Copywriting is acting, brand voice strategy is screenwriting and your style guide is your script—and no, you don’t always have to follow it.
Journalists often ask actors if they’re anything like the character they’re most famous for playing. It’s a pretty lazy question, only common because of the tempting assumption that we know the actor just because we know the character. Of course we don’t, because they’re not the same person. Because acting.
When clients ask us how to approach on-brand copywriting, we tell them to think of it like acting. In other words, don’t be yourself. Pretend to be someone else. But make sure you know exactly who that person is. Your brand is the character you’re trying to portray, and copywriting is about knowing what they would say in every situation.
Now, if you’re the founder of a personality-driven brand, then there is definitely some of you in your brand voice. Likewise, your company’s team of writers and content creators probably identify with the brand lifestyle and believe in its products. They get it. They get the audience they’re interacting with and the character they are playing. But they're not the same any more than Jon Hamm and Don Draper—both handsome men with alcohol problems, not the same person.
So how do you know what your brand would say? Same way Matthew Weiner knew what Draper would say. Backstory. Even if you don’t communicate every detail of it to consumers, you need to know who your brand is, where it came from, why it exists, what it cares about. That’s your brand platform, your brand voice strategy. You need to back all the way up and get those underlying themes solidified before you even begin to put words in your character’s mouth. It’s a lot like screenwriting, actually.
Even if you do all the homework involved, inevitably, there are going to be cases where you’re at a loss for words. That’s what your style guide is for. Think of your style guide like a script. It’s a pre-written document that tells you what your brand is supposed to say and how. It can be refined and rehearsed, interpreted for effect. It’s a wonderful tool that takes a lot of pressure off the writer.
But you don’t always have to follow it.
When we create style guides for brands, they sometimes worry that it’ll be too restricting. They don’t want to make a decision now about how to communicate and always be bound to express themselves in that particular way. As the world throws different situations and conditions at a brand, it needs to be able to respond accordingly.
So go ahead, we say. Use your judgment. Some of the best moments happen onscreen when brilliant actors go off script and ad lib their parts. Just because you have a style guide with rules in it doesn’t mean you always have to follow it. That call is yours to make. The style guide is just that, a guide. You have it as a foundation, as a key to what your character would and wouldn’t say, but you can decide who in your company has the authority to go off script and when. And remember, your style guide is a living, breathing thing. It can evolve and change over time. Let that process happen. As your company bends and stretches and grows, so will the way it speaks.