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Why franchises should mind their tone

Written by Maria Barr on Thursday, 09 March 2017. Posted in Sales & Marketing

If your franchise is suffering from a personality deficit, you might want to consider honing your tone of voice

Why franchises should mind their tone

"Did we give you satisfaction? We know the Rolling Stones couldn’t get any – but that’s probably because they weren’t shopping at Boden.” So reads the copy on the feedback section of the clothing company’s website. Of course it could have gone with the rather more bland “please tell us about your shopping experience”. But then that wouldn’t be very Boden-like. The retailer has created a tone of voice that’s entirely its own, which runs across everything from its privacy policy to its product descriptions. 

While non-verbal cues like your logo and colours can help communicate your franchise’s personality and brand attributes, tone of voice refers to the language you use to do this. Savvy franchises like Pink Spaghetti, the personal-assistant service, understand that it’s not just about what you say but how you say it and how your words make people feel. “Our friendly, slightly informal tone reflects our personality,” says Vicky Matthews, the franchise’s co-founder. “We want to be approachable and come across as human beings, not a large, aloof and faceless organisation.”

Tone of voice is just as important when addressing potential franchisees as it is with customers. If you want to attract people who fit in with your culture and values, adopting the language they use and getting your personality across is a good place to start. “It’s simple: if you don’t get your tone of voice right, you attract the wrong franchisees – and then you have a big problem,” says Sarah Carlile, founder of Coconut Creatives, the marketing company that specialises in franchise recruitment. “When brands tell us their network is a mess and they can’t get their franchisees to follow their guidelines, it’s usually because they’ve recruited the wrong kind of person.” So hitting the right note with your tone of voice shouldn’t be seen as just a fuzzy, nice-to-have footnote in your brand guidelines: there’s a very strong business case for making it a priority. 

One example of a brand that’s used tone of voice to fundamentally change the way it recruits new franchisees is Mac Tools, the tools franchise. The franchise hails from the US, where its practical, factual and slightly mechanical tone was going down well. But on British soil it became clear that it wouldn’t have the same appeal unless it added some warmth to the way it spoke to people. “People in the UK want to be wooed: they want brands to do the dance with them and feel like they’re building a relationship with someone,” says Carlile. “When Mac Tools eased up on the hard sell and began using more emotionally charged language that spoke to people’s dreams and aspirations, it started to see a big shift in the number of franchise enquiries it was getting.”

But identifying what your tone of voice should be in the first place might require you to put yourself in the shoes of your target audience and consider the kind of language they’d use. “You need to speak to the right audience in the right way,” says Carlile. “If you’re pitching to a broadsheet-reading audience but using Daily Mail language your message won’t resonate.” Coconut Creatives guides franchises through an exhaustive research stage that involves interviewing existing franchisees and learning everything from what paper they read to where they grew up. Once they’ve built a complex profile of their target audience, they can then use this to craft their tone of voice. “It’s a more scientific way of building a tone of voice than just taking a stab in the dark,” Carlile explains.

But it’s not enough to have a theoretical idea of your brand’s voice: you also need to execute it consistently. It can be jarring to come across content from a franchise that suggests it’s had a total personality change. “While you might tweak your tone for different platforms slightly, franchises that have a consistent tone tend to win the most franchisees,” says Carlile. Consistency can be particularly challenging when a franchise’s content ecosystem includes multiple social-media platforms, localised websites for each region and potentially hundreds of email newsletters going out on a single day. Since franchisees are roving brand ambassadors, franchisors need to clearly outline the brand’s tone of voice so franchisees can bring it to life. 

One way of doing this is by training all new franchisees and holding periodic brush-up sessions. “When we bring on new franchisees, we work with them to unlearn any bad habits they’ve picked up – especially when they’ve come from corporate backgrounds and are prone to using a lot of jargon,” says Lynne Rawlinson, brand manager at Business Doctors, the business consultancy franchise. “Our tone is simple but never patronising and we help franchisees get the balance right.” This rigorous training at the start has helped the franchise ensure that plain English is used in all its communications. As a result, it manages to build trust with its audience by speaking in a human and straightforward way without a “touching base” or “let’s socialise this” in sight.

It can also help to develop a dedicated tone of voice bible, rather than adding a few lines on the subject in your brand guidelines. On top of guidance like the words people should and shouldn’t use, some brands find it helpful to pick a well-known personality who embodies their brand values and encourage writers to keep them in mind, imagining how they’d phrase something. In other words, you may want to start considering if you’re a George Clooney or a Danny Dyer. “It should be quite prescriptive: if there are too many grey areas, franchisees may be tempted to use their judgement and do what they think is right, which might not result in much consistency at a national level,” says Carlile.

But in a quest for consistency is there a danger that franchises might stamp out the very thing that makes them come across as authentic? “People aren’t really buying from head office: their primary relationship is with their local franchisee,” says Matthews. So while the franchisor has oversight on content like newsletters and social-media posts to make sure franchisees aren’t straying too far away from the Pink Spaghetti vocabulary, they’re still encouraged to infuse their content with a degree of individuality. “It’s so important that a franchisee’s personality comes across in the way they speak to people,” says Matthews. “That’s how you build relationships.” 

About the Author

Maria Barr

Maria Barr

As our web editor, Maria is on the lookout for stories and news about Britain’s most exciting startups and small businesses. Part Singaporean and part Scottish, Maria has a background in content marketing and editing.

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