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How to Create a Style Guide That Gives a Voice to Your Brand

How to Create a Style Guide That Gives a Voice to Your Brand
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A well-crafted style guide can ensure your staff and freelancers speak in a unified voice that represents your brand identity. Unfortunately, most people never learn how to create a style guide that moves beyond the basics of grammar preferences and generic instructions. Even when a company sets out to create a distinctive voice for its brand, excessive caution can water things down. Most style guides wind up just telling writers to avoid jargon, speak with authority, and sound approachable.

Those are all good directions, but a writer can do all that in the voice of an irreverent college professor, the coolest dude in the fraternity, or a loving grandmother serving up wisdom with warm cookies. Which style represents your brand and appeals to your target market?

Here are some quick examples of brands with a unique voice:

  • Alyssa Coleman writes with self-deprecating humor and trendy slang to connect with young women entrepreneurs.
  • Tony Robbins uses muscular words like “unleash, power, master” and some single-word topic headings like “READ. WATCH. LISTEN.”
  • Wine Awesomeness specializes in quirky language that makes wine accessible to the average person, like:  “Someone stomped on a big bucket of the ripest blackberries in your kitchen.”
  • The History Channel headlines include a lot of intriguing words you won’t find in most textbooks like “underworld, mysterious, shocking, scandalous.”

How to create a style guide with a unique voice

How to create a style guide with a unique voice

If you want a unique voice for your brand, you might need to be more specific about your target audience and identity. Then put some actionable details into your style guide. Here are some ideas for taking your style guide from basic to brilliant!

Begin with your target audience

Building a distinctive voice for your brand begins with knowing how your target market speaks. When you speak their language, their ears will prick up.

For example:

  • Young female influencers sometimes address each other as “babe” or “gorgeous,” use shortened words like “biz” and self-deprecating humor.
  • Ambitious young men are more likely to use aggressive phrases like “crush your goals” that could apply to either fitness or business.
  • A business addressing retirees wouldn’t use these phrases but might quote Beatles lyrics in a headline.

The more precisely you can tailor your voice to match your target market, the more quickly you’ll bond with them.

The more precisely you can tailor your voice to match your target market, the more quickly you'll bond with them. Here's how to do it. #styleguide #marketing Click To Tweet

Think of your brand as a cartoon character

It was very trendy in the 1960s to have a cartoon character represent your brand, and some products, like breakfast cereals, still use that technique. However, you can distill any well-crafted brand identity into its essence if you picture it as a cartoon.

As an exercise, visualize the following brands as cartoon characters and think about how they would sound when they talk:

  • Nike
  • Apple
  • Club Med
  • Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer
  • Starbucks
  • Pepsi
  • MTV

Can you easily visualize your own brand as a cartoon character? If not, your brand identity may still be a bit vague. See if you can tweak your vision to be more specific, keeping in mind the target audience you want to capture.

Pin down some specific traits

Pin down some specific traits

Once you have a clear idea of how you want your brand to sound, you need to communicate that to your staff, content creators, and anyone else who represents your brand.

Start creating your style guide by listing the specific traits you want your brand’s voice to convey. Then decide how you hope to convey those traits in written or spoken language. Be specific and concrete. Offer your content creators lists of words and phrases you’d like them to use, sentence lengths, heading styles, and other details.

Here are some ideas to inspire you:

  • Vibrant: Short paragraphs, short sentences, visual verbs like “sizzling, fiery, bubbly..”
  • Poetic: Create alliterative topic headings and paint lots of word pictures. Use sensory language, like “flowery, fragrant, warm, inviting…”
  • Fresh:  Modern, up-to-date slang, irreverent humor that pokes fun at authority. Use phrasing like “Salty, lit, sick, dope, tea, thirsty, basic.”
  • Mature: Stick with traditional language, even a bit formal. Feel free to reference movies and song lyrics from the 1970s to the 1990s.
  • Soothing: Shape zen-like language using longer sentences. Vocabulary can come from yoga and meditation — words like “resonates, vibrations, harmony, universe..”
  • Hard-driving: Short, punchy sentences. Fragments OK. Every third or fourth paragraph should be a single sentence containing a strong idea. Use language that relates to sports as well as business, like “Winning, crushing goals, teamwork, step up to the plate, hit it outta the park…”

Give lots of detail

If you want a distinctive voice, take the time to give your content creators a full set of brand tools. The more precise you can be, the more likely they are to give exactly what you need.

  • Offer a vocabulary list of nouns and verbs that suit your identity.
  • Tell them how to address their readers (For example, “Listen, folks…” or “Hey, guys…” or “You see, gentle readers…”).
  • Offer a sample of writing that expresses your brand’s voice beautifully.
  • Give guidance on paragraph and sentence length.
  • How educated is your audience? For example, should writers assume a 6th-grade reading level, 10th grade, university?

Humor: Narrow it down

If you want humor in your content, keep in mind that it’s hard to write funny — and even harder for your content creators to get the tone just right every time. You may need to pay a bit more to cover the extra time it takes to embed humor in the piece, and you’ll need to give specific direction.

First, define what kind of humor works best for you. Sarcasm? Self-deprecating humor? Dad jokes?

If it’s important to your brand identity that the jokes come from a certain point of view (e.g., sassy, sarcastic), give some examples so writers can get on board with what you’re trying to achieve.

Boundaries: How far is too far?

If you’re encouraging your content creators to use humor, casual language or an irreverent tone, you’ll need to set boundaries.

Are you and your readers OK with foul language? Poor grammar that mimics casual conversation? If you’re asking the writer to use mocking humor, is it OK for them to mock your target audience directly?

Make sure you state your boundaries plainly so everyone knows where to stop. You might include a list of words or phrases that are off-limits as well as general direction.

Apply your voice across your communications

Once you’ve shaped your brand voice clearly, you’ll want to use it consistently across all communication channels.  Consider whether you need to retool any of the following to express your identity better:

  • Phone scripts
  • Email series
  • Chatbots
  • Youtube channel
  • Social media
  • Landing pages
  • White papers

Find your voice and refine your style guide

Find your voice and refine your style guide

Refining your brand voice into a style guide is a lot of work, but every step is valuable. Along the way, you may discover that you need to clarify your target market or tweak your brand identity to make it more distinctive. Once you’ve condensed your brand into an evocative list of words and phrases, you’ll have a crystal clear document that will help your staff and content marketing freelancers work together to convey the spirit of your brand in every communication.

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About the author

Lauren Haas

Lauren Haas is an entrepreneur and writer with a passion for small business and marketing. Based on more than 25 years of experience as an entrepreneur, she writes about content marketing and other small business topics for a variety of websites and creates strategies for clients.