Why you should have a brand style guide

If you want the short version: because it allows you to communicate consistently with your audience, with messages relevant to your brand and your goals. Added benefit: it makes life easier for everyone who has to write, design and generally create brand content.

But, in the hope you want to stick around for the long(er) story, keep reading, and you’ll see why writing, localizing and applying a brand style guide is a very good idea.

Let’s start with the benefits of a brand style guide

A brand style guide helps create a specific language and visual identity capable of expressing the brand’s values and unique qualities.

Brand style guide benefits

Language is the soul of a brand. Visual identity is certainly vital when creating a brand identity, but language takes it to the next level, helping customers experience the brand on a personal level, bringing it to life.

Through a style guide, the brand verbal communication will be standardized, curated and applied consistently, creating a verbal identity telling a unique story.

Writing a brand style guide

I have worked on style guides for brands in many diverse sectors, from hospitality to lifestyle, from lift trucks to energy providers. Industries and target audience may differ, but all brand style guides have similar goals and framework.

Writing a brand style guide compels you to stop and think, to ask yourself critical questions about the brand, to extract its true nature and give it form and structure.

These are the main areas which should be included within a brand style guide, or brand book, as it is also called:

  • Brand mission and core values. Who we are, what we stand for: for instance, our pillars are cooperation, sustainability, authenticity.
  • Tone of voice. How we express our personality: are we direct, genuine, sophisticated, creative, detached, familiar? Which form of address we prefer, a decision especially important for languages which distinguish between formal and informal.

Tip: Think about whether you want to talk like your customers or to speak like “the company”. Do you just provide information or do you explain how and why it matters?

  • Terminology. As a brand we like some words more than others, and there are words which we should never use.

Insider insight: An upscale automotive brand I cooperated with for marketing and creative adaptation into Italian preferred the word “luxury” to be used on the US market and “premium” on the European ones to describe their cars.

  • Grammar and syntax. Do we prefer short sentences or longer ones, can we use contractions, should numbers be spelled out, do we use acronyms or not, shall we ban exclamation marks?

Note: All these decisions affect the brand language, which may result in a more formal and structured tone or a voice that’s more casual and approachable, with many different shades in-between.

  • Visual identity, i.e. fonts, logos, colours, graphics, layouts, imagery, web elements etc.
  • Hands-on applications. Depending on the audience (internal/external) and on the media (print, digital, social, video), one peculiarity can be stressed more than others.

Providing concrete examples allows you to see the practical application of abstract principles: a brochure would look like this, a social post like that. And for the language, try and provide do’s and don’ts: in this case, we say this, not that. With examples taken from pre-existing literature or created from scratch.

As an aside, most style guides deal with written communication. The only one I worked on which contemplated directions for spoken language as well was for an hotel brand. But this would be a smart addition for any brand and company. Not so much for use in speeches, telephone interactions or similar occasions, but for video content – which is more important on social platforms than ever before.

Many companies are exploring video to talk about their products and services, and to tell their unique story: so why not have guidelines for this medium in your brand style guide as well?

Finally, style guides should be just that: guidelines. Don’t turn them into massive manuals with pages and pages of instructions that no-one will ever remember, never mind apply.

Establish the main operating principles, convey a clear sense of the communication style the brand should adopt, and take it from there.

Localizing a style guide

Personality is a key factor that makes us different as persons.

Brands are no different.

Language and tone of voice help brands stand out from the crowd and be recognized. But if you go to all the trouble of crafting a unique voice for your brand in its original language and then don’t put the same efforts into your foreign markets, you’re probably in for disappointment on your international strategy.

It goes without saying, (but I’m going to say it anyway), the local versions of a brand style guide should be entrusted to native translators, transcreators or copywriters.

These professionals should be experts of the brand, as well as of local culture and communication, who can properly localize the guidelines. Bonus: they’ll be able to highlight and solve any out-of-sync concepts, ideas, and any linguistic expressions that wouldn’t be compatible with the local market.

One of my areas of expertise is hospitality, an industry which is undergoing an increasing consolidation trend, meaning giant hotel companies with dozens of brands competing in each market. Many of these conglomerates are American: hotel brand style guides are often entrusted to big specialized branding agencies and they’re seldom localized.

The result? Lower customer satisfaction levels.

Why? Because style guides which work well in the United States may not function as well in Europe.

In terms of tone of voice and form of address, I remember a sort of diplomatic incident when an Italian receptionist addressed a European CEO by their first name.

Why did they do this? Because the US audience was made up of millennials and generally creative, innovative, informal people. Calling them by their first name created familiarity and a friendly feeling from their first interactions.

Europe’s generally a bit more formal, so this didn’t go down too well.

Using a brand style guide

But are brand style guides for everybody, big and small? I think so. I actually think it’s a great idea for SMEs, because, while big brands are easily recognizable by their name or logo, SMEs don’t usually have that advantage.

Having a style guide helps them strengthen their values and operating principles, both on the inside and towards consultants. Also solo entrepreneurs can benefit from having a clear brand identity, in terms of recognition and consistency across all their channels.

Collaboration is the basis of modern work: if everybody is on the same page, the benefits are clear.

Time is of the essence in millennial business: brand style guides can help maximize time and resources, for better and quicker outcomes.

If you work repeatedly on a brand, always having the style guide at hand is a good idea, because even if you know the drill, you may need to refresh yourself on a few points from time to time, or check a specific issue.

Both from a professional and a company point of view, storing brand style guides online improves access and encourages adoption.

Tips on storing brand style guides

As I work both on a desktop and a laptop, I store the guidelines of the brands I work on on my private, password-protected cloud space, so that they’re always with me wherever I’m working from.

A company might store them on their intranet or in the cloud: this has the additional benefit of guaranteeing everybody is working on the same and latest version. This is no small thing.

Are you persuaded yet?

So, to recap, a good brand style guide should help create contents which are consistent, unique and recognizable: in a nutshell, on-brand.

But which comes first, the brand or the brand style guide?

That’s not the question.

What’s critical is that the two grow and develop together. Take the time to get the basics right, because they will be the foundation for all that follows.

Brand style guides are not written in stone: they should evolve along with the brand personality, and with the times.

They should be a tool, not a prison. I particularly like how an energy brand wanted to end their own style guide with this instruction: Start writing. Because most importantly, the personality of a brand is also the personality of the people living it, be it customers or copywriters or employees, and it is crafted in the making. They’re crafted by the making.

A brand is what customers think of when they see a logo, it’s the voice and tone they read in its stories, it’s what a company and its people stands for and represents. These things can change over time, and so they should guide, steer and inspire your style.

Do you have a brand style guide? How has it helped your business?

[Originally written for Jo Rourke’s blog]

About the author
laura-cattaneoI am an Italian specialist in marketing, creative and legal translation and editing. I put my many years of experience to the advantage of my clients by creating texts resonating with the Italian-speaking audience and making brands locally relevant. Connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter or visit my website.