Will brands need a new tone of voice after covid?

Will brands need a new tone of voice after covid?

When the Government changed its ‘Stay at Home – Protect the NHS – Save Lives’ message to ‘Stay Alert – Control the Virus – Save Lives’ the media was incandescent with criticism. It was vague and far too complex for the public to understand, they said.

The problem, says Nick Padmore, Creative Director at language and behavioural science agency Schwa, was that the second message was “crowbarred into an existing template and it was a difficult fit”.

He suggests the Government should have abandoned the three-phrase template for something more flexible that could accommodate what he admits is a very complex message.

Network Rail cares about its passengers

He knows about these things. When Schwa re-worded a sign for Network Rail, 52% more passengers said they felt the organisation cared about them. It has also re-written user guides for Sky, resulting in fewer confused call-ins and thousands of pounds saved in call handling time and helped career transition and outplacement company LHH boost sales by 15% simply by changing the tone of a voicemail script.

Schwa combines behavioural science and language to persuade people to take specific actions. Watching carefully as events have unfolded during the pandemic, Nick and his agency have come to a conclusion: the ways business and life have changed during covid are so significant that it will impact even our use of language as marketers, communicators and business leaders.

No-one talks like that anymore

It’s a huge statement but he appears to have a point.

Nick Padmore

The driving factor behind the change in tone is widespread vulnerability, he argues. No business sector has been unaffected by covid-19. This has forced companies to speak more openly and honestly than before.

He cites examples such as a memo to staff from British Airways boss Alex Cruz warning of job cuts in which he said, “We can no longer sustain our current level of employment and jobs would be lost – perhaps for a short term, perhaps longer term.”

A message from Pret A Manger CEO Pano Christou on its website offers a similar admission of vulnerability, beginning, ‘We’ve learned a huge amount in the past few weeks while getting used to the new safety and social distancing measures’.

Nick says, “Because the whole world is suffering the same thing, it’s OK to fail. Brands that still peddle the ‘everything’s fine, don’t worry’ message look old fashioned and out of touch.”

When shit gets real we change the tone

He suggests this has made it much harder for brands to use vague, corporate language. “People were already getting sick of the buzzwords big corporates sometimes put out. Add covid, climate change and the Black Lives Matter movement to the mix and there’s a push for crystal clear, honest communication. 2020 is the year shit got real, so it’s time for brands to catch up,” he says.

Changing tone of voice is not a simple task only to be handled by Marketing, says Nick, but a cultural change programme. It can involve understanding behavioural science and linguistics and must be led by the board.

And if you want your tone of voice to stick, being able to sum it up in a single sentence helps. When Nick worked with O2, the best way to explain the tone of voice to people was ‘Would Sean Bean say it?’

Probably the biggest change of tone, he believes, will be beyond the Home Page and advertising, areas which have in some industries stubbornly avoided the humanised tone of voice.

“Do you have the bandwidth to deliver my pizza?”

Some tonal changes, Schwa predicts, will happen without a conscious effort. Take for example, vague corporate buzzwords like ‘synergy’ and ‘solution’ and the habit of using ‘utilize’ when ‘use’ works just as well. The meaning they convey is abstract and in our current circumstances we hanker for concrete meaning.

As working from home becomes more common, a workforce stationed in kitchens and spare bedrooms will feel these buzzwords to be incongruous, he believes.

He says, “I doubt that anyone has ever called a pizza delivery company and asked them: ‘Do you have the bandwidth to deliver my pizza?’ It’s out of place and away from the corporate environment this type of language will feel strange.”

So is Schwa right? Time will tell but, at least on the buzzwords, here’s hoping.