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Watch Your F*ing Tone!

We’re coming to the close of marketing planning season for 2020 and, not surprisingly, there have been dozens of articles written about Trends to Watch For in 2020. Google Ads, personalization, interactive content, video, SEO—don’t these takes all look eerily similar to those from 2019 and 2018? Perhaps there are some subtle differences, but it seems to me a little like we’ve all fallen into a “rinse and repeat” cycle.

And trends will change in 2020. According to the experts, in 2020 we’ll all be eating meatless burgers, drinking collagen, and naming our kids Maeve and Isla. In marketing we’ll also see an emerging trend, but it has to do with the tone and manner we use when engaging our customers.

Another important factor is the election. In 2020, we’re going to face an historic election that will, inevitably, present us with both opportunity and risk. The ever-increasing level of vitriol you see out there will only work to further entrench that seemingly rigid line that divides America right now—if we let it. What marketing needs to do is step back and allow people a minor refuge from all the madness—a sort of “stop the insanity” moment—and be a bastion of peace and reason to consumers.

So here are three essential recommendations for when you or your marketing team is crafting a brand message in 2020.

1. Whisper

Next year will be the year of The Scream: politicians will scream about policy, politically active folks will scream at each other, and media talking heads will scream at us about what we should believe. But astute marketers will understand that their advertising can’t yell over these forces and are better served to lower their voices and, instead, tell a memorable story in a confident and articulate whisper. If your story resonates, people will stop and take notice. This could be a tricky way to go—after all when someone is shouting over you, you’re tempted to shout back—but marketers must always remember to emphasize the strength of their brand story over the volume at which they tell it. The content is what matters in the end. Let others, with bad or ill-considered story, waste their energy on screaming. You? Be smart and use your indoor voice. You won’t regret it.

2. Be Kind

Advertisers always have a choice when determining tone. Many choose positive ads that clearly show the benefits to the customer. Others choose to go negative, focusing on the negative aspects of their competitors. In 2020, we will get more than our fair share of negative messaging, especially in the political arena. Fascist, socialist, communist, radical, hypocrite, idealist, liar—we will hear it all. Scare tactics will also be employed broadly—“You’ll lose your healthcare,” “You’ll lose your freedom,” “You’ll lose it all!” In the end, brands that choose a positive message in 2020 will have better luck, especially if they do so using a clear story and a strategy that is aligned and effective.

3. Beware of Politics

More and more companies these days are jumping into the political arena and choosing sides. The results so far are mixed. Why did Patagonia have tremendous success with a stance on National Monuments in Utah, while Walmart regretted their decision to sell “Impeach 45” baby clothes? (It’s surprisingly easy to determine, actually.) Regardless, corporate activism is a growing trend, and in some ways it’s entirely sensible: rather than allow themselves to be positioned by activists, companies are being proactive on things that matter to them. Patagonia is an outdoor clothing company whose consumers live active lifestyles, and places like Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante are central to that. Standing up for them makes a ton of sense. But Walmart is a big box retailer whose customer base runs the gamut. Their only meaningful segmentation is “people who want to save money.” Getting political in one direction or another only serves to enrage half the population. So why do it? There is, in fact, no satisfying answer.

The rule of thumb here is this: don’t fear “activism” but do try to avoid getting political. The two are very different. Think of it this way: stand up for causes, not candidates. And remember that the cause will live on while candidates will be gone sooner than you think.

The Takeaway

Next year will be a great time for media companies, as politicians buy hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising. It will also be an expensive year for advertisers as rates skyrocket. So in order to extract the greatest value from your investment, be mindful of messaging and, especially, of tone. Be memorable by being substantive, clear, compelling, and reasonable. Tell people the truth and be charming rather than deafening.

Trying to out-scream your competition is a losing proposition, and one that will get you ignored.

If you want more insights or if you just want to chat, connect with me on LinkedIn or Twitter, follow TopRight CEO Dave Sutton on Twitter or, if you want to go deep on transformative branding, grab a copy of Dave Sutton’s new bookMarketing, Interrupted.