The brand that makes bullet points bare cool.
👋 Hello hello,
This is the last Tone Knob before I take a summer break. So I’ve made sure it’s an absolute corker. First though, Parish notices: Props to Julie Tjøernelund1 for winning a D&AD New Blood2 ‘Wooden Pencil’ for her on-spec tone of voice for Audible.👏🏆 👏 A lovely bit of work that creates an interestingly ‘soundful’ voice that’s just right for a brand we mainly experience via headphones. Nice. (Do you have tone of voice related news to share? Let me know. Maybe it can become a Thing We Do Around Here.)
And now, Palace. Strap on those knee pads. We’re dropping in3:
Palace are a Skateboard brand. They do boards and clothes. They do fresh collabs with unexpected brands (Rapha, Crocs). Their stuff is worn by both riders and non-riders, young and old-skool alike. They’re respected for generously supporting and sponsoring the skating world. Basically, they are killing it. A niche brand that’s gone global and totally kept its cool. (Even my ex-semi-pro skater friend says they’re cool, and he hates almost everything that wasn’t cred in the 90s.)
Here’s the thing: being cool and commercially successful is really hard. Because cool is so much about being or seeming effortless. Any whiff of try-hard or sell-out and you lose the respect of the tribe who made you cool in the first place. This makes it really, really hard to do basic stuff like marketing4.
But Palace have cracked the code. And it’s ridiculously simple yet stonkingly powerful. It’s the humble bullet-pointed list. It starts unassumingly enough:
See it there, just under the product name? It’s like the Shopify CMS coughed up three default bullets and they couldn’t be arsed to change them so just bashed out the thing they were gonna say anyway, but just randomly split it across the three points. (I would bet serious money this is literally what happened.)
You almost don’t notice at first. But then you click another product. And there it is again:
It’s self-referential and offhand. And again, the bullet points somehow upgrade it from being a standard bit of ‘see me not caring’ offhandedness into a kind of gonzo poetic form. (I’m starting to read them in the voice of Adam Buxton’s ‘like a big frog that’s died’ thing).
Sense check. Maybe I’m making this out to be more than it really is? Nope. Before long, you stumble across a stone-cold banger:
Ha! What even is this? And yet look! It’s also a) highlighting some key product features! b) Giving you a picture of the product in use! c) Dropping valuable Mini-Cheddar truth-bombs! Was all that key-messaging deliberate? Doubt it. It’s bare jokes tho.
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There are literally hundreds of these, and every single one is killer. You really should go look for yourself. (I say that every week and the click-thru stats tell me like 3% of you bother so I’ll assume you haven’t 🤓)
To save this becoming a wholesale copy n paste of Palace’s website, I decided to look for themes among the captions. So if Palace’s description-writer wipes out tomorrow and Tone Knob has to step, in, we’ve got this.
There’s the ‘Homer Simpson say-what-you-see’ approach:
There’s the ‘tell me something skanky about your life’ speed-dating question:
There’s ‘stoner finding the world a bit much’:
There’s ‘lamest rap battle sick burn’:
There’s ‘insincere product feature endorsement’:
(I have been laughing at the zip-off sleeves ones for days. I’ve spent literally half an hour trying to decide which one to include. Fuck it, here’s the other. Which also showcases another regular technique, which is ‘random percentages are always funny’.)
Surprisingly on-point political hot-takes is also a winner:
There’s a regular theme of talking about how Palace gear is actually not expensive if u compare it to fancy foreign things:
And if ur really up against it, a daft rhyme, mentioning weed, or name-checking trash food will do. Or ideally all those things together:
I absolutely love these. The combination of random shit-talking and deadpan bullet-pointed list is comedy gold. They’re proper funny, while also totally nailing the cool thing by making everything feel offhand, yet giving Palace loads of flexibility to talk about literally anything.
Part of the magic is that it’s not quite a voice. It’s more like a ‘format as filter’ that helps turn an individual’s voice into something recognisably ‘Palace’ without anyone having to do anything as try-hard as ‘write in a tone of voice’.
Notice (below) how using the bullet-pointed list on Instagram now feels like it’s totally in the Palace vibe. Yet it’s literally just a list of facts. It’s given them a way of swerving all that ‘we’re excited to announce…’ cheese that product drops normally attract.
Here’s their weirdly formal delivery information:
That can be totally Palace-ified:
If you’re outside the UK
there might be taxes or duties to pay
Or there might not
We don’t know for sure
It might be loads, or not much
Sucks. But it’s on you to pay it, not us
Best to check it out before you order
We don’t do refunds
on stuff that gets sent back to us
Cos you didn’t pay your tax.
Questions? Email us.
Or summat like that. Interestingly, the bullet points really help to slow down the rhythm and make it easier to read. It’s a great voice for doing legals.
Three things to love and learn from
🛹 Make magic from the mundane
The secret sauce here is obviously the bullet point list format. It’s the structure their writer(s) can riff off, it makes even the most innocuous descriptions 10x funnier. Part of its glory is that bullet points are so seemingly unpromising. They’re dull and corporate. They’re the unthinking default. What uninspiring thing is lying around in plain sight that could maybe be the springboard into something unexpected?
😌 Allow it to be easy
We often ‘craft’ our tones of voice. And sure, Palace’s ‘artless’ style is trickier than it looks. But they’ve also found a way of talking offhand, including a wide range of random things, letting the writers add personal stuff, taking the piss out of their own products. How could you create a tone of voice by intervening as little as possible? What are the minimum possible guidance you could give?
🧐 Assume your reader gets it
It’s easy to lose faith in your readers’ intelligence, to think we need to mention every last feature or spell out every last benefit or treat our products with an unrealistic reverence. We really don’t. What would you say if you committed to the idea that our customers already totally get it.
What did you think? Hit reply. Got a brand you think I should feature? Hit reply. Just wanna chat? Hit reply. Over and out.
Full disclosure: turns out that Julie’s introduction to brand writing was at the Danish School of Media and Journalism – who use my Voicebox method to teach tone of voice. Does that make Voicebox ‘award-winning-by-proxy’? I reckon so 🤓.
Worth knowing: Every year, D&AD set a speculative tone of voice brief for students and young writers. If you’re tone-of-voice-curious, check it out. If you’re eligible to enter, do it! If you’re not, why not have a crack at the brief anyway, and compare your work to the winning entry.
I once worked with a hipster coffee brand who were so pained by the thought of saying anything even remotely approximating a ‘marketing message’ that they ended up running a poster campaign with literally no words on at all. Which actually looked pretty awesome the first time they did it but was maddeningly limiting forever after. (They never did agree on anything to say. We parted ways without me writing a single word.)