What goes into a good financial services brand’s tone of voice guidelines?

This is the first in an occasional series where Chris West looks at good and not-so-good examples of brand tone of voice guidelines: what makes them work and what they could do to make them work harder.
First up is something for anyone looking for financial services brand tone of voice guidelines examples. In particular, an insurer.

Lloyds tone of voice guidelines.

A bit of context before we start.
Outside of fintech, the brands in Financial Services don’t evolve very fast.
So we shouldn’t expect financial services brands tone of voice guidelines to evolve too fast, either.
And that’s my excuse for sharing tone of voice guidelines examples that are so old.
However – in the next post, I’ll compare with a fintech brand’s example of their tone of voice guidelines.
So for now, this is how things used to be

So this set of tone of voice guidelines from Lloyds of London (not Lloyd’s Bank) is almost 20 years old.

Do you work at Lloyd’s brand team?
Can you share more up-to-date brand guidelines?

The brand guidelines cover page: stating the importance or relying on some ‘charming’* wordplay?

Financial Services brand tone of voice - cover

*Far too often, the brand guidelines writers lose the game before running on the pitch. They’ve psyched themselves out that no one else cares about brand (arrogance or a fundamental lack of self-belief?). And so rather than simply stating why this is critical stuff that everyone should know about, they try and be charming. Coming across as genuflecting instead.

Here, I think they’ve missed a couple of things.

First, it’s important that everyone outside the brand team understands that brand isn’t just the logo or the strapline. And the verbal identity isn’t just the words we use, but the choice of topic, the creation of a personality and some subtler things like how our choice of grammar positions the brand in society. The authors made the title about ‘every word’ reducing the verbal branding to a thing or word choice.

Second, the challenge of WiiFM – the idea that unless the readers understand ‘what’s in it for me’ they won’t read it. This cover page has a ‘features’ focus, stating that the document is about language. Instead, it could have a ‘benefits’ focus, stressing what the reader will be able to do better having read the document.

Brand tone of voice guidelines – the Contents

Financial Services brand tone of voice - contents

From the start, the authors deserve praise for keeping the description of the contents simple and easy to read. Well done.
And particularly in the world of financial services.
Too often, the financial services brands tone of voice guidelines are just a jargon pile-on.
When we look at financial services brand tone of voice guidelines examples, they’re often like technical manuals for an F16.
And great that they’ve got some Before/After examples as well.
At 20 pages, the guidelines feel the right length – not too dogmatic and long but not too trivial either.
Let’s dive in to see how they play it all out.

Brand tone of voice guidelines -the Intro Page

This is a critical page. The reader probably doesn’t want to spend hours reading this.
So, what can you say that will make them want to read it?
Can you tell them how it will make their life easier?
How will it reduce pain in their day to day?
And, can you be realistic about how difficult it will be to change – and what you’ll do to help them?

Financial Services brand tone of voice -  intro

A good start – showing empathy with the reader’s current state of mind.
A disappointing follow-up – back to this thing about it being just the ‘words’.
And nothing about how it will help the reader.
And who’s the ‘We’ that’s mentioned here? The document seems to have been created without an author or owner.
The big miss probably is that the CEO hasn’t committed to writing anything for this. If brand is so critical, why haven’t they given it their support?
Okay, let’s look at how they set out what the brand vision is.

Brand tone of voice guidelines – the basics

Financial Services brand tone of voice -  intro 2

Well, these are good to see. Some helpful tips – good for any writer.
This is a strong start because they start hinting at why good writing matters. And what good writing is.
Personally, I think this is more important in financial services brands tone of voice guidelines because the subject matter is so dense.
But – and it’s a bigger but than you’ll see on the cover of a sexist 1970s album cover  – there’s nothing at all about the vision.
With this words-level focus dominating the attitude to verbal branding, there’s nothing to show how the whole collection of verbal branding assets can create a world to believe in.

The brand tone of voice tonal values

Financial Services brand tone of voice -  - overview

A good summary to start. Simple, clear.

Brand personality voice tone #1:

Financial Services brand tone of voice -  - tonal value

Ah, here’s that Vision thing that was missing from earlier on! If they’d told the reader that when they write, they’re trying to create a belief in the world of Lloyds as the leading insurer of specialists risk based on three centuries of expertise, they’d have empowered the reader to make a lot of choices. Instead, it’s kind of relegated here as a sub-thought.
In terms of the ‘assertive’ that they’re unpacking, it’s done well.

Brand personality voice tone #2:

Financial Services brand tone of voice -  tonal value 2

This is good! Too many British brands rely on communicating some kind of empty flag-waving sense of British. But what does that flag mean? And when you say ‘British’ what do you mean exactly?

(Side note: when we defined the brand tone of voice guidelines for a British car brand, we uncovered a vital role for humour in the verbal communications. ‘Great’, said the brand team, ‘British humour, right?’
Well, since British humour spans from Michael McIntyre amusing your granny on a Saturday at 7 pm to Frankie Boyle making you spit your tea across the room in horror, then it’s worth defining your tonal values as precisely as possible.)

Brand personality voice tone #3:

Financial Services brand tone of voice -  - 3

Hmmm. There’s good use of analogy.

book cover of the right stuff
But that thing about the reassuring pilot?

There’s a whole backstory to why all pilots sound like calm mid-Westeners.  Read (Affiliate link->)The Right Stuff to hear more about why all pilots sound the same.

 

And ‘Calm’? It’s an odd choice of word. Does the opposite of ‘Calm’ (panicky) sound obviously stupid? If so, ‘Calm’ is so obviously right that it doesn’t differentiate the language.

 

 

 

What about grammar choices, use of jargon, etc?

Grammar is the thing that makes sure you understand me when I write or speak. It’s not set in absolute terms. It depends on me. And you. And so the ‘right’ grammar varies depending on who’s speaking to who (whom?) and whether they’re writing formally or not.
The biggest issue with grammar is that we’re all taught differently about what’s ‘right’ and not right. And it leads to too many wasted hours in meetings and re-writes in building alignment by doing, rather than deciding.

There’s nothing here about grammar. And nothing about how much jargon to use. And nothing about varying sentence length or readability.

Examples?

Yes, good examples. See here. Perhaps not enough of them in the full document. More is better.

But don’t assume just because you’ve written them, people will automatically change behaviours. Examples are support material for teaching, not the teaching itself.
Ironically, the intro text warning against being pompous and impersonal sounds almost pompous and impersonal.

Okay, let’s wrap it up and let the writers get on with their jobs

At least, that’s the feeling I get of what the authors were thinking at this stage.

They’ve done solid, if not truly helpful work, and they’re running for the door.
What else could they have added?

  • Something that shows the reader how to play with the different levels of the tonal values for different channels or audiences
  • There’s a good style guide, but including it here makes the whole document bottom-heavy and rules-y instead of a helpful and inspiring teaching aid
  • Show how the voice compares to their competitors -and where Lloyds can win
  • Include some details of who to contact to ask questions
  • Talk a little about how to self-edit
  • Include some helpful writers’ tips (not the ‘what to’ but the ‘how to’ things like ‘How to get started’, ‘How to make your writing sound less cliched’ etc).

Overall, what’s the score for these financial services brand tone of voice guidelines examples?

A solid 5/10, with an extra point for the difficulty of overcoming ingrained attitudes in their industry and another point to reflect that these guidelines are early pioneers.

Final score 7/10

About Verbal Identity

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