In today’s crowded high street, fashion brands need to work hard to distinguish themselves from one another.
It’s not possible to have an effective user experience without considering your brand’s tone of voice. It’s a way to encapsulate a brand promise into every aspect of communication, whether it’s across web, print, social media or in-store.
By leveraging tone of voice effectively, brands that seem to occupy a very similar market position are able to carve out an identifiable niche for themselves and make their personality distinct.
J Crew and Anthropologie, both US high street stores offering mid-market priced clothing, use their tone of voice to distinguish themselves in this crowded position.
J Crew has achieved the position of cult fashion label by offering a unique tone of voice. The brand offers a sophisticated style that’s knowledgeable about the world of fashion without being too obsessive. This tone of voice offers detail from the world of fashion – such as suggesting a technical term for wearing multiple necklaces (‘the ‘Cleopatra collar’).
It’s an authoritative tone of voice that doesn’t become overbearing, as it assumes the audience has merely a moderate interest in fashion authenticity without being a real fashion anorak.
The brand also curates lifestyle content and introduces a network of stylists and designers that share details about how they go about the creative process.
This means there’s real information about how the clothing is made and where the brand’s inspiration comes from, if you care to find out. This helps J Crew come across as knowledgeable without being a fashion bore and reflects the audience it aspires to connect with.
By contrast, Anthropologie actually takes the focus away from fashion and uses a more eclectic approach.
Anthropologie’s brand personality is wider-ranging: the blog includes recipes and craft guides for making piñatas, as well as a video about the Chelsea Flower Show. It’s certainly more passionate than J Crew, using more emotive language. You’ll find a chattier tone of voice from this brand, which goes into more detail about the latest thing it’s interested in across a broad range of interests.
& Other Stories
Moving a fashion brand to a new market can bring additional challenges. With the current trend for Scandinavian influence in both homeware and fashion, several brands have made this leap.
Perhaps the most famous is IKEA, the furniture and homewares giant based in Sweden. IKEA has chosen to embrace its Scandinavian identity through retaining the original names for its products, even though these seem strange and often unpronounceable in foreign countries.
Following IKEA’s own quirky system of cataloguing, this means garden furniture items are all named after Swedish islands, such as Äpplarö or Tärnö, whilst curtains all have womens’ names such as Lill or Lenda. Overall, IKEA uses a tone of voice that shows the brand is creative and imaginative but also delivers great value.
Womenswear and accessories brand & Other Stories, also Swedish in origin, doesn’t boast its heritage quite so strongly. However, it’s got a breezy and accessible approach that emphasizes low prices and creativity. The brand’s also realistic about the way people live – something that it shares with IKEA. Just as IKEA recognizes people have less space at home than they would ideally like, & Other Stories acknowledges that their beauty products may get stored in less than ideal places such as on radiators.
What the two brands communicate is a fuss-free, low priced creative approach that a UK audience is coming to recognize as Scandinavian.
This Swedish personality is imbibed into the tone of voice to communicate exactly what the brands stand for. In both cases, this has translated well across borders.
How Oi Polloi grounds itself
One menswear brand that seems to be cutting through the noise with its own unique tone is small Manchester-based clothing brand Oi Polloi. The brand copy is written very much as it would be spoken by its midlands audience. It’s unfussy and doesn’t stand on ceremony or take itself too seriously (a common trap for fashion brands), although it does treat the clothing with the respect it deserves.
For example, it talks about ‘stuff’ when it refers to its range, and isn’t overly passionate, which is authentic for a UK brand. Introducing a new clothing range from Stone Island, Oi Polloi says cautiously “Stone Island is probably our favourite island.”
It’s a very British approach that recognises that Oi Polloi’s audience may have a strong distaste for the pretentiousness that sometimes accompanies fashion talk.
At the same time, Oi Polloi curates the brands in its collection with a serious amount of care. It talks about the inspiration behind each label and offers interviews with designers that keep a sense of humor but still go into detail about elements of clothing such as where zips are positioned. It’s an unfussy and authentic approach that’s right for its audience, showing it’s okay to take an interest in fashion without being pretentious.
Oi Polloi is true to its origins as a result, rather than coming across as a faceless international brand. It really helps the brand distinguish itself in the menswear market.
Brands that neglect their tone of voice
Developing a distinct tone of voice is a key way for any brand to stand out from the crowd. This does not mean that all brands invest the time and effort into defining their tone of voice as part of their style guidelines.
Few brands enshrine elements of voice, tone and style into their brand guidelines, even though the rise of content marketing means that most brands need to consider themselves media creators now.
Although many brand produce content in the form of blogs, social media posts, eBooks and whitepapers, few do much to elaborate on what the brand’s tone of voice is.
Having a recognisable communication style and tone is especially important if content is off-site and accessible outside the brand’s owned territory online.
When a brand’s content is far from home, it’s particularly vital that it’s recognisable as part of the brand identity and express that uniqueness wherever it may be.
It’s also the case that brands tend to stretch across multiple media – websites, microsites, email, print and advertising – meaning the brand guidelines need to work harder than ever before. To complicate the picture, bloggers are now adding their own voice into the brand narrative in real time. Although this may seem outside the sphere of a brand’s influence, the tone of voice is a key way to connect with these commentators and get them on board with the brand values.
It’s never been more important to identify exactly what the brand stands for, and to pin it down so that it can be communicated effectively wherever it goes.