Tone of voice: The proof is in the apology

Nobody likes an insincere apology. Whether in politics or the playground, it’s important to show that you really mean it when it comes to saying sorry. Failure to do so can make a bad situation even worse.

The same is true for brands. Even the best-loved brands are likely to have to apologise at some point. If handled badly, these moments can escalate into PR issues and become harmful. To avoid this, expressing sincerity is key.

But in times of cynicism on all things corporate, how can brands convince people that they mean what they say?

Assuming that good intent does indeed stand behind an apology or other statement issued by a brand, a big part of the answer lies in the brand’s tone of voice. Of the many ways that brands can demonstrate their authenticity, the way that they speak is one of the most important. A brand uses its voice every single time it communicates through any channel, to any audience. This means tweets, advertising copy and packaging, but also functional things like contracts, customer service scripts and terms and conditions. Companies like Orange, Innocent drinks and First Direct bank have built their brands on a distinctive tone of voice – it’s what differentiates them from their competition in the minds of their customers.

Many brands find their voice starts to falter when the going gets tough, however. This tends to be especially evident in apologies: even those who have worked hard on creating a unique voice can find themselves struggling when they have to break bad news.

A memorable example is UK-based Virgin Trains. Like the family of Virgin group brands, Virgin Trains positions itself as a glamorous, irreverent challenger brand. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it demonstrates this across its communications. Consider this passenger information sign, displayed in bathrooms across their train fleet:

“Please don’t flush Nappies, sanitary towels, paper towels, gums, old phones, unpaid bills, junk mail, your ex’s sweater, hopes, dreams or goldfish down this toilet.”

It’s different, unexpected and daring – just like the Virgin brand. It’s a good example of how a brand’s words can be an important element in shaping people’s perceptions of its identity.

Contrast this with an example of Virgin’s announcement for cancelling a train:

“We’re sorry for the inconvenience caused.”

This apology comes across as impersonal and unnatural. It isn’t how we expect a Virgin brand to sound, and makes the brand feel less authentic as a result.

The mismatch in Virgin’s tone demonstrates the importance of staying true to the brand voice, even in difficult or uncomfortable situations. A distinctive tone that evaporates in the face of trouble raises our suspicions. It’s no good for a brand’s sales copy to be quippy and sarcastic if the small print is utterly bland legalese. The secret to the perfect tone is crafting one that can work in all circumstances.

A master of this difficult task is British craft beer brand Brewdog. Its independent tone is one of the many things that sets them apart from brewing conglomerates. Their product names include Dead Pony Club and Zombie Cake. They call their investors and drinkers “Punks”. One of their corporate values reads:


“Most companies are scared to take a stand for the things they believe in. WE. ARE. NOT. SCARED.”

And, crucially, they know how to apologise. When the brand came under fire in 2017 for suing an independent bar for trademark infringement, its fans were quick to point out that this wasn’t the kind of behaviour they expected from the brand. How did Brewdog respond? By reversing the decision and penning a blog article to explain why. They wrote:

“Hands up, we made a mistake here in how we acted.”

The apology was made all the stronger by the fact that it was written in Brewdog’s typical down-to-earth tone. It was well-received by readers, who appreciated the way that the brand tackled the issue head-on and honestly. By adopting the same tone and voice in their apology that they apply elsewhere, Brewdog managed to turn a potentially damaging incident into one that helped build brand authenticity.

The curious truth is that apologies can actually present an opportunity for brands to demonstrate exactly who they are and even strengthen their identity. Sorry might be the hardest word, but when it comes to brands, how they say it is also one of the most important to get right.

By Claire Huxley, Strategist. 

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