Brand style guides
A style guide (sometimes called a style manual) is a document that outlines your organisation’s style standards for writing or editing.
Here are a few of the things a style guide may include:
- How your company name is presented – Should it be written out in full every time or are abbreviations allowed?
- Headings – Should they use title case or sentence case? Is this rule the same for subheadings?
- Bulleted lists – Do you start each item with a capital? Do you put a full stop after each item? After the last item? Or not at all?
- Dates – Should you write 30 June, June 30th, 30/6 or something else entirely?
- Numbers – Should you write them as words for numbers less than ten? Or less than 20? Do you include a comma in large numbers? If so, do you start doing this at 1000, 10,000 or 100,000?
- Common industry abbreviations and jargon – What do they mean and when should they be used?
- Preferred spellings of frequently used words – Should you write focused or focussed? Is it email or e-mail?
- Words to be avoided – Is it OK to say whilst or should we always stick to while? Are the people that pay you clients but never customers?
- Style differences between writing for print and writing for the web – Large organisations may even have a seperate style guide for each.
Note: a style guide for writing and editing is often complemented by (or combined with) a visual style guide. Visual style guides define how the visual parts of your brand can be used – which fonts and colours are acceptable, how your logo can and can’t be used and so on. When I refer to a ’style guide’ in this post I am talking exclusively about a style guide for text.
What a brand style guide is not
The source of all wisdom
Your organisation’s style guide shouldn’t try to provide an answer for every single writing or editing query anyone will ever have. For most issues, you should be able to refer to the established style guide for your industry or region.
In Australia, the established style bible is the Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers, 6th edition. Prepared by the Australian Government, it has answers to most of the questions you will ever have about grammar, punctuation, referencing, document structure and Australian usage. Although it’s getting a little long in the tooth (the current edition was published in 2002), it’s still the go-to guide for writing and editing in Australia.
Some industries (such as law, medicine and journalism) also have their own style guides covering aspects of writing that are unique to that industry.
Your organisation’s style guide should only include standards that are different to (or not covered by) the established style manual for your area. However, it should clearly state what the established style manual for your sector is.
Your style guide should also say which dictionary staff and contractors need to refer to when checking the spelling or usage of words. In Australia this is usually the Macquarie Dictionary or the Australian Oxford Dictionary.
A grammar and punctuation lesson
Most rules of the English language are pretty clear cut and don’t need to be rehashed in your style guide.
However, many style guides will have a list of ‘further resources’. This may include books on grammar for those that need a refresher.
A static document
Your style guide will never be complete. No matter how comprehensive it is, stylistic issues will crop up that you didn’t think about when you put the guide together. Meanwhile, new ways of communicating mean new style choices have to be made. (For example, what are the acceptable ways to punctuate a tweet?)
An brand style guide is a living document that will continually be added to and reviewed. In most organisations it works best as an online resource that can be easily updated rather than a printed document distributed to staff.
Why do you need a style guide?
Style guides have been an essential part of the publishing and media industries for centuries. But these days any medium-to-large organisation with a decent communications strategy has one.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a small business or a multinational corporation – if your company writes anything that gets read by people outside the organisation, you need to have (and use) a brand style guide.
Benefits of having a style guide:
- Publish consistent, credible communications – You want to be perceived as professional, right? Well, that’s very difficult to do when your external communications vary wildly depending on who happened to write them. A good brand style guide gives all staff a clear consistent framework to work within.
- Distinguish yourself from competitors – By thinking carefully about how you want your brand to be perceived and making the right style choices to achieve this, you can help your organisation stand out in the marketplace.
- Instantly resolve issues and arguments – Can you start a sentence with a ‘but’? Should you capitalise every item in a bulleted list? The amount of hours workers spend arguing about these two issues probably costs the global economy billions of dollars every year. Having clear rules on common style issues means your writers can spend less time arguing and more time actually writing.
- Make things clear for contractors and consultants – Let’s say you wanted to outsource the writing for a big report to a copywriter like…oh, I don’t know…maybe that handsome fellow who runs Copy Octopus Writing Services? Having a clear style guide means your contractor can hit the ground running and write something that is completely consistent with all your other corporate communications.
What about tone of voice?
Tone of voice is the way your brand’s ‘personality’ is expressed through writing. Defining your brand’s tone of voice is one of the most important things you can do to engage your target audience and differentiate yourself from your competitors.
For smaller businesses, it might be enough to include some simple tone of voice rules in your style guide. For example:
We use a friendly yet professional tone for all communications. Contractions such as don’t, can’t and it’s are encouraged, but slang terms should be avoided.
Large companies or businesses where strong branding is paramount should develop complete tone of voice guidelines. These guidelines are usually quite detailed and may cover things like:
- Brand personalty traits – Are you wise, sarcastic, humble or confident?
- How should you address your audience? Do you speak to them directly as ‘you’ or take a more formal approach and refer only to ‘our clients’?
- Use of humour – Jokes and puns might work for a juice bar but are probably not right for an investment bank.
- Dialects and use of slang – Are you targeting blokes out for a few quite ones and a bit of a feed? Or gentlemen looking for an exclusive whisky and charcuterie experience? Your target audience and brand personality will have a huge effect on the language you use to talk to your customers.
Developing comprehensive tone of voice guidelines is a big job that requires a fair bit of research. For help, contact a copywriter or other marketing professional.
Tips for writing a brand style guide
Your style guide will be used by everyone who writes content for your organisation. That means it’s essential to take their views and opinions into account.
Bring in your company’s key writers to brainstorm what the style guide should include (and be sure to seek their feedback on each draft).
Don’t make it longer than it needs to be
Remember, your brand style guide only needs to cover things that are different to the existing style guide for your industry or region.
Keeping your style guide as short as possible will make it easier for people to comprehend and a hell of a lot easier to maintain.
While clear rules are great, most people learn best by examples. Give at least one example of when each rule (and exception to that rule) applies.
Things change, and your style guide needs to keep up. It’s a good idea to nominate a dedicated ‘style guru’ to maintain your company’s style manual and have the final say on changes or additions.
Bringing in a professional copywriter or editor is a great way to fast-track the development of your style guide. They understand the main issues and standards you need to worry about and can suggest the best ways to resolve them.
Need an expert to put together a style guide for your organisation? Ask the Octopus.