Missing The Mark

Missing The Mark: How Tone-Deafness Creates Horrid User Experiences

Lauren Ventura

How many times have you found yourself about to send-off an email to your boss, coworker or client, but pausing before you hit send? Are you feeling unsure the reader will misinterpret your tone?

The last thing any writer wants to do is to come across as cold, grumpy, or rude. Because, let’s face it, tone is one of the most difficult aspects of writing to capture successfully. Novelists such as Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Earnest Hemingway, and others, do an excellent job of capturing a character’s tone. However, in marketing and advertising creating a voice and tone for a brand challenges even the most-talented content creators. I’ll offer some of my best tips at the end of this piece to help you go from meh to aha! But, before we get into that, let’s talk a bit more about the importance of tone, and how it’s lack-thereof, is deemed tone-deafness. Also, perhaps most importantly, how it creates a horrible experience when it’s done all wrong.


Recently several high-profile snafus have hit prestigious brands who are being seen as lacking empathy and, in some cases, any common sense. Most of us are familiar with Pepsi's mistake this spring, and Nivea’s White Is Purity advertisement is one example which makes me personally shudder. Just this past April, Adidas had to put on its I’m-Sorry-Hat for sending all the recent Boston Marathon finishers an email titled: "Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!" Almost within seconds of hitting send, the company realized how much they offended those who actually did survive the Boston Marathon Bombing of 2013—a horrific terrorist attack which left three dead and more than 260 runners and bystanders gravely injured or hurt. I’m certain their email marketing manager is still wondering, "How did this happen?!" Tone-deafness is caused by poor planning, poor writing, and poor judgement. That’s how it happened.


According to our friends at Moz, and myself included, voice is what a brand has to say, while tone is how you say it. For instance, using voice and tone as your only metrics, if you stripped your favorite brand of all its design, logos and image- or digital-based mediums, and you could only read the words that the brand speaks, could you identify your favorite brand?

That’s the goal of your brand’s voice and tone—to give your brand a stellar personality. But, more often than not, I tend to see folks getting it all wrong. This is usually because it’s quite confusing to create stellar, solid voice and tone for a brand. I’m often asked, "Where do I even begin?" Here’s some steps to get you from tone-deaf to pitch-perfect.


Review the company’s About Us, Mission Statement, Vision Statement and internal Brand Positioning documentation, as well as any other content the company utilizes. (e.g. emails, blog posts, etc.) What personality traits jump out at you? Start creating a bucket of sentiments or adjectives you see repeating.

For example, Patagonia is a brand that knows itself well. Below is their mission statement, as well as their vision statement. Words and sentiments that jump out frequently, “Inspirational,” “Minimalist,” “Simplicity,” “Responsibility,” “Activism.”

Our Reason for Being
Patagonia grew out of a small company that made tools for climbers. Alpinism remains at the heart of a worldwide business that still makes clothes for climbing – as well as for skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fly fishing, paddling and trail running. These are all silent sports. None require a motor; none deliver the cheers of a crowd. In each sport, reward comes in the form of hard-won grace and moments of connection between us and nature.
Our values reflect those of a business started by a band of climbers and surfers, and the minimalist style they promoted. The approach we take towards product design demonstrates a bias for simplicity and utility.
For us at Patagonia, a love of wild and beautiful places demands participation in the fight to save them, and to help reverse the steep decline in the overall environmental health of our planet. We donate our time, services and at least 1% of our sales to hundreds of grassroots environmental groups all over the world who work to help reverse the tide.
We know that our business activity – from lighting stores to dyeing shirts – creates pollution as a by-product. So we work steadily to reduce those harms. We use recycled polyester in many of our clothes and only organic, rather than pesticide-intensive, cotton.
Staying true to our core values during thirty-plus years in business has helped us create a company we're proud to run and work for. And our focus on making the best products possible has brought us success in the marketplace.

Now that you have some building blocks, throw those building blocks into your first semblance of a Voice and Tone Guide. Below you will find an example from the Content Marketing Institute that’s already been completed.



I am a strong advocate for UX (user experience) and WIIFM (what’s in it for me) philosophies. The best way to create your brand’s voice and tone is to not only review your company’s ethos, history, and content personality, but you also must ask your customers. They are the ones who make your brand thrive. When you speak to your current and potential customers in a targeted fashion, you’ll better understand their goals, motivations and/or reasons for purchasing your brand. Through this process, you can create more impactful messaging, whether that be on-site, in-print, or in-store.

How do we begin to understand all these very personal facets of your customer and potential customer base?

The best way to understand your customers is to build personas, also known as buyer personas. Our friends at Hubspot offer a wonderfully succinct definition and description of how to utilize them. “Buyer personas are fictional, generalized representations of your ideal, customers. They help you understand your customers (and prospective customers) better, and make it easier for you to tailor content to the specific needs, behaviors, and concerns of different types of buyers.” (Psst: here’s a template on Hubspot to help you get started.)


If your voice is what you say, and tone is how you say it, we can begin to see how challenging it can be to get your point, message, or idea across without sounding cross, too passive, or even just plain boring. There’s a lot that could go wrong. Obviously, the recent barrage of tone-deaf ads hitting the airwaves, print, television, online mediums and billboards highlight the pitfalls. 

Capturing your voice and tone may seem simple, but tone is the glue that bridges your brand into one cohesive element. Without a strong content creator or copywriter at your helm, you could run the risk that these other brands have suffered: humiliation and a lot of apologies. Following some of my tried and true tips and can hopefully help you avoid the nonsense which will add up to dollars and cents.

About The Author

Lauren Ventura has been a professional writer, blogger and copywriter since graduating from her Rhetoric and Writing program at San Diego State University in 2009. Before that, she was a sports and entertainment journalist. She’s a big fan of understanding the difference between knowing you’re shit and knowing your shit. Currently, Lauren teaches Long Form Copywriting at Portfolio Studio while running her own content creation company and helping local inbound agency, 41 Orange, create winning content. She has an amazingly word-wise daughter and a wacky Pharaoh Hound to keep her busy when she’s not writing. Get in touch!