Why Style Guides Matter

Most companies have a team of writers who are responsible for all of their marketing content, including their website, social media, ads and other customer-facing materials. As a result, each writer may have different styles and preferences, which can make your brand messaging inconsistent. Your writers may need to be kept on a leash (metaphorically, of course) to make sure that the content they produce is in line with your brand voice, including things such as consistent use of tone, terminology and register (formal or informal). Here’s where style and brand voice guides are essential tools for writers to follow so that they consistently and accurately represent your brand.

Let’s explore the key components of style guides and how they help.

Controlling grammar

Most rules of grammar are unambiguous, but some (such as starting a sentence with a conjunction) inspire passionate online discussions and remain a matter of preference. If you engage a pool of writers, especially if they’re based in more than one country, they’ll probably have different approaches. While there may not be a single right or wrong approach, organizations should have their own preference recorded in a style guide to help ensure that their written materials respect this convention across all formats. You can use an established style guide as a starting point, adding to it as necessary to make the contents relevant to your business; well-known examples include The Chicago Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook.

Certain quirks of grammar and punctuation are likely to bring howls of anguish from your editorial team, but the important thing here is to maintain consistency. Whether you choose to embrace the Oxford comma or make a stand against the use of exclamation marks in your content, you need to have a clear approach that everyone in the organization can understand and follow in order to deliver a strong brand voice.

Maintaining style

A style guide also addresses the formatting and vocabulary that you adopt in your written materials. Without guidance, these can be highly preferential with lots of variation; for example, date and time formats vary around the world, and you can cause major issues for a customer if they read a date in one format (e.g. 12/11/19) and think you’re referring to November 12th when in fact you meant December 11th.

You need to give your writing team an easy reference point so that you maintain a strong, easily identifiable voice with your customers. A company lexicon (terminology) is an important tool to help maintain a consistent approach. This lists the words that your writers should use in order to best convey your brand, and will often offer acceptable and unacceptable synonyms to help writers vary their language while sticking to the right voice. It’s also handy to come up with a list of forbidden words and phrases such as key words from competitors’ tag lines or words that convey sentiments that go against your brand voice.

The thorny issue of acronyms and jargon can also be addressed within the lexicon. Every company develops its own set of acronyms, and while they quickly become part of everyday language between employees, they inevitably cause confusion and even alienation externally. You should include explanations of the company’s acronyms, along with guidance on when it’s acceptable to use them in different forms of content. Don’t forget to also list offending terms along with suitable alternatives. You may even choose to adopt a strict “no jargon or acronyms” policy in external communications, but allow their use in internal documents where users are familiar with company slang. Always err on the side of caution and consider new employees and temporary staff when deciding whether an acronym needs explaining.

Perhaps the most important writers’ tool you’ll need is your brand voice guidelines. These set out the way in which you communicate with your potential customers and help you keep trust by making people comfortable and familiar with your voice. Having a distinctive, authentic voice can also serve as a point of differentiation between you and your competitors—the smoothie brand Innocent is a great example of this. On the simplest level, brand voice guidelines may outline how formal or conversational you want to appear. For your business, it may feel natural to start emails with a cheerful “Hey guys!” (retail) while in a different industry or for a different demographic, this could go against the company’s authoritative, corporate tone and irritate or alienate its audience (software).

Your brand voice also needs to be authentic and reflect the way you genuinely interact with your audience. It’s not going to look good if you are chatty and casual in your company’s social media accounts, yet your press spokesperson is featured in an interview dressed in a somber suit, looking sullen and speaking unintelligible legal jargon.

How to handle style in multiple markets

If you’re creating content in multiple markets, you’ll need to create style guides for each language and locale, and one thing you absolutely should not do is merely translate your English style guide. Each language will have its own rules, and words in your lexicon that work well in your English content could send the completely wrong message when translated. Your localized style and brand voice guides need to be created by people who can not only write in the language at a very high standard, but who also know the local culture, understand the way you want to communicate and have the editorial know-how to set out the rules in a way that other writers can easily follow.

Automate where possible

For any major writing task, it’s good to have automated quality assurance (QA) checks to help catch errors before the work is published. Common writing programs such as Microsoft Word contain a spellcheck function, but they won’t capture violations of your carefully crafted company communications guidelines. Once you have a style guide and brand voice guidelines, these can be converted into a set of rules that run in the background within your content management system (CMS). That way, even a new writer will receive alerts if a sentence they’re written doesn’t comply.

 

Style and brand voice guides can take a lot of time to put together, but if you’re producing a lot of content, this effort will pay off in a big way. The more people that are involved in your content creation and the more distinctive your brand voice, the more important it is to have these tools in place. Not only will they save you a lot of editorial time in the long run, but they’ll help ensure that your customers hear your message in the way it’s intended.

 

If you need help creating style guides for each market that will help maintain your strong brand in each market, give us a shout!