Chapter 5: How to create a brand voice style guide

What you’ll learn: In this chapter, we’ll look at the document that will keep your brand voice consistent no matter how many people are involved in content creation.

A shared reference point does wonders for teamwork. It keeps everyone’s minds on the same track, so they can move as one. In sports, that reference point is the coach’s clipboard. It shows the play for everyone to follow. If everyone follows it, the team is more likely to succeed than if everyone does their own thing.

In writing, the equivalent of a clipboard covered in X’s and O’s is a style guide. That’s right. Your safety net. Your protection against invading inconsistencies threatening to ruin your relationship with the client. But, what is a style guide exactly?

Designers and marketers think of a style guide as a document that shows a company’s color palette, preferred logos, and overall design direction. This document gives all designers a single reference point, so that everything they create is “on-brand.” The kind of style guide I’m talking about has a similar function, but it has nothing to do with design. I’m talking about a style guide that exclusively deals with writing.

Google, Apple, and Microsoft all use style guides to maintain a consistent tone and voice across their content. Many other publishing companies and organizations publish and sell industry standard style guides. The Associated Press Stylebook is a very simple, but popular style guide. It provides definitions and preferred spellings for terms, discusses overall writing style, and lists the rules of grammar and punctuation. Another famous style guide is the Chicago Manual of Style, which is mainly used by authors and publishing houses.

Both of these style guides are great reference works for any writer to use, but they don’t cut the muster when it comes to brand voices. They’re detailed for sure, but they will only make your content correct; they won’t give it a unique voice. And that’s really what this whole thing is about.

Brand Voice Style Guides

Create a brand voice style guide and keep your company's style.

Create a brand voice style guide and keep your company's style.

For our purposes, a style guide is a set of guidelines that create consistent communication in everything your company writes. This isn’t just about grammar, punctuation, or spelling, it has to do with reinforcing the personality and style you’ve been working so hard to develop. It achieves this by providing specific guidelines that make your brand voice easier to use in a variety of circumstances.

This is imperative. It’s easy to say, “write me a blog post in a friendly tone,” but how can a writer actually do that? We all have our own definition of “friendly” and that preference will become apparent when you read the post.

With a style guide in hand, this same writer will be able to see how the company defines a friendly tone. They might see guidelines such as, “call the reader ‘friend,’” or “ask rhetorical questions like ‘how was your day?.’” These specific guidelines let you create the right tone the first time.

Having a brand voice style guide can also be a valuable feedback tool. Instead of giving content producers vague advice, you’ll be able to refer them back to your common reference point. This adds weight to your feedback since the content producer should have followed the guidelines from the start. If you act as a senior editor this resource is invaluable.

Creating a style guide is the absolute best way to get everyone on the same page.

What to Include

Depending on how big your brand is or how complicated its voice is, your style guide needs will change. Some brands can get away with a 5-page document, while others need hundreds of pages just for their user interfaces. Since you know what content your company produces, I won’t tell you what to include. Instead, I’ll give you a list of common style guide sections. As you read each one, figure out if it applies to your company.

Purpose

Think of this section as an introduction for readers. Show them why this document was created and how the brand voice will affect their work. This section could look something like this:

The Content Reactor’s goal is to help marketers simplify content production, have more engaged clients, and stand out. We know that a brand voice can help them achieve this.

The purpose of our brand voice is to clearly communicate the value of our methods in a way that’s entertaining. Every word, example, and story should motivate our audience to keep learning and moving forward in their mission to create a compelling brand voice.

Adhering to these guidelines will help us create content that’s the cat’s pajamas.

Voice

Your voice is obviously important to your brand voice. Without a clear voice, your content will misrepresent your brand and its values. Every style guide should include a voice section.

In this section, include a description of your brand avatar and explain how they communicate. Be as specific as possible, since generalities can be misinterpreted and misapplied.

The Content Reactor is best represented as the Innovator. It aims to disrupt traditional marketing concepts with a new approach that’s simple and clean.

The Innovator communicates by expressing powerful, big-picture ideas, while questioning the validity of commonly accepted approaches. Their focus is on moving their audience forward into the future to help them enjoy better lives. Thus, it’s not just about sharing big ideas, but also showing their practical benefits.

Also, include the qualities that your brand wants others to see in it. For example, many brands will include two lists in their style guides, an “is” list and an “isn’t” list. Writers use these as a quick reference to compare their tone against the brand’s target tone.

The Content Reactor is:

  • Friendly
  • Exciting
  • Silly
  • Innovative
  • Clear

The Content Reactor isn’t:

  • Overly serious
  • Dogmatic
  • Sloppy
  • Pushy
  • Technical

It can be tempting to separate every adjective in the dictionary between these two lists, but that’s a bad idea. If you make them too long the lists won’t be a quick reference anymore. To make them as useful as possible, stick to 5 qualities or less per list. In the “is” column, only include qualities that are essential to maintaining your voice. In the “isn’t” column, only include qualities that could easily slip into your content and undermine your tone.

Now, let’s take your top qualities a step further. Turn each quality into its own section and show your reader how to write content that embodies that quality. Here’s a rather long, but useful example:

Based on what we know of our buyer personas and our brand avatar, we’ve selected key qualities that every piece of content should reflect. The Innovator’s top qualities include:

  • Visionary
  • Friendly
  • Practical

These are the qualities that The Content Reactor’s content must embody. Doing so makes the Innovator’s personality come to life and helps us to build a relationship with our audience before ever speaking to them. Next, we’ll look at how these qualities can be applied to our content.

Visionary

The Content Reactor is an Innovator in marketing. It aims to disrupt traditional methods and bring about its vision of better marketing. To convince its audience of this vision it needs to share it through powerful messaging that cuts through the noise.

We achieve a visionary tone by:

  • Looking beyond the status quo
  • Imagining what would be possible under ideal circumstances
  • Staying ahead of the curve
  • Sharing an idealist vision of what could be
No Yes
Organizations need effective content to support their marketing efforts and bring in customers. Organizations that align themselves with their core values create genuine marketing that helps customers view them as a friend.

Friendly

The Content Reactor loves its audience and wants them to feel comfortable. Maintaining regular, friendly communication keeps that relationship alive and strong.

We achieve a friendly tone by:

  • Addressing our reader directly
  • Including jokes and humor
  • Making light of challenges
  • Providing free help whenever possible
No Yes
To create a brand voice, a marketer must first understand their target market. One of the first steps in creating your brand voice is knowing who you’re talking to.

Practical

The Content Reactor cares about helping people above anything else. If it can’t help people, then there’s no point in anything that it does. To fulfill this mission, we make sure our content is actionable.

We achieve a practical tone by:

  • Providing step-by-step instructions and how-tos;
  • Focusing on what will solve our reader’s problems right now;
  • Keeping grandiose visions in check by balancing them with realism.
No Yes
You can make your reader feel more involved in your content by addressing them directly. To catch your reader’s attention, use “you” and “your” whenever possible to make them feel like part of the story.

Audience Descriptions

You put lots of thought into your client avatars, or buyer personas. They’re also one of the reasons that you chose your brand voice. Sharing them with your content producers shows the reasons behind your brand voice. It will also help them to keep your content on-brand when addressing different audiences.

Our client base covers a broad range, but there are two things that unify all of them: they’re involved in marketing and they’re looking for a better way to market. Let’s compare our three buyer personas to get the ‘tails on each one.

Freelancer Phil works as a freelance marketer/copywriter/consultant for a variety of direct clients. His challenges include getting clients on board with his recommendations and helping them to understand the overall strategy quickly and easily. He researches marketing techniques on industry blogs and podcasts, he also spends a significant amount of time learning on social media and forums. To Phil, success is helping his clients achieve personalized results that no traditional marketer could give them.

Marketer Mary works as an in-house marketer for a small/medium/large business, helping them to establish their brand, make sales, and communicate with their audience. Her challenges include innovating and achieving consistency across her company. She needs the company to be telling one story consistently, but it’s hard to get everyone on the same page. She reads quite a bit on marketing, and also attends conferences and seminars to sharpen her skills. To Mary, success is helping her brand achieve strategic goals, making it stand out in the market, and streamlining the business as much as possible.

Business Billiam owns a small/medium sized business and is responsible for marketing and sales. His challenges include a lack of knowledge regarding content strategy and marketing techniques, he also has limited time for marketing so he needs to make it count. He reads on the subject of marketing, but mainly learns through his professional network and industry events. To Billiam, success is reaching his business’s goals for the year and having a loyal customer base to keep his business strong.

With each piece of content you produce, try to think of the buyer persona that you want to reach. Talk to them directly and personally to build a connection. Specific is better.

These guidelines will be invaluable in creating effective content. The more deeply you understand your audience the more attention you can give to their needs, problems, and desires. When your audience feels understood, they’ll be loyal and more willing to try new products and services. They’re also more likely to share your content with other like-minded consumers.

Content Strategy

"We define content strategy as: getting the right content to the right user at the right time."
- Kevin P. Nichols

In your average marketing department, there’s a guy or gal called a content strategist who will be involved in creating your brand voice. Their job is to oversee the entire content production process and make sure that the content is leading toward strategic business goals. They give the content an overall purpose and direction, so that the brand moves progressively forward.

Understanding these strategies is a must for anyone who works in content production. They need to know the “why” of the content before they can produce anything that’s in line with the strategy. If possible include an overview of your brand’s goals for the next few months, as well as its long-term goals. Every few months, go through this section and update these goals. Make sure all content producers feel like they’re contributing to something bigger.

Your brands strategies section may include things like this:

The Content Reactor drives traffic through information and educational content. From time to time, it will also use humor and novel ideas to draw an audience. This fits with its innovative personality.

The Content Reactor uses the following content types to reach its audience:

  • Ebooks and downloadable PDFs.
  • Free and paid ecourses.
  • 1-2 blog posts per month on thecontentreactor.com (republished to LinkedIn and Medium).
  • Daily Twitter posts and weekly LinkedIn posts. Engage with users that have similar interests can benefit The Content Reactor.
  • Guest posts on industry blogs and interviews on podcasts.
  • In-person workshops are also part of our strategy on a very occasional basis.

Each of these content types serve a purpose with the buyer’s journey of our client avatars. Use each piece of content to logically drive readers to higher value pieces of content, so that they can convert into customers and eventually into leads.

Use this image from HubSpot to organize the flow of your content marketing efforts:

 
AAEAAQAAAAAAAAzzAAAAJDE5M2JlODc3LWE3ZTYtNGZlNC05OTBkLTI4NTk5ZTZiZmY0Ng.png
 

Goal for the next 3 months: Increase web traffic to 1,000 visitors per month.
Method: Publish 4 guest posts per month and increase blogging to 1 post per week. Use headlines that create mystery and tempt users to click through.
Measuring: Use Google Analytics to check for increased web traffic.

Giving people an address to drive to is way less work than giving them turn-by-turn directions. Knowing the end goal of their work will help content producers to understand what the steps are to getting there. This saves you the hassle of micro-managing and saves them from being micro-managed. So, let your team in on the game plan.

Sentence Structures

This section is nitty, and you better believe it’s gritty. There are some phrases or sentence styles that will be used over and over again across your content. Don’t be inconsistent about them, make them count!

This is especially important when writing for user interfaces. It can be confounding when an interface switches between two sentence structures for no good reason. Try to think of these sticky points in advance or interview your employees. Put practical solutions in your style guide that content producers can use right away. The below example shows a sample sentence structure guideline for a user interface style guide.

Confirmation sentence structure for user interface text:

No Yes
Your messages will be deleted. Delete these messages?

Also, consider recommending sentence structures for other more general cases. For example, non-standard sentence styles for breaking up long paragraphs or catching the reader’s attention in an ad.

Including these sections in your style guide makes your brand unique in a much deeper way. Having specific sentence structures makes it seem like it has its own brain patterns that pop up in its voice. Scary cool, right?

Grammar Stuff

The English language is complicated. There are a lot of littles details to it and many rules are flexible. Once again, a single writer should have one grammatical style that they use all the time and so should your brand.

Here are a few areas where your brand will have to decide which grammar rules to follow:

  • Comma usage (to Oxford comma or not to Oxford comma)
  • Punctuation marks (for example, avoid &)
  • Numerals (1st vs. first/1 vs. one)
  • Dates (01/01/2017 vs. January 1st, 2017)
  • Initialisms (U.S. vs. US)
  • Abbreviations (Minn. vs. MN)
  • And much more...pick up a few style guides and you’ll see what I mean.

After you consider these areas, you might add sections like this one to your style guide:

Commas
Use commas according the rules provided in the Associated Press Stylebook. When writing lists of three items or more include a comma prior to the final list item (Oxford/serial comma).

These rules may not be necessary for a very small brand with just one or two content producers. But, once your brand grows beyond that point, the grammar section will be essential. Your editors will thank you for having these guidelines in place and making their job easier.

Spelling preferences

There’s a surprising number of spelling variations in the English language. This is especially true when comparing English from different regions. When you throw hyphenation into the mix, then it becomes even more complicated.

To ease this confusion, include a section with all of your spelling preferences. Also, provide clear rules on how to hyphenate. This section doesn’t have to be long or complicated. It can be short and simple like this example:

No Yes
Adaptor Adapter
Fresh Phresh
Gray Grey

Glossary

Your brand might prefer one term over another, even when both are legitimate options. Or it might have branded terms. For example, what we know as a French Press, Starbucks calls a Press Pot (notice the very specific capitalization of that term). This sets Starbucks apart in the way it communicates and makes its products seem more unique.

You probably already do the same thing within your brand. You might have special names for your products, a name for fans of your brand, and nicknames for the processes or tools that you use. Adding them to your glossary will get them used consistently across your content, so that they can have a full impact.

A glossary entry for a branded term might look something like this:

Term Definition Part of Speech Alternate terms Comments
brand voice The way your brand communicates using words. common noun brand personality Avoid the term "brand idetity" as it's not interchangeable with "brand voice."

In addition to branded terms, there are terms that are easily confused and misused. For example, Starbucks’ website uses a lot of unbranded words that could be mixed up. What’s the difference between “brewing,” “steeping,” and “extracting”? Having a glossary entry that compares these terms side-by-side can be very helpful.

For large brands, a glossary is an absolute must. But, if your glossary pushes your style guide well past the hundred page mark, then make it a separate document. This will make both documents easier to reference and save readers from infinite scrolling.

References

For most brands, a monstrous style guide is impractical and unnecessary. Usually, something under 100 pages will suffice. But, if there are still many issues your style guide doesn’t or can’t cover, then give your readers some back up references.

Every style guide should at least reference a dictionary. This will keep the spelling, capitalization, and usage of terms not included in your style guide consistent without going through the labor of rewriting all of Mr. Webster’s fine work. Personally, I recommend using www.merriam-webster.com. It’s easily accessible by anyone and the definitions are dead simple.

You can also reference another style guide. Check Amazon reviews to see which one fits your needs,  after all they all have different strengths and weaknesses. It’s good to include one though, since it will provide guidelines for less common content types, such as traditionally published articles and press releases. Personally, I like the Associated Press Stylebook since it’s affordable and provides just enough rules.

Localization guidelines

This is a bonus section that only big or international brands will need. Localization is the process of adapting content to other languages, cultures, and regions. For example, if you took this book written in American English, and adapted the terminology, spellings, and any ideas that didn’t make sense to British English, then this book would be localized.

The issue with localization is that what makes your brand unique in your native language can easily be lost. Your content passes through the hands of project managers, translators, editors, and proofreaders. During this process a lot can change. So, provide some basic guidelines to those who localize your content and give them access to your full style guide so that they can get a feel for who you are.

Writing your brand voice style guide

Now that you have a better idea of what will go into your style guide, it’s time to write it. This is an important document since it will be shared and referenced over and over again. Make sure to do it right. Give it the time, resources, and attention that it deserves.

Let’s look at the best practices for creating your style guide and then we’ll provide a sample workflow for you to use.

Follow your own rules. Write your guide according to the rules that it contains. If you recommend the Oxford (serial) comma, then use that comma in your style guide. Make the guide a good example of your brand’s style. Remember this document is supposed to show how much your brand cares about its writing style, so don’t be a hypocrite.

Include lots of examples. Everyone loves a book with pictures, examples, and stories. Leverage this power to get people interested in your guide. For every single guideline, provide a bad example and a good example. Dissect the examples to explain exactly how the guideline can fix the bad example.

Google uses a simple two column approach in its user interface style guide. Tying an icon or color to the good and bad examples makes them easier to distinguish. This enhances the usability and emotional impact of the examples.

Explain yourself. Content producers all have their own writing styles that they’ve learned and perfected over the years. If you tell someone to use the Oxford comma when they’re used to open punctuation, they might think you’re a pedantic idiot. That’s why you need to explain your choices. Back them up with research or logical reasons. Content producers need to understand why they should get onboard. So, always explain your choices.

Get a ton of feedback. More than a ton in fact. You need a megaton of feedback. Have executives, marketers, content producers, editors, and proofreaders read through your guide. Let them leave comments and suggest changes. This will help you to refine your ideas and eliminate errors and redundancies that you may have overlooked. As a last step, you could share the guide with a few savvy customers to get their take on it. This will confirm that the guide you produced is in line with your target market.

Your Style Guide Workflow

Content production follows a logical process. Your style guide is just like any other piece of content. Applying this simple workflow to it will make the process much easier for everyone involved.

  1. Gather your content

    1. Finalize your brand avatar and client avatars.
    2. Find great examples of content that you want your brand to emulate.
    3. Distill your survey results into a list of percentages and conclusions.
    4. Compile conclusions drawn from the brand avatar and client avatar creation process.
       
  2. Strategize
    1. Work with marketers and business leaders to define your content strategy.
    2. Determine what goals the business needs to achieve over the next 1-5 years.
    3. Choose content strategies that will help your business achieves these goals.
    4. Determine your KPIs (key performance indicators) and methods for tracking results.
       
  3. Outline
    1. Choose the sections you want to include in your guide (check the list included earlier for ideas).
    2. Outline the sections in a logical order (try to move from general/introductory topics at the beginning to more technical/reference topics at the end).
    3. Add sub-points for the specific guidelines and strategies in each section.
    4. Share your outline with team members and have them suggest improvements or sections.
       
  4. First draft
    1. Choose one writer from the team to act as the lead for the project, they’ll write the entire style guide since this will keep it more consistent.
    2. Write the draft based on the content you gathered and your outline.
    3. If your draft deviates from the outline, then update your outline to match it.
       
  5. Feedback
    1. Get feedback from team members.
    2. Implement the feedback and revise your draft.
       
  6. Wash and repeat steps 4 and 5 until the draft feels solid
     
  7. Test
    1. Take existing content and apply your style guide to it.
    2. Compare the content side-by-side.
      1. Which content best represents your company?
      2. How big of an impact has your style guide had?
      3. Is the voice unique when compared with your competitors?
    3. Do this for a few different styles of content and analyze whether or not the guidelines are working.
       
  8. Review by other departments
    1. Show the style guide and the adapted content to those in leadership roles and any content producers who aren’t on your team.
    2. Have them provide feedback on the style guide.
    3. Ask leadership if the style guide is in line with their vision.
       
  9. Revise
    1. Based on the feedback revise your style guide and update your sample pieces (you may need to repeat steps 7-9 many times depending on your company).
       
  10. Add visuals and format
    1. Add any photos or screen captures that your guide needs.
    2. Videos are also an option, especially if you create your guide using a wiki format.
    3. Format the guide to match your brand’s visual identity.
       
  11. Share
    1. Give the “final” version of your guide to as many people as possible. Get their thoughts and impressions.
    2. Have the guide proofread by a few good proofreaders.
    3. Run it through an online tool like the Hemingway app to clean up the writing even further.
       
  12. Finalize your guide
    1. Implement all remaining feedback.
    2. Make it look pretty.
    3. Share it with your team.
    4. Remember your guide is never final. During the first few months of use there will be a lot of issues, update the guide accordingly and it will continue to serve you well.

I’m the first to admit that creating a style guide isn’t easy. It can be a long painful process with lots of rounds of feedback, especially if you work at a large corporation. If you’re at a smaller company, then your style guide won’t be quite as complicated, but a lack of resources may still make it difficult.

Remember, the challenge is well worth it. Creating a style guide provides long-term value that few other resources can. So, get started on it. Your next test is just around the corner.

The Enzo Strikes Back

Enzo started this chapter with some rough ideas and a loosely built character, but he’s walking out of it with a deep understanding of his brand and his clients.

He kicks of the process by doing a brand sprint to gain a deeper understanding of his brand’s core values and to understand why he’s in this business. Then he worked through the buyer persona process to better understand his clients’ challenges, needs, preferences, and concerns.

Based on this information Enzo starts creating a style guide for his business. He’s able to copy and paste his previous research into the guide to create some initial content. Then he adds in a few more page with guidelines for his company’s brand voice. When all's said and done, he has a slick 15-page guide that can help anyone of his employees write more effectively and cut through the noise created by other marketers.

Finally, Enzo shops the guide around. He gets the opinion of mentors, marketers, other business owners, his employees, and most importantly his clients. He thoroughly tests the concepts to make sure they’ll have the desired effect before doing anything else.

Our friend Enzo now has a clear, beautiful, and effective style guide. It’s time to put it to work.

Feeling lost?

At this point you might feel in over your head. If you’d like, I can provide you with a brand voice process adapted to you and your business. Set up your complimentary consultation now.