The elements of a style guide, the most valuable document you'll ever create.
Here's an all-too-common marketing scenario. An ascendant lifestyle brand spends thousands on a hot photographer and styling team to shoot its look book, which is full of impossibly cool, sub-Kardashian influencers screwing around in Downtown Los Angeles and road tripping to Joshua Tree in a parade of vintage Benzes. The resulting images are fire—dreamy enough to make life without the pictured products seem intolerable.
Then, an unpaid intern posts one of the shots on Instagram and writes a chatty caption with a cheesy, off-brand adjective and misspelled product name. After Googling once and finding nothing, the customer moves on to another photo, another platform, another brand.
Inconsistency is costly. You need a unified method to get your message out into the world across all platforms, from large scale ad campaigns and in-store signage, to the little notes your customer receives in his inbox when he makes a purchase on your web site.
The answer is a brand style guide—a single, foolproof document full of hard-and-fast rules that literally gets everyone on the same page when they communicate for your company, from your CEO, to your agency of record, your contracted publicist, and yes, that well-meaning intern. It could be the most valuable document you ever create.
But where to begin? What should a style guide include? That's a question every brand needs to answer for itself, but here are some basic elements to get you started...
Ranging in length from a few sentences to a several paragraphs, this overview is a prose explanation of the brand's overarching verbal attitude. Often expressed in anthropomorphic terms (smart older sister, cool uncle, trusted friend) the chosen personality combines with a bit of company history, brand positioning and description of the target consumer. It brings everyone up to speed on how the brand is generally supposed to come off when it speaks. (For more specific pointers on choosing a brand voice, see It's 3am, do you know who your brand is?)
What are we? That is the question you answer with this list of carefully chosen adjectives, sometimes formatted as a set of qualified characteristics (confident but not arrogant, smart but not snooty, sexy but not slutty, etc.) These words are not necessarily used in consumer-facing copy, but as guidelines for projecting an attitude.
BRAND WORDS/BANNED WORDS
Include a list of approved words you do like to use in consumer-facing copy. These are the pillars of your lexicon, the words that most accurately evoke your brand mission. Also include a list of words that are off brand or not allowed in brand communication. This second list should be updated regularly with words that become overused or passé. (For examples, see Fashion eCommerce clichés that need to die.)
PRODUCTS AND MATERIALS
Consistency is everything when you're talking about product. Your style guide should include a list of commonly misspelled or misused product names, materials, concepts or design motifs that come up often. This way, they're the same every time they appear. (ex: leather, nappa or nappa leather?)
This section addresses the nitty-gritty of your brand's grammar, punctuation and preferred sentence construction. Does your brand allow exclamation points? Is it terse or chatty? What pronouns do you use? (For more specific style suggestions, see Often overlooked copy considerations that really do matter.)
These days, there are so many points of contact with customers, and you don't necessarily speak the same way at all of them. Dedicate a section to breaking down guidelines by platform. Do you limit the length of your Instagram captions? How do you format your email newsletters? Do you respond to criticism on Facebook? In what tone? Decide these issues centrally, so there's no guesswork for your social media manager.
Does your brand need its own style guide?