Tone Wheel: A Tool for Defining Brand Voice and Tone

When I was a kid, my mom often said (or yelled), “Andrea! Use your inside voice.”

You too?

This is a fantastic example of the difference between your brand voice and tone. Our moms didn’t want me to change who we were. They wanted us to adapt our voices to fit the situation. This is exactly what we need to do for our brand.

Your brand's voice is inherent. It doesn’t change often. But there are times where you need to adapt your voice for a specific situation. For example, your brand voice is probably going to be much more casual and conversational when you’re engaging on Twitter than it is when you’re writing an email to an angry customer. Like the walls that defined when I could shout, we can define specific “rooms” of our business and let the folks who create content know what our expectations are.

One brand that does this exceedingly well is MailChimp. Under the leadership of their CEO Ben Chestnut and their Content Lead, Kate Kiefer Lee, MailChimp created an interactive guide to help content creators across their entire business understand how to write for different situations. In an effort to help other brands increase the quality of their own content (and as a result, create a positive impression of MailChimp) they’ve released this guide to the public. Take a look at for an idea of the type of documentation you’ll need to communicate your vision. If you’re a small brand, you may not need something this robust, but if you’re a large brand, this will serve as an excellent example of a tool that communicates your intent and creates consistency across your organization.

Use a Tone Wheel to Define How Your Brand Voice Should Be Used in Different Situations

Here's a tool that I developed to help my clients understand the scope of their communications landscape: the tone wheel. At the center is your brand voice, your personality pillars that are core to your brand personality. On the outside are six key areas that need specific rules. You can adjust the outside "rooms" according to your business model. For example, if you’re a non-profit, you may find that you feel more comfortable referring to “sales” as “fundraising.” If you run a consultancy, you might not have products, so “services” might be a better term do describe your needs.


Each section of your tone wheel has a specific objective. Your job is to achieve this objective while still retaining the core aspects of your brand voice that make your organization distinct. Consistency is key, which is why documenting your expectations becomes a critical part of getting your team on the same page.

Remember, your voice always stays the same, but your tone will change depending on which department you’re in.


Objective: Build an amazing team and keep them engaged.

Before we look outside, the first place we’re going to assess on our tone wheel is how we interact with the people who work hard every day to bring our brand to life. This means we need to take into account our prospective, current, and alumnae employees, contractors and vendors. Some content examples would include:

  • Job Descriptions
  • Feedback & Reviews
  • Culture Building Events
  • Announcements & Memos

Customer Service

Objective: Create an experience that’s worth talking about.

From a profitability standpoint, it’s better to focus on preventing problems before they occur. So, let’s assume that you’ve already laid the groundwork in your operations department for creating a positive purchase experience. And, let’s also assume that your customer service agents are knowledgeable and competent about how to resolve the issue. What should you do then when things go wrong? Use empathy-driven language to let your customers know that you've heard their feedback and then give them a solution. The focus here shouldn't be on playing a blame game, it needs to be on solving problems quickly and effectively. Here are some content examples:

  • Phone Scripts
  • Email Templates
  • User Guides


Objective: Mitigate risk by maximizing clarity.

One place that's often overlooked when we talk about creating content are legal and finance documents. It's worth the time to make sure all of your language, no matter how matter-of-fact its purpose, is easy to understand. Candice Burt, a plain-language attorney and co-owner of the South African communications firm Simplified, tells us, "If business embraces the spirit of the transformative agenda of the legislature, and implements the plain language provisions with a sincere desire to empower, educate and enlighten consumers, it will find as a profitable and coincidental side-effect that there are many business benefits to doing so." Some examples include:

  • Terms and Conditions
  • Contracts
  • Disclaimers
  • Investor Reports


Objective: Demonstrate value and encourage action.

Here's where you can start to let your brand personality shine. In his book, Personality Not Included, Rohit Bhargava outlines what he calls the "Attention Paradox". We are innundated with marketing messages, and as a result, we are quicker at filtering out the ones that don't resonate. Bhargava goes on to say that the way to break the paradox isn't by creating more and more outlandish messages, but to "have a good eye for spotting when you have captured your customer's attention and do more with it." These personality moments help customers research, purchase, interact with, and share your brand story. These moments might include:

  • Proposals
  • Elevator pitches
  • Presentations
  • Brochures
  • Sales pages on your website


Objective: Inform and educate

The way a product is packaged has a big impact on whether or not a customer decides to make a purchase. Product descriptions can go a long way to bring out the personality of a brand. One of my favorite examples is Trader Joe's. They go out of their way to ensure every product that bears their name is filled with copy that is descriptive and witty. Here are some other opportunities for product copy:

  • Product descriptions
  • Product names
  • Reviews or testimonials
  • Instructions

Website/Social Media

Objective: Start a conversation.

Finally, we come to the most conversational of all our rooms: our website and social media content. In this area, our customers expect us to be more casual than in other rooms. The goal is to create a connection and start a conversation. That's hard to do if your language is stiff and formal. Loosen up. Allow those contractions to flow. And focus more on starting a relationship. Here are some examples:

  • Blogs
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • YouTube
  • Instagram
  • Pinterest

How about you? Do you have your tone "rooms" defined? Does everyone at your organization know how to adapt your brand's voice to a given situation? Let us know in the comments!