(With thanks to Lucy Hume, Writer, Editor and Anew creative associate)

How do you speak to your customers? As a copywriter, the most common request I receive in briefs is to use a ‘conversational’ tone of voice. The rationale is that copy should be warm and easy to understand. It should use the language of the pub rather than the pulpit.

This makes sense: our attention spans have shrunk (to 8 seconds, or shorter than a goldfish, according to some sources). Distractions are rife. There’s always a new tab to open or a notification to check. The quicker brands can impart information, the better.

But when does conversation become condescension? Beauty retailer Benefit routinely addresses its customers, ‘Hey gorgeous’. Sustainable womenswear company Reformation, meanwhile, names its environmental impact page ‘Sexy Math’, in case we couldn’t cope with ‘Environmental Impact Page’.

When I forgot a password recently, I received an email telling me ‘don’t worry, it happens to everyone.’ Even M&S was at it during the festive season: ‘Gold cutlery and crystal prosecco glasses will take the festive feels to the max’, apparently.

The idea that language is becoming ever less formal is backed by a recent study at Lancaster University, which found that the use of the words ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ in both written and spoken British English has decreased by 35 per cent and 57 per cent respectively over the last 20 years. We’re also more likely to use contractions, abbreviations and acronyms.

“The most striking thing is how informal language has become,” said Dr Vaclav Brezina, who led the study. “There has been a systematic shift towards more informal vocabulary and grammar.” Cos, awesome and stuff are in; must, shall and telephone are out.

Keeping your distance

Over the last two years, we’ve all been introduced to the concept of social distancing. We’ve swapped warm hugs for awkward waves, traipsed around spurious one-way systems in supermarkets, and left seats empty on the train. Many businesses are operating remotely; our social lives have dwindled.

With these changes, we’ve missed out on camaraderie, closeness – and yes, conversation. To adapt, we’ve become tribal. We’ve formed closer bonds with our co-habitants – whether that’s housemates, family, pets or houseplants. Visitors, even if it’s the Hermes courier or the Deliveroo driver, have come to resemble intruders.

In this context, the over-familiar brand feels uncomfortable, like that waiter who sits down at your table to take your order. Out of practice when it comes to conversation, we no longer desire it in our shopping experiences – we’d rather have a tracking number

As we step gingerly into 2022, our social lives are once again under threat. Omicron is raging; and while we might have dodged a lockdown, many of us are reverting to hibernation mode.

So how can luxury and aspirational brands pierce our protective bubbles? Here are three ideas for balancing friendliness and formality:

1.  Be personal – but not too personal

Bespoke communication remains highly effective, even for the formal brand. Campaign Monitor found that personalised subject lines achieved a 26% higher open rate than non-personalised.

Luxury brands can distinguish themselves by using formal titles when communicating with their customers. ((If you ordered your Christmas hamper from Fortnum & Mason online, you had a choice of 56 at the checkout. Whether you’re priest or rabbi, marquess or ‘Mx’, Fortnums has you covered.)

Older generations, in particular, will appreciate a prefix that confers status, while younger ones may be gratified to see their identity and accomplishments acknowledged by a judicious use of gender pronoun or professional title. If titles aren’t possible, use both first name and surname.

2. Be consistent

Tone of voice needs to adapt for different platforms: frosty formality and social media make uncomfortable companions. But beware of stark swings in tone that could muddy your luxury brand credentials. In particular, watch out for ecommerce templates and defaults, which can leave you unwittingly deviating from a luxury tone of voice by addressing your customers ‘Hey Firstname’ or informing them, ‘Awesome news – your goodies are on the way’.

3. Be authentic

A formal tone of voice should not encroach on your brand’s identity, or silence the people and story behind it. I worked for a company whose brand bible stipulated that the brand should only ever be referred to in the third person. Using ‘we’ and ‘our’ was forbidden, which left marketing and social media teams stultified and copy sounding wooden. Even in the new climate of keeping our distance, we can be human.

If you need copywriting help, think Anew

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