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Enhance your sustainability communications with ESG tone of voice guidelines [free template]

Posted by Maddie Saunders
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According to a McKinsey survey, 93 percent of organisations have at least one environmental, social and governance (ESG) dimension at the top of their agenda. And, new ESG regulations from the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) have put it into sharp focus for B2B tech companies in particular.

The trouble is, your brand’s standard tone of voice might be casual, flippant, provocative, even deeply technical — in other words, it is suited to communicating about different subject matter, not ESG. When communicating the sensitive or complex issues involved in ESG, how should you adapt?

We’re here to help.

We’ve created a tone of voice template that you can use to refine and enhance your ESG communications. But first, let’s dig into why your business needs this in the first place.

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What is tone of voice (ToV) and why does my business need one?

If this question is on your mind, we’d recommend reading our article on expressing your brand’s tone of voice through copywriting. But, if you’re short on time, we’ll treat you to an excerpt from our new book, The Difference Engine:

‘Tone of voice (ToV) is the attitude of your communications. It’s how you say something. It’s the energy you bring. It’s what you make people feel about your business.’ — Madeleine Leslie, The Difference Engine

Ultimately, whether you have them written down in a snazzy brand book or not, your business will already have a ToV. You create it when you communicate as, or about, your brand. It flows through the words and turns of phrase you use, and the style decisions you make (consciously or otherwise).

Suddenly struck by the urge to define your tone of voice and use it for marketing? Click that link and you’ll find a handy guide written by our CEO, Matthew Stibbe. If you have a clearly defined ToV, but want to know why ESG needs a special approach, let’s break it down.

The importance of tone of voice guidelines for sustainability communications

We love a B2B tech brand that dares to be droll. From Slack’s poetic bug fix notes to MailChimp’s FailChips activation, humour breathes a little humanity and humility into what can be a dull, navel-gazing arena for marketers and customers. We, too, enjoy peppering our copy with witticisms and peculiar analogies — the cool, fun teacher was always the most engaging, right?

Here’s the thing. Everyone knows (some of us from painful, personal experience) that there’s a time and place to make jokes. Brands like Dead Happy have learnt the hard way that a carte blanche approach to tone of voice carries high risks, even if it is highly differentiating. Certain subjects simply require a more measured, tailored approach.

We won’t go into all the positives and pitfalls of purpose-driven branding here. But, three key elements of ESG make tailoring your tone of voice guidelines more important:

1. Sensitive topics

When ESG factors touch on subjects like climate change, modern slavery and cybersecurity, tone of voice should acknowledge their serious nature. Not to the extent that you’re doom-mongering, but showing respect for issues that have a very real impact on people and the planet. This light reverence also serves to reassure customers that you take your ESG commitments seriously.

2. Marketing regulation

Few marketers will have ‘Receive a warning from the Competition and Markets Authority’ on their career bucket list. So, it’s a good idea to brush up on their Green Claims Code (or the equivalent for your markets) for your ESG communications. Essentially, you need to ensure you can back up any claims you make about the environmental impact of your products or services. Broad strokes or hyperbole won’t wash with regulators.

3. Investor relations

Research from PwC found that 79 percent of investors factor a company’s ESG strategy into their investment decision-making. So, if investment plays a key role in your funding, consider how investors would view your sustainability communications. If they come across as an afterthought, or even a joke, it could mean investors choose to take their money elsewhere.

Now that you’re armed with the ‘whys’ for having a suitable ESG-specific tone of voice, we’ll show you how you can articulate it for your team in an easy-to-follow format. Use this template for your business, as-is, or adapt it to make it your own:

[Template begins]

ESG tone of voice template

These tone of voice guidelines are intended to support [your brand name]’s ESG commitments, reports or ratings. They offer direction when communicating about ESG factors, which include sensitive and complex topics.

Here’s a quick refresher on tone of voice:

‘Tone of voice (ToV) is the attitude of your communications. It’s how you say something. It’s the energy you bring. It’s what you make people feel about your business.’ - Madeleine Leslie, The Difference Engine: An Articulate Marketing Guide

Attitude

An optimistic expert. We lead with facts, but we frame them with positive potential. We respect the gravity of the issues behind ESG, and we want to motivate ourselves and others to create tangible change for the better.

A self-aware leader. We celebrate our progress towards ESG goals. But, we also confidently acknowledge where we still have room to improve and define how we’ll make it happen.

A compassionate human. We don’t preach from our moral high horse. We candidly share where we started and where we are now. That way, other business owners or leaders might find inspiration for their own ESG journey.

Energy

A plan of action. We need forward momentum for positive change. We’re energetic when we communicate about our ESG commitments, with a clear sense of purpose and direction.

A pep talk. We want everyone to feel empowered to take steps for their own business (and personal lives!). Our messages should evoke confidence and optimism for sustainability contributions, whether they’re incremental or monumental.

A piece in a larger puzzle. All our ESG ambitions connect to much larger, global sustainability goals. When we talk about our own initiatives, it should still feel inclusive and cooperative — part of a shared journey.

In practice

It’s easy to talk the talk when it comes to tone of voice. But, to walk the walk, it’s helpful to have some examples to follow. Here are a couple of examples (using Articulate Marketing as the company in question):

Type of content Less of More of
ESG report Some of us might live for the occasional office drama (ooh did you hear about Janice and Mark?), but it doesn’t make for a healthy, happy working environment. That’s why we aim to ensure that Articulate remains a positive place to show up as your best self, without the watercooler gossip (it helps that we don’t have a watercooler - perks of being a fully remote business!). You don’t wake up one day and achieve perfect equity in the workplace. It’s a continuous effort as new people come and go within a business, as new data comes to light, and as we hold ourselves to higher and higher standards. We aim to ensure Articulate remains warm and welcoming; it’s a good place to be. No office politics. No exclusion. This is where you can shine no matter your background, be yourself, make connections and have every opportunity to do high-quality work.
LinkedIn post We’re feeling a lot less guilty about our Amazon orders now that we’ve seen our latest numbers from Ecologi!

With your help, we’ve planted nearly 20 thousand trees and offset around 300 tonnes of carbon in the last 2 years.

It’s just one of the factors that contribute to our status as a certified B Corp (worth it for the shiny badge alone!)
Join us on our journey to better business and Net Zero.

Did you know that we’ve planted nearly 20 thousands trees and offset around 300 tonnes of carbon in the last 2 years, thanks to our partnership with Ecologi?

Being a B Corp means making positive steps as a business to ensure a sustainable future for all.

 

And here is how that ToV would apply to [your brand name]:

Type of content Less of More of

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

   

[Template ends]

How to embed your ESG tone of voice

If you’d like a real-life example of how ESG tone of voice can play out in practice, check out Articulate’s 2024 Impact Report. Then, compare it to something like this blog post.

Using our template to create your ESG tone of voice guidelines is the first step. Step two is actually implementing that ToV in your sustainability communications. Thankfully, in this glorious age of marketing automation, you have plenty of options:

  • Templates. A classic time-saving tactic for marketers, templates can also help you keep your tone of voice consistent for specific topics like ESG. Templating regular emails and social media posts will ensure you always strike the right chord. Just remember to leave enough room for copy variation.
  • AI suggestions. We’re certainly not advocating for the replacement of writers with AI (we’ve already shared our take on the applications of AI in marketing in another blog post.) But, training generative AI on your guidelines could be helpful when you’re first working out how to apply your ESG ToV across touchpoints. Marketing platforms like HubSpot even have built-in AI brand voice features that you can try (although, at the time of writing, they’re still working out the kinks, so don’t abandon your editing discernment just yet).
  • Articulate Marketing. Third option: get in touch with us. We’re tone-of-voice tinkerers and marketing automation mavens rolled up in a certified B Corp business, so we practice what we preach. If you’re looking to elevate your sustainability communications, you can even request a free, no-obligation review with our expert marketing engineers.

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