You probably think I’m going to start droning on about Innocent and their smoochy-smoochy smoothies.
‘Ooh!’ I’ll probably (never) say. ‘They’re speaking like we speak … but on a product label! Neat.’
Well, don’t worry – I won’t be talking about Innocent at all.
I mean, I just did, so I suppose I already am. But that’s it now, I promise.
You’re also probably thinking: ‘This isn’t a very professional way to start a piece of writing.’
But these days, it really is.
Everyone’s doing it. I’m doing it right now.
There’s that quirky little copywriter again, having a bit of fun on the side of a bottle of juice. (I promised, but I lied.)
Chatting away on a printed label, expertly charming the socks off you with every silly word.
It’s an anti-advert advert. Written by a tone of voice titan.
But, people: there are limits.
And I’m going to show you where they are.
Paddy’s White Power
I like it when brands don’t seem to give a shit.
I’m also blessed with a morbid sense of humour.
But some of these Paddy Power adverts are pushing it:
We all know exactly who they’re trying to appeal to. That loud bloke in the pub. The one who has a lot to say about immigrants and Margaret Thatcher, and who barks violent laughter at any joke containing a hint of filth or controversy.
We can’t be sure if this man really exists. (He does.) But if he does, Paddy Power seems to have nailed the right tone of voice for him – even if the way it uses that tone of voice is questionable.
You might think that the writers at Paddy Power don’t care about causing offence.
It looks like they love it.
And while you could applaud their razor-sharp targeting of a particular demographic, you could also argue that their tone of voice is putting a lot of people off their brand.
If you love sports and gambling – but you’re not into jokes about people being black – you’ll probably decide to lose your money with a different company instead.
- ‘It’s in the burger van, mate. Get your hair net on.’
- ‘Because we checked, and only one of them is a boxer.’
- ‘Every 90 minutes, an area the size of 122 footy pitches is chopped down, and no one gives a monkey’s. Log on and show the trees some love. Chop chop.’
Ergh, God, no:
- ‘Sorry Romney. You’re not black, or cool.’
- ‘Last one to sign up for a PaddyPower account is a twat.’
- ‘Immigrants, jump in the back! (But only if you’re good at sport.)’
So what’s the lesson here?
Speaking in the tongue of your intended customers is always a good idea. But don’t alienate the rest of the market by sticking too closely to one (highly stereotyped) demographic.
Believe it or not, some gamblers don’t want to walk into a betting shop that says ‘twat’ on its posters.
Lush and their gush
I love Lush’s tone of voice.
It’s conversational and easygoing. It speaks directly to their eco-conscious customers, and it’s not afraid to inject a bit of fun into everything it does.
But it doesn’t half make me cringe sometimes:
I suppose I’m being unfair. These products – and therefore this copy – weren’t made for me.
But I don’t think they were made for toddlers, either.
Anyone can want to look and smell good. But that doesn’t mean they want to hear about fairies and pixie dust while they’re doing it.
Lush hits the mark so often that it’s hard to really criticise their excellent tone of voice. But just a few little nuggets of overbearing gloss can break the charming spell that their writers have done so well to create elsewhere.
- ‘How to use [a shampoo]: If you really don’t know how, then we suggest you find someone you really like and invite them into the shower with you to demonstrate.’
- ‘Please do humanity a favour and wash your hair’.
- ‘Not virgin – made from 100% recycled plastic.’
Ergh, God, no:
- ‘Top tip: Snow Fairy works her magic on everyone then vanishes until next Christmas.’
- ‘Feel pretty in pink with sugary scents that grant magical wishes.’
- ‘Wave a magic wand over bath time with this candy sweet reusable bubble bar.’
So what can Snow Fairy teach us with her sparkle magic voice?
If you’re selling something cute and fun, some cute and fun copy is a perfect fit.
But show some moderation: don’t typecast your entire audience, and don’t make them bring up their breakfast in the shower.
Just a touch of Waitrose
There’s a distinct ‘Delia Smith’ quality to the tone of voice Waitrose likes to use.
It’s matriarchal. It’s composed and gentle – reassuring, yet somehow slightly distant and reserved.
We all know exactly who they’re trying to appeal to. That quiet individual perusing the broadsheets in the gastropub. The baby boomer parent who thinks it’s improper to talk about money, but who spends all day thinking about it anyway.
‘Easy on the dijon,’ they say to their little kitchen helpers. ‘You’ll need a generous helping of worcestershire sauce, and just a spritz of balsamic vinegar to lift things up and give it a little oomph.’
We can’t be sure if these Stepford Wives really exist. (They do.) But if they do, Waitrose hasn’t just captured their vocabulary – it’s helping to propagate it.
- ‘The beautiful bay leaf – comforting in custards, subtle in stews. Infuse your oils and pep up your pies.’
- ‘A must with minestrone and perfect in pies. For chunky chutneys or simple stir fries.’
Ergh, God, no:
- ‘Romantic rosemary – symbol of love, good luck and friendship.’
- ‘Majestic basil – once regarded sacred to the gods, fragrant basil still reigns supreme.’
And what did our little kitchen helpers learn today?
If you’re creating a tone of voice, you don’t have to lay on a thick layer of glitter and emojis to win over an audience.
There’s power in a message that’s created with restraint. And there’s a reason why people like Delia Smith and Martha Stewart are so comforting and discreetly charismatic.
Just be careful not to send your audience to sleep.
Paddy Power’s tone of voice might be harsh. And Lush can, like, literally make me vom sometimes.
Waitrose seems happy occupying a safe middle ground – it’s a long way from abrasive, but it’s still a healthy distance from sickly sweet.
You can’t knock a brand for successfully targeting the demographic they’re after. But you can’t say that playing it safe leads anywhere particularly exciting, either.
Oatly and the fourth wall
Oatly is self-aware.
Not in a creepy AI sort of way. It’s more of a ‘cool aunt’ scenario.
Mums know what’s best for you. They’ll try to sell you on the health benefits – the things that make you grow up big and strong like them.
But cool aunts know what kids like to hear. And they know how much kids love to hear the things you’re not supposed to tell kids.
Companies like Alpro and Arla want you to ‘be inspired’ and ‘feed your curiosity’ with their plant-based alternatives to milk.
Vegan mum knows best.
But Oatly wants to keep things casual and carefree. Their white drinks have ‘No milk. No soy. No … eh … whatever.’
Alpro says their products are ‘more likeable’ than yoghurt:
While Oatly gives us the headline: ‘This tastes like sh*t! Blah!’
Mmmm, yummy tone of voice.
By mocking itself, its writers, its product, and the entire advertising industry, Oatly isn’t just trying to become cool.
It’s trying to become more human.
There’s a new kind of sincerity hidden inside the casual piss-taking. And from a consumer’s point of view, it puts Oatly firmly ‘on our side’ – it’s us and Oatly against the hordes of condescending and formulaic ads we’ve grown so used to.
Things only get more subversive when our cool aunts at Oatly hit the streets. Most print campaigns try to hide their true intentions behind a soft call to action or an invitation to ‘discover a new experience’.
But Oatly likes to cut the crap with their anti-advert adverts:
- ‘Wow no cow!’
- ‘It’s like milk, but made for humans.’
- ‘The boring (but very important) side.’
Ergh, God, no:
- ‘We made this mural instead of an Instagram post. Hope a barista walks by and sees it.’
- ‘This poster is like a real-life analog retro throwback social media post for oat drink.’
So what’s the boring (but very important) lesson here?
Mums hide the peas in the mashed potato.
But cool aunts say, ‘Eat some peas so your mum thinks I’m a good babysitter.’
It’s direct and transparent, with no condescending trickery. And in a world full of ad-aware consumers who can see through most feeble attempts at manipulation, it’s a refreshing change.
Paddy Power’s a bit spicy. And Waitrose is a little dry.
Lush can be a bit syrupy, and we’ve all gorged ourselves rotten with too many helpings of Innocent. Oops – did it again.
But this bowl of (oat) porridge? This tone of voice is just right.