. It worked like a charm. In 2014, Beats by Dre was acquired by Apple for over $3 billion.

As for the other side of the coin, this campaign by McDonald’s UK is a prime example of tone gone wrong. Most fast food ads are either introductory (check out our new item), or are part of the price wars (get 10 burgers for just $4.99). But, in some rare instances, a QSR (quick-service restaurant) brand will go above the typical call of duty to reach their customers and potential customers in new ways. In 2017, McDonald’s tried to make an emotional connection in their UK market.

In the spot, a young boy asks his mother about his father. With pointed dialogue, we quickly learn that the father died before the child was old enough to know him well. Through heavy-handed emotional scenes, we feel sad for the boy as he realizes he is absolutely nothing like his dad, and doesn’t have any connection to his memory. This powerful, raw story looks promising at the outset.

The spot ends with the son and mother going to McDonald’s. As he eats his meal, Mom smiles and tells him that his choice, a Filet-O-Fish, was his father’s favorite menu item. Needless to say, any emotional connection the audience has made is all but shattered by the cringe-worthy, brand-plugging ending. Not only was this a lame attempt to make the Filet-O-Fish sandwich somehow poetic, it was a poor attempt by McDonald’s to shift the brand’s tone to a more serious space.

Unsurprisingly, many people were upset with McDonald’s use of a child’s loss to sell fast food. At least 150 people filed a complaint with the U.K. Advertising Standards Authority, and the reaction on social media wasn’t much better. Eventually, McDonald’s UK pulled the ad and apologized, stating their intentions were to emphasize the connection between customers’ lives and their restaurants.

Connecting your brand to your customers’ lives is a great goal to strive towards. Many brands have done this well over the years. But McDonald’s approach fell flat as soon as they implied their food could made a child feel better about not having a father.

The lesson these campaigns can teach us is: No matter how good a product or service is, choosing the right tone for an ad will make a huge difference in how the world sees your brand and how that ad impacts your bottom line.

If anything else, these examples should show how much emphasis should be placed not just on what you say in advertising, but how you say it.