OPINION: How to do a Monzo

Nick Padmore

Nick Padmore is Head of Language at brand and communications consultancy Definition.


Over the last ten or so years, the finance sector has been in the throes of a linguistic revolution.

Once upon a time, financial institutions would pluck words from the very dustiest of shelves. Herewiths, heretos, herebys and heretofores abounded. Things happened at your earliest convenience. People were forever perusing and enclosing. And of course, customers were only ever Sir/Madam.

This Finglish exaggerated the distance between financial institutions and the people who used them. And when crisis struck in the late 2000s, trust dropped as quickly as property values. I mean, look where banks and insurance companies make an appearance in Edelman’s 2010 Trust Barometer (an annual survey looking at who people trust, and who they don’t):

(I’ll leave media companies for another article.)

Just to be clear, I’m not putting all the blame on Finglish here, but it’s in the mix: countless studies have linked a cold, formal tone of voice to lower levels of consumer trust, and vice versa (take a look at the Stanford Web Credibility Study for a good overview).

Into this trust vacuum rushed Monzo, Starling, Revolut, Lemonade and many more, with friendly tones of voice that stood out from the Finglish of the old firm, and proved that banks didn’t have to sound banky anymore.

The established players reacted by hiring tone of voice agencies themselves, and today we have this great linguistic levelling – where the Monzo tone has become the norm, much as the Innocent tone became the norm for consumer goods.


The power of tone

Wielded right, tone of voice is a powerful thing. It can help your brand simultaneously stand out from the competition, and build rapport with customers and colleagues.

But you have to do it right. Monzo’s masterstroke was to define a tone of voice that was the antithesis of Finglish, and then use it consistently.

It sounds simple, but it takes guts and dedication, not just from the C-suite but from the entire organisation.

Here’s Harry Ashbridge, Monzo’s Head of Writing and Customer Experience, on the scale of the challenge:

“There’s no point in having a tone of voice if you’re only going to use it in your ads and on your homepage. The real power of tone comes from using it everywhere. In your Ts&Cs. In your complaint responses. In your sorry-the-lift’s-broken signs. It’s proof that you care deeply about your brand. But it’s not half hard work.”

He’s absolutely right. Every brand can stick a nice headline on the homepage. But only the very best make sure their tone of voice permeates every nook and cranny.

(As a side note, I’d encourage you to have a look at Monzo’s Ts&Cs. They’re a thing of beauty.)

He’s right about the hard work bit too. Six years ago, when Monzo defined their tone of voice, they had to do it the old fashioned way: by training up a lot of people who care about customers, and who worked hard to make their writing really good across the board.

But the great news is that AI just made doing a Monzo much, much easier.


AI helps you make your tone more distinctive

In this post-Finglish world, where everyone sounds clear and warm, standing out means being clear, warm and something else.

Take Paddy Power, for instance. Let’s imagine you work in the brand team, and you need to write some tone of voice guidelines. When you get to the bit that really sets them apart, their humour, how do you explain it so everyone can understand and replicate it?

Close to impossible. The problem is that the more distinctive you make your tone, the trickier it’s going to be for people to actually understand and use it.

AI takes that problem away. Give it enough examples of Paddy Power’s social posts and it’ll churn out hundreds of new jokes in a matter of minutes.

AI makes short work of the trickiest bits of writing, from jokes to metaphor to witticisms to opinions and beyond. Thou mayst e’en bid it scribe like Shakespeare, and lo, ’twill craft with faithful hand.

So where once I counselled brand people against adding too many bells and whistles to their guidelines, these days it makes sense to just let loose.


AI helps you use your tone consistently

Getting an entire workforce to change the way they write is, unsurprisingly, quite the challenge.

We use a behaviour change framework called COM-B to plan all sorts of ‘interventions’, as the psychologists call them. Training is the big one – getting a bunch of people in a room and running through a bit of theory and a lot of exercises until it becomes second nature.

We’ve trained more than 2,000 people at Network Rail, for instance; a huge rollout by tone of voice standards, but it still leaves 38,000 people untouched.

With AI, there’s no psychological hurdle to overcome. AI isn’t change-averse. It’s not going to reject your tone of voice because Jen from the brand team once forgot to invite it to work drinks. It won’t insist that starting a sentence with ‘And’ is grammatically incorrect (which it’s not).

It’ll write in whichever tone of voice you like, and it’ll write thousands of words in a matter of moments, which means you can get your tone of voice spread across the entire gamut of comms in record-breaking time.


OK, but… how?

The first thing to do is pin down your tone of voice. You’ll want to sound clear and warm, but what’s your something else? Get a brief together and send it to some tone of voice specialists. They’ll help you figure it out, and articulate it so clearly that anyone, writer or not, can do it.

Then get your team access to ChatGPT (or Claude), and get to work on some prompts. You can create press release prompts, social post prompts, white paper prompts, slogan prompts, speech prompts and loads more – each with instructions specific to the format along with general tone of voice guidance to make sure it infuses every piece of comms that goes out.

And, of course, don’t forget the humans. Training is still a vital part of the tone of voice mix.

Standing out with a tone of voice has always been possible, but it’s been locked away; accessible only to the richest or most creative brands.

AI just handed everyone the key.

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