[quote] Tone of voice is a brand’s most important asset.[/quote] Today’s startups—many of which will become tomorrow’s most interesting brands—have a great deal to teach more established marketers, from an irreverent tone of voice that resonates with a social media audience to the importance of engaging with critics and using their feedback to improve products and services. That was the biggest takeaway from a panel on Tomorrow’s Brands, moderated by Holmes Report editor-in-chief Arun Sudhaman, at the In2 (Innovation+Insight) Summit, taking place in London today and featuring entrepreneurs and venture capitalists from across the region. The question of tone of voice came up early, following on from the “lightning talk” by Jon Silk, head of consumer at Bite Communications, who made the case that tone of voice is a brand’s most important asset—particularly for challenger brands unafraid to use humor and engage with consumers in an irreverent way. Ruth Barnett, VP of global communications for language technology innovator Swiftkey, said her company had relied heavily on humor in its early days. “It’s risky being funny,” she acknowledged, but that risk can be offset by the use of social media, so inexpensive that it reduces the level of risk. Similarly, Blippar co-founder and CMO Jess Butcher said her firm had used humor to engage in its early days but as it expanded: “I think we have to be a little bit careful about tone. As a startup we could be funnier and more irreverent. Today we are working with ‘superbrands’ and they are quite particular about the company that they keep.” In addition, Butcher said, her company serves as a communications channel to its clients as much as communicating on its own behalf. Even so, “we want people to remember this is a fun platform.” Andreas Winiarski, head of communications for startup incubator Rocket Internet, summed up: the tone of voice depends on the business model and the age of the companies Rocket Internet is funding. There was also widespread agreement that there are real benefits to being an underdog and a challenger. “I have always loved not having a budget,” said Butcher. “I like seeing what we can get out of strategic alliances and partnership and social in particular. People love ‘finding the band before they get famous’ and you can harness that enthusiasm to have them become advocates for your brand or message.” Barnett also enjoyed being the underdog and using early adopters as part of the company’s public relations outreach. “One big challenge as new company in a new space is not just solving a problem but convincing people that problem is real. When Swiftkey first start, no one thought that the problem we were trying to solve was a big deal. One of the things we were able to do is harness our user-base to talk about why they needed to fix this problem. They have given us a voice in markets we would never have been able to reach on a limited budget.” But Barnett says that as startups grow, they need to adapt their tone and their approach. “When you are suddenly not the new kid on the block anymore, you can seem like a bossy teenager. We’re not the startup anymore and we are beginning to deal with the kin of issues big companies have to deal with.” One of those issues is criticism from users, which is something that can be difficult for small companies not to take personally, but which smart startups embrace. “Any feedback is better than no feedback,” says Winiarski. “We appreciate negative feedback because it’s the best early warning you can have. The worst thing that can happen as a startup is no attention.” Adds Barnett, “Some people can be abusive and it’s amazing how personally people can take this but, if they have something to say about how a product works or doesn’t, we look for ways to bring people into the process.”