What is a style guide and why is it important?
A brand style guide is a document that outlines the most important characteristics of a brand’s voice and visual style, in order to ensure consistency across all brand assets and communications. It’s an important tool for maintaining a cohesive brand presence when multiple people are creating collateral—you want your customers to think of your company as a unified entity, even if it’s made up of multiple teams of employees and freelancers spread across the globe.
Clear style guidelines can help your company:
- Increase brand recognition. A consistent style and voice can help customers recognize your brand, even if your field is crowded with competitors.
- Build consumer trust. Customers are less likely to do business with a company that appears to be fragmented or disorganized.
- Communicate its value. Clear, consistent messaging regarding your company’s offerings can make it easier for a customer to determine whether your product or service is right for them.
Why have a brand style guide?
Unless you’re working in the leanest of startups, it’s unreasonable to expect one person to handle every single copy demand. At some point, you’ll need to scale up your content creation efforts—you may want someone on your product team to create a how-to guide, or hire a freelancer to contribute to the company blog.
Though it can be helpful to use a recent piece of content as a model for a new creator, it’s not enough. You’ll end up playing a game of stylistic telephone, with people taking their best guess at what’s an important component of your brand’s voice, and what can be jettisoned. A brand style guide leaves little to interpretation—it lays out clear instructions for everything from logo usage and brand colors (just because your logo is green, doesn’t mean just any green will do— trust us, we know); to tone (is snark acceptable, or is your brand’s sense of humor on the sillier side?); and even preferred grammar rules (so you can unequivocally declare your brand Team Oxford Comma).
What should be in a brand style guide?
Every brand is different. A key component of one brand’s guidelines may be completely irrelevant to another brand in another industry. In general, a brand guide will include sections on:
- Logo usage. Is your logo a chameleon that can take on a range of colors depending on where it appears, or is it always a certain shade of red, no matter what? Your brand style guide should make this clear, while providing examples of different versions of your logo, and stipulating which should be used in which situations. Many brands also provide strict guidelines for the way logos should appear in relation to text or other design elements.
- Typefaces. Specify which typefaces should be used in marketing materials, and what they should be used for. If there’s one typeface your brand uses for headings, and another that’s used for body text, be sure that’s clear. You may also want to include web-safe alternatives for use online and in slide decks.
- Colors. Many brands have primary and secondary color palettes that are used on a range of visual assets. Your brand guide should outline how and when certain colors should be used, and include hex and decimal codes for each one.
- Images. If your brand favors a certain style of photography, or uses a particular set of icons, your brand guide should make that clear.
- Voice. Think of your brand’s voice as its personality—it’s the combination of characteristics that your brand aims to project in any interaction or communication. Is your brand intellectual and authoritative? Conversational and witty? Warm and helpful? Whatever it is, this should remain consistent across all channels.
- Tone. A section on tone helps add dimension to your brand’s voice. Just as most people are more formal in a business email than a tweet, brands often adjust their tone to fit their medium. If you want to maintain a jokey Facebook presence, but keep your blog a bit more buttoned up, this is the place to make that clear.
- Channel-specific notes. The norms that govern social media are different from those that apply to blog posts, or even emails, and it can be helpful to spell out the specifics in your style guide. If ampersands are fair game on Twitter, but don’t belong in blog posts, you can note that here. You may also want to include parameters for just how casual your brand is willing to get on social media. For example, Mailchimp’s style guide explains that while certain words can be shortened on social media— “info” can sub in for “information,” for example—letters cannot be used instead of words, so you should never see “u” stand in for “you” on one of their channels.
- Grammar rules and word treatments. Will you follow the AP Stylebook, or Chicago Manual of Style? Will your brand say e-mail, or email? Even small inconsistencies can trip up a potential customer, so make sure to give your writers a clear set of guidelines. That said, you don’t want to include so many rules that it’s a chore to wade through them. Be thoughtful about what’s most relevant to your brand.
- Preferred phrases. Some brands find it helpful to provide examples of wording that reinforces their brand voice and wording that undermines it. For example, a brand may decide it’s too antagonistic to talk about helping customers “beat the competition,” and may instead encourage content creators to use language about self-improvement.
- Basic SEO best practices. You won’t find this section in most style guides, but we think it’s a worthwhile addition to your brand materials. For example, guidelines for keyword usage can help ensure keywords are included in headings and subheadings, while steering writers away from keyword stuffing. Rules for internal linking can help ensure that links are integrated into relevant content with appropriate anchor text.
How do I create brand guidelines?
When creating a set of brand guidelines, it’s important to be thorough. Connect with stakeholders throughout your company to understand what’s important to their teams, and what questions and challenges tend to surface surrounding visual or written communications. Once you’ve drafted a set of guidelines, be sure to get feedback from key stakeholders, and refine the guidelines accordingly. Depending on the size and scope of your company, your style guide may undergo many rounds of revisions before it gets the final sign-off.