What to Read: Nick Parker is unpacking brands’ tone of voice
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s your Substack about in one sentence?
Each edition looks at one brand with a great tone of voice and mulls over why their writing is good and what we can learn.
Can you describe what “tone of voice” means in this context?
I’m using “tone of voice” to mean “what a brand sounds like in writing.” Also sometimes called “brand language” or “verbal identity” or “brand voice.” (All of those terms are kind of horrible, aren’t they?)
Great brands have always had strong voices, but now digital makes it easy to write anywhere and everywhere. There’s no real distinction now between marketing and business writing—they’re all just words that shape how your customers think and feel about you.
“When you start unpacking something and holding the parts up to the light, it almost always leads you to interesting and unexpected questions.”
What motivated you to start Tone Knob?
I’m always looking for examples of brands that are nailing it with their writing, but I couldn’t find a reliable source of inspiration. So I thought I might as well create one.
For a while, the idea of a brand “having a tone of voice” mostly meant just “being funny” (it’s a cliché to say that we’ve got Innocent Drinks to thank for that, as everyone jumped on that particular squashed-fruit bandwagon and drowned us all in “wackaging”). But these days, there are loads of brands doing cool and interesting stuff—and I wanna share them!
I’d written for Formats Unpacked about the BBC show The Repair Shop. That newsletter takes different media formats and examines why they work. I thought, Oh, this would totally work for tone of voice too! When you start unpacking something and holding the parts up to the light, it almost always leads you to interesting and unexpected questions.
Tone Knob unearths some gems of brand writing. How do you go about researching and sourcing your subjects? What exactly are you looking for?
I’m looking for brands that show they’re thinking about their words in a more strategic way than just “nice writing.” Like Unchained Labs, whose voice is unlike any other scientific-instruments company out there. Or the super-sweet soft-toy “adoption agency” Loved Before, which is creating value out of trash, with nothing more than tiny little stories.
I have no coherent approach for finding stuff to feature. But now that I’m the “tone-of-voice newsletter guy,” stuff just somehow turns up. My uncle Fred once said he quite liked this pottery frog someone got him for Christmas, and, from that point on, everyone bought him pottery frogs for every birthday and Christmas for the rest of his life. He had hundreds! I’m the pottery-frog guy for tone of voice: so, hit me up!
When you’re analyzing a brand’s tone of voice, what do you consider?
I keep asking two interrelated questions: How and why does this work? And what can we learn from this? I also get in touch with the brand to ask them about how they approach their writing. To begin with, I thought the main interest for readers would be the interviews. Turns out, it’s the reaction-video vibe my readers seem to like.
Your own tone of voice is very distinct. How would you sum it up to someone who hasn’t heard of Tone Knob?
I’m trying to be both insightful and pretty rapid-fire. It’s energetic, emojiful, and super-positive. It’s very easy for copywriters to fall into critiquing and finding fault. I’m having none of that.
You mentioned that feedback from the copywriting community has been strong. What sort of things do your readers say about Tone Knob? What gap do you think it’s filling?
On a practical level, it’s creating a scrapbook of great brand writing. Which is just dead handy for any brand writer to have.
It’s also focusing on the craft of copywriting that I find lacking. There’s a ton of brilliant stuff out there about the quantifiable stuff: your SEO, your A/B-tested headlines, and so on. And that’s great! But the stuff that’s more indefinable—the vibe, the spirit, the tone—is just as important. Tone Knob is a place to talk about that.
What’s another Substack you’d recommend?
Formats Unpacked for similar geekery.