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Brand Style Guide: How To Write One

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Brand Style Guide: How To Write One

Updated June 7, 2022

A style guide isn’t the most exciting content to create, but it’s one of the most essential for the success of your content. It can provide clear, universal guidance to thwart brand fails that come from inconsistency or miscommunication among your content team.

#Branding fails happen because of a lack of a clear style guide, says @SashaLaFerte via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

A style guide also can be a way to foster content authenticity – containing instructions for all parties creating content for your company.

This article addresses why your organization needs a style guide, details what to include in your style guide, and gives examples of top-notch style guides to ensure streamlined external communications.

Why you need a style guide

First, what is a brand style guide?

A brand style guide is a holistic set of standards that defines your company’s branding. It references grammar, tone, logo usage, colors, visuals, word usage, point of view, and more.

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A brand style guide references grammar, tone, logo usage, colors, visuals, point of view, says @SashaLaFerte via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

By creating a detailed brand style guide, you ensure the published content is consistent, polished, recognizable, and more enjoyable. A thorough, well-thought style guide puts your audience first. It creates a recognizable, engaging voice and personality with which readers can form a more personal connection.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT: 5 Steps To Find Your Brand Voice

What to include in your style guide

GatherContent recommends that a style guide be between four and five pages. Anything longer is too much to digest. Create a style guide based on what resonates with who your audience is and what they want.

Keep style guide to no more than 4 or 5 pages, according to @GatherContent. @SashaLaFerte via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

If you have a mission statement or boilerplate about us description for your brand, start there. Revisit it to make sure it’s not only on point with what it says but how it says it. If you define your brand voice as conversational, but your mission statement is filled with corporate jargon, it’s probably worth revisiting.

From there, create a table of contents for your style guide and use it as an outline. All style guides should include an introduction. This might include a mission statement, letter from the CEO, about us page, or general overview of the company’s brand and audience. Next, create a section on how your brand talks and writes and another section on branded visuals. Here’s a breakdown of what these sections should include.

Writing section

A brand’s image often can be attributed to what it says and how it says it. Details like whether to use “&” or “and” or the numerical or written versions of numbers may seem trivial. But the sum of these details adds up. If they are consistent throughout your brand’s published work, they convey the same voice, coherent thinking, and credibility impossible to attain without this consistency.

Here are some tips for ensuring that your brand guide aids in creating first-rate content:

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  • Baseline guide: Use an existing style guide (like AP Style) as the base. Add your brand’s differences, such as the use of the Oxford comma or general best practices for emojis.
  • Formatting: Add a small section around formatting. Include details on how to use bullets, lists, hyphens, and quotes.
  • Tone and voice: Describe these qualities and give examples of right and/or wrong tone and voice. If you want a playful tone, explain what that means. This section also should include information on sentence structure. Do you want long, complex sentence structures, a mix, or Hemingway simplicity? (Pro tip: Don’t use long sentences if you want to be persuasive.)
  • Additional details: Include a section on how to engage, words to avoid, and any other details important to your brand. Use the brand personality spectrum below to get a better idea of what’s important to your brand’s written content.

In your brand style guide, give descriptions and examples of tone and voice, says @SashaLaferte via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Image showing the Brand Personality Spectrum: Personable and friendly to Corporate, professional. Spontaneous, high energy to careful thinking, planning. Modern or high tech to classic and traditional. Cutting edge to established. Fun to serious. Accessible to all to upscale.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT:

Visual section

Visual cues are as important to brand consistency as the written aspects. Consider these elements for your style guide’s visual section:

  • Formats: Include information on how to stay on brand with other formats of content, including infographics, video, motion graphics, etc.
  • Colors: Detail your brand’s palette of colors, including function. Make sure to include each color’s hex, CMYK, and RGB codes, as well as Pantone number.
  • Logo: Include all versions of your logo and examples of proper uses. If you have older or frequently misused versions, include them as “don’t-use” examples.
  • Fonts: List all brand fonts for headings, paragraphs, etc., and their uses.
  • Presentation format: Include a link to a company slideshow template for presentations.

HANDPICKED RELATED CONTENT:

2 brands with awesome style guides

Here are two brands we all know that have first-class style guides and highlights on what makes them special.

MailChimp

MailChimp’s style guide thoroughly prepares any contributor to create on-brand content. Check it out if you’re looking to create a guide with a lot of detail. MailChimp also breaks out writing guidelines by content type, from emails to blog posts to social media.

At Mailchimp, we’ve walked in our customers’ shoes, and we know marketing technology is a minefield of confusing terminology. That’s why we speak like the experienced and compassionate business partner we wish we’d had way back when.

We treat every hopeful brand seriously. We want to educate people without patronizing or confusing them.

Using offbeat humor and a conversational voice, we play with language to bring joy to their work. We prefer the subtle over the noisy, the wry over the farcical. We don’t take ourselves too seriously.

Whether people know what they need from us or don’t know the first thing about marketing, every word we say informs and encourages. We impart our expertise with clarity, empathy, and wit.

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Highlights include the word list and voice and tone sections. Their voice section begins with a succinct paragraph: “At Mailchimp, we’ve walked in our customers’ shoes, and we know marketing technology is a minefield of confusing terminology. That’s why we speak like the experienced and compassionate business partner we wish we’d had way back when.”

@Mailchimp’s style guide prepares any contributor to create on-brand #content, says @SashaLaferte via @CMIContent. #Contentmarketing #Examples Click To Tweet

Uber

Though Uber recently moved its style guide to a protected site, its former publicly shared guide is a helpful example. It’s packed with GIFs and videos that convey the very movement Uber is so proud of. Uber uses this site to not only describe brand style but to share the brand story, showcase examples of its branding done well, and provide helpful tools. (The image below with the big, bold text reflects Uber’s style – “A bold new brand awaits.”

@Uber’s brand style guide is packed with GIFs and videos that convey the very movement Uber is so proud of, says @SashaLaferte via @CMIContent. #Contentmarketing #Examples Click To Tweet

According to Uber, the guidelines cover nine elements: logo, color, composition, iconography, illustration, motion, photography, tone of voice, and typography. The style guide’s home page also makes it convenient for users by highlighting and linking the most frequently requested assets:

An image showing most-requested assets: Company presentation template, agency onboarding, uber logos, tools and templates.

Create your brand’s style guide

Now you know why a good style guide is important, what it should look like, and what to include. It’s time to create one for your company. Include the marketing team, sales team, and any other creatives working on your marketing and products when creating a style guide. Upon completion, share it companywide, and store it as a living document in an easy-to-find place.

Want more content marketing tips, insights, and examples? Subscribe to workday or weekly emails from CMI.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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MARKETING

8 major email marketing mistakes and how to avoid them

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8 major email marketing mistakes and how to avoid them

As email marketers, we know we need to personalize the messages we send to subscribers and customers. I can’t think of a single statistic, case study or survey claiming an email program of one-to-everyone campaigns outperforms personalization.

Instead, you’ll find statistics like these:

  • 72% of customers will engage only with personalized messages (Wunderkind Audiences, formerly SmarterHQ)
  • 70% of consumers say that how well a company understands their individual needs affects their loyalty (Salesforce)
  • 71% of customers are frustrated by impersonal shopping experiences (Segment)

But what marketers often don’t understand, especially if they’re new to personalization, is that personalization is not an end in itself. Your objective is not to personalize your email campaigns and lifecycle messages. 

Rather, your objective is to enhance your customer’s experience with your brand. Personalization is one method that can do that, but it’s more than just another tactic. 

It is both an art and a science. The science is having the data and automations to create personalized, one-to-one messages at scale. The art is knowing when and how to use it.

We run into trouble when we think of personalization as the goal instead of the means to achieve a goal. In my work consulting with marketers for both business and consumer brands, I find this misunderstanding leads to eight major marketing mistakes – any of which can prevent you from realizing the immense benefits of personalization.

Mistake #1. Operating without an overall personalization strategy

I see this all too often: marketers find themselves overwhelmed by all the choices they face: 

  • Which personalization technologies to use
  • What to do with all the data they have
  • How to use their data and technology effectively
  • Whether their personalization efforts are paying off

This stems from jumping headfirst into personalization without thinking about how to use it to meet customers’ needs or help them solve problems. 

To avoid being overwhelmed with the mechanics of personalization, follow this three-step process:

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  • Start small. If you aren’t using personalization now, don’t try to set up a full-fledged program right away. Instead, look for quick wins – small areas where you can use basic personalized data to begin creating one-to-one messages. That will get you into the swing of things quickly, without significant investment in time and money. Adding personal data to the body of an email is about as basic as you’ll get, but it can be a start.
  • Test each tactic. See whether that new tactic helps or hurts your work toward your goal. Does adding personal data to each message correlate with higher clicks to your landing page, more conversion or whatever success metric you have chosen?
  • Optimize and move on. Use your testing results to improve each tactic. Then, take what you learned to select and add another personalization tactic, such as adding a module of dynamic content to a broadcast (one to everyone) campaign. 

Mistake #2. Not using both overt and covert personalization

Up to now, you might have thought of in specific terms: personalized subject lines, data reflecting specific actions in the email copy, triggered messages that launch when a customer’s behavior matches your automation settings and other “overt” (or visible) personalization tactics.

“Covert” personalization also employs customer preference or behavior data but doesn’t draw attention to it. Instead of sending an abandoned-browse message that says “We noticed you were viewing this item on our website,” you could add a content module in your next campaign that features those browsed items as recommended purchases, without calling attention to their behavior. It’s a great tactic to use to avoid being seen as creepy.

Think back to my opening statement that personalization is both an art and a science. Here, the art of personalization is knowing when to use overt personalization – purchase and shipping confirmations come to mind – and when you want to take a more covert route. 

Mistake #3. Not maximizing lifecycle automations

Lifecycle automations such as onboarding/first-purchase programs, win-back and reactivation campaigns and other programs tied to the customer lifecycle are innately personalized. 

The copy will be highly personal and the timing spot-on because they are based on customer actions (opting in, purchases, downloads) or inactions (not opening emails, not buying for the first time or showing signs of lapsing after purchasing). 

Better yet, these emails launch automatically – you don’t have to create, schedule or send any of these emails because your marketing automation platform does that for you after you set it up. 

You squander these opportunities if you don’t do everything you can to understand your customer lifecycle and then create automated messaging that reaches out to your customers at these crucial points. This can cost you the customers you worked so hard to acquire, along with their revenue potential.

Mistake #4. Not testing effectively or for long-term gain

Testing helps you discover whether your personalization efforts are bearing fruit. But all too often, marketers test only individual elements of a specific campaign – subject lines, calls to action, images versus no images, personalization versus no personalization  – without looking at whether personalization enhances the customer experience in the long term.

How you measure success is a key part of this equation. The metrics you choose must line up with your objectives. That’s one reason I’ve warned marketers for years against relying on the open rate to measure campaign success. A 50% open rate might be fantastic, but if you didn’t make your goal for sales, revenue, downloads or other conversions, you can’t consider your campaign a success.

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As the objective of personalizing is to enhance the customer journey, it makes sense then that customer lifetime value is a valid metric to measure success on.  To measure how effective your personalization use is, use customer lifetime value over a long time period – months, even years – and compare the results with those from a control group, which receives no personalization. Don’t ignore campaign-level results, but log them and view them over time.

(For more detailed information on testing mistakes and how to avoid them, see my MarTech column 7 Common Problems that Derail A/B/N Email Testing Success.)

Mistake #5. Over-segmenting your customer base

Segmentation is a valuable form of personalization, but it’s easy to go too far with it. If you send only highly segmented campaigns, you could be exclude – and end up losing because of failure to contact – many customers who don’t fit your segmentation criteria. That costs you customers, their potential revenue and the data they would have generated to help you better understand your customer base.

You can avoid this problem with a data-guided segmentation plan that you review and test frequently, a set of automated triggers to enhance the customer’s lifecycle and a well-thought-out program of default or catch-all campaigns for subscribers who don’t meet your other criteria. 

Mistake #6. Not including dynamic content in general email campaigns

We usually think of personalized email as messages in which all the content lines up with customer behavior or preference data, whether overt, as in an abandoned-cart message, or covert, where the content is subtly relevant.

That’s one highly sophisticated approach. It incorporates real-time messaging driven by artificial intelligence and complex integrations with your ecommerce or CRM platforms. But a simple dynamic content module can help you achieve a similar result. I call that “serendipity.”  

When you weave this dynamic content into your general message, it can be a pleasant surprise for your customers and make your relevant content stand out even more. 

Let’s say your company is a cruise line. Customer A opens your emails from time to time but hasn’t booked a cruise yet or browsed different tours on your website. Your next email campaign to this customer – and to everyone else on whom you have little or no data – promotes discounted trips to Hawaii, Fiji and the Mediterranean.

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Customer B hasn’t booked a cruise either, but your data tells you she has browsed your Iceland-Denmark-Greenland cruise recently. With a dynamic content module, her email could show her your Hawaii and Mediterranean cruise offers – and a great price on a trip to Iceland, Denmark and Greenland. Fancy that! 

An email like this conveys the impression that your brand offers exactly what your customers are looking for (covert personalization) without the overt approach of an abandoned-browse email.

Mistake #7. Not using a personal tone in your copy

You can personalize your email copy without a single data point, simply by writing as if you were speaking to your customer face to face. Use a warm, human tone of voice, which ideally should reflect your brand voice. Write copy that sounds like a one-to-one conversation instead of a sales pitch. 

This is where my concept of “helpful marketing” comes into play. How does your brand help your customers achieve their own goals, solve their problems or make them understand you know them as people, not just data points?  

Mistake #8. Not personalizing the entire journey

Once again, this is a scenario in which you take a short-sighted view of personalization – “How do I add personalization to this email campaign?” – instead of looking at the long-term gain: “How can I use personalization to enhance my customer’s experience?”

Personalization doesn’t stop when your customer clicks on your email. It should continue on to your landing page and even be reflected in the website content your customer views. Remember, it’s all about enhancing your customer’s experience.

What happens when your customers click on a personalized offer? Does your landing page greet your customers by name? Show the items they clicked? Present copy that reflects their interests, their loyalty program standing or any other data that’s unique to them?  

Personalization is worth the effort

Yes, personalization takes both art and science into account. You need to handle it carefully so your messages come off as helpful and relevant without veering into creepy territory through data overreaches. But this strategic effort pays off when you can use the power of personalized email to reach out, connect with and retain customers – achieving your goal of enhancing the customer experience.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Kath Pay is CEO at Holistic Email Marketing and the author of the award-winning Amazon #1 best-seller “Holistic Email Marketing: A practical philosophy to revolutionise your business and delight your customers.”

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