What nurseries can teach us about tone of voice

According to this study about parents’ behaviour, mums and dads who once hurried to collect their children from nursery on time were much happier to be late when the nursery introduced ‘late fees’. When the nurseries stopped the fees, the parents’ habits didn’t change. In fact, they were even later collecting their children than before.


In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely says the parents’ relationship with the nursery had fundamentally shifted from one based on ‘social norms’ (where the parents cared about the staff looking after their kids) to one based on ‘market norms’ (where the parents were focused on fines and fees). And once people are in a market mindset, it’s hard to get that social relationship back.

To get customers and colleagues on side, base your brand on social norms

Businesses that master a consistent, friendly tone build trust and loyalty. If a brand or employer treats you like family, you’ll be much more forgiving if things go wrong. And you’ll stick by them, even if their processes aren’t perfect or their products are pricier.

On the flipside, if you make your customers think that the only thing you’re after is their cash, don’t be surprised if they spend it elsewhere when someone offers them the same things more cheaply.

Similarly, if you make your people feel more like ‘cost centres’ than part of the family, don’t be surprised if they down tools at 5.30pm and never feel the need to do anything above and beyond their job description.

A strong tone of voice could stop you breaking the social spell

Having a consistent tone of voice is the easiest way to create a social-norms relationship. As long as everyone uses it.

And we mean everyone.

It’s not enough to write marketing messages and internal memos about parties and bake sales in a friendly way. The only way you’ll get a good return on your company’s branding investment is if you use your tone of voice consistently with the tricky stuff, too. The replies to complaint letters. The small print. The redundancy emails.

With a great brand comes great responsibility

If you can’t get everyone in your organisation to commit to your tone of voice, or if you only use it half-heartedly, you could actually do more harm than good.

One officious letter demanding payment, one insincere apology from a stressed spokesperson, or one cold and euphemistic memo about job losses might be all it takes to undermine years of carefully crafted branding. And it could shatter customer loyalty and public opinion in the process.

So before you embark on a new tone of voice project, stop to ask yourself what kind of relationship you want to have with your customers and colleagues.

If you can live up to the expectations that come with a social norms brand, you could soon have fans for life. If you can’t, you could be heading for PR disaster.

Choose wisely.

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