ToV vs SEO


How a Vermouth tasting competition turning into a tone of voice exercise… 

Over the summer, Team Without spent a couple of days in a house in Sussex – swimming, playing tennis, planning. One of our favourite activities was a Vermouth tasting competition. The winner was the person who could best match the tasting notes. We began timidly – vanilla, hints of honey, biscuity undertones – until our creative director cried out: “like licking the rubber sole of a new pair of Air Max,” before smacking his lips and downing the glass. He didn’t win, but he changed the rules of the game. Instead of singular, predictable words, we went all out on feeling and mood. 

Most tone of voice guidelines include certain principles (friendly, quirky, intelligent) and supporting core phrases. These can be helpful, but how many times can you copy and paste the same expressions? How do these guidelines actually help a marketing team to tell the brand’s story? The only way to develop an ownable tone of voice is to not begin with the words at all.


Without’s creative director loves a pair of boxfresh trainers – the smell, the weight, the colours. The associations: fitness, fresh air, nostalgia for sports day. Watching the US Open earlier this month, Coco Gauff’s footwear became a current favourite. Who wants “lemony” when you can conjure all these emotions from a single sip of Vermouth? 

Sure, the Air Max example is a bit extreme, a bit of fun, but you can see how it formed the beginnings of a character, of a type of behaviour, of seeing a well-known world in a different way. After you push through, the words follow, creating a distinct dialogue between brand and customer. 


On the subject of drinks, last month, Jamie Thorp of verbal branding agency Reed Words, wrote about the need for an evolving language for spirits to sit alongside the change in brand design. His analysis on gin, in particular, caught our attention:

“The language of gin has become elevated almost to the point of parody. Every leaf and berry is picked by expert hands, crafted with passion and skill, and distilled with meticulous detail. There’s a spiral of brands trying to out-craft each other, and there’s only so far you can go before it becomes absurd. If everyone is saying the same thing, no one’s succeeding.”

When Henry and Kaye Laithwaite first approached us about their English sparkling wine, most brands at the time were still trying to emulate their polished Champagne rivals. But it takes patience, hard graft and a bit of luck to make high-quality wine – not glitz and glamour. So we created a brand that focused on modesty rather than bombast, and called it Harrow & Hope. At the last time of counting, Harrow & Hope had won 21 awards.


A common barrier to cutting through the generic can be SEO (search engine optimisation). In a recent meeting, where the client wanted us to develop a new language, we pointed out that a particular word – used by all their competitors – was littered across their own website. We needed to go deeper, to identify how the brand made us feel in a way that its rivals couldn’t. At that moment, looking slightly terrified, the head of SEO said: “You’ve got to be kidding; we can’t discard that word.”

Tone of voice and SEO have equal importance in brand language, but they have to be treated separately, at least initially, because they serve different purposes. The first – done well – will make you a thought leader. The second – also done well – will make you visible in a sea of words that we’re all fighting to be recognised for. Tone of voice is creative; SEO functional. The starting point is always the creative piece, with SEO seamlessly layered into it.

Back to the Vermouth tasting session, one of the interesting things we noticed was the power of persuasion. When someone announced what they could taste – with passion, articulation, a story – you then began to taste it, too. Even notes of rubber, according to some. Try it. Next time you open a bottle of wine or mix a cocktail, go deeper than “floral”. Where does it take you?

Without create brands that make a difference. If you’d like to discuss how your brand can connect with today’s consumers, get in touch on 02070999080 or [email protected].

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