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How to Develop a Brand Style Guide That Grows Your Business

Jesse Vaughan

Head of Creative @ AdRoll

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To paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, getting an audience is hard, but keeping that audience is even harder. “It demands a consistency of thought, of purpose, and of action over a long period of time,” Springsteen said. And consistency in how a brand presents itself pays off: it can lead to an average revenue increase of up to 23%.

As your marketing department grows and you bring in new team members and freelancers to work on projects, you may find brand consistency takes a back seat. Your blog posts are written differently than your ebooks; your videos don’t reflect your brand; and your logo is being used in all sorts of ways you didn’t intend.

That’s where a brand style guide swoops in to save your marketing. A brand style guide is a document that outlines your brand voice. It includes standards for your visual elements — like your logo, shapes, imagery and colors — as well as for written content, videos, podcasts, and other marketing materials. Using a style guide helps keep your branding consistent as you expand content efforts, whether by adding to your team, starting guest blogging programs, or using internal subject matter experts.

As you create your brand style guide, keep your ideal customer profile (ICP) in mind. You can even start your brand style guide with an overview of your ICP as a reminder. Your brand style guide can be as simple or in-depth as you want it to be. Some brands have 100-page tomes; others keep it short and sweet. What you choose is up to the needs of your business. But as you grow, you’ll find that a more thorough guide will help corral your content creators. Keep it clear and concise, and make it easy for your creators to apply the guidelines to their writing or design. Ready to get started? Here’s how to develop your brand style guide.

A brand style guide outlines your brand voice. It includes standards for your visual elements, written content, videos, podcasts, and other marketing materials.

The Importance of Visual Elements

Visual elements are what catch your audience’s eye: a perfect product shot, a bold color choice, a well-placed logo. It’s important that key aspects of the visual experience offer a sense of consistency across different mediums. Ideally, consumers of your brand will recognize you just by looking at your brand presence in any form. When you provide guidelines for your logo, specify the size of your logo, as well as where to put it and how to use it.

For example, you may want it front and center on your website, and never smaller than 200 x 200 pixels. A minimum size is important because; if your logo is too small, it won’t be rendered properly on some platforms. If you use variations of your logo, like a grayscale one or different colors for different product lines, note that, too.

You’ll also want to include how not to use it: don’t change the colors, don’t transform or skew it, and don’t flip it upside down. Your logo will be displayed on all of your marketing materials, so it’s important to keep it consistent across all channels.

Next, specify your color palette. This will include your main brand color/s and accent colors. Provide the HEX codes, RGB codes, CMYK values, and Pantone color names for each to ensure consistency. These colors can vary wildly, so the more specific you can be, the more likely your colors will appear properly online and in print. Manually check your HEX, RGB, and CMYK colors to make sure they’re accurate.

A brand style guide outlines your brand voice. It includes standards for your visual elements, written content, videos, podcasts, and other marketing materials.

Also, keep in mind Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. These guidelines are meant to keep web content accessible to those with impaired vision, hearing loss, learning disabilities, photosensitivity, and other disabilities. For example, one guideline is to use a contrast ratio of 3:1 with colors that surround text to make it more visible to readers.

Brand fonts are also an important element of your visual identity. They’re subtle, but they help reinforce your brand. Choose the fonts that you’ll use for your website, printed materials, headings, and graphics. You may use a lot of different fonts for different purposes, so this is a place to keep them all organized. You’ll also want to include sizing and formatting for headings, and titles.

Your icons, photography, and image styles are also important to note. You may choose a specific set of icons that use your brand colors, shapes to be used in your graphics, and guidelines for photography. In your style guide, you can link to specific icon sets for designers to use and include size and color preferences. For graphic design, you might ban all abstract squiggles but allow geometric shapes, for example. Your style guide should also include sizing for images, like the size of photographs for your header images on your blog or social media images.

Photography guidelines can include the mood for photos, such as lighting and color. You can also specify the characteristics your brand uses for shots involving people, such as choosing a diverse range of models, as well as what the people should be doing in photos (for example: images should show people being active). Other things to consider in your photography style guidelines are location, backdrops, and how to set up product shots.

Finally, as part of your visual guidelines, you should note any web-specific elements that need to be consistent, like navigation bars. Your buttons and bars should match the rest of your branding. You might even want to create a guideline for 404 error pages that reflects your brand personality.

Do you need to develop a style guide for your brand? Check out this checklist we created, which will help you stay on track.

The Written Word

How you write is just as important as what you write. When multiple people write for you, however, you may find that it’s harder to present a unified brand front. That’s why laying out standards for it in your style guide is so important.

Fortunately, you don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel. There are a number of style guides you can use as a reference, including the Chicago Manual of Style or Associated Press (AP) Stylebook. These style guides provide rules for abbreviations, punctuation, capitalization, and more. If you don’t want to lay out every last detail in your own style guide — and want an authority to reference when a writer or editor has questions — these are great resources.

From there, you can specify your own spelling or punctuation variations. For example, you may really like AP style, but you’d prefer to use “e-mail” instead of “email” in your written marketing materials. Or you’re a big fan of Chicago style, but want to use two-letter postal code abbreviations for the names of U.S. states. Making your own brand tweaks to these things lets you insert your brand personality into an established style guide.

You’ll also want to provide guidelines for using your brand taglines, as well as your brand positioning and messaging and value proposition. Your brand taglines can be used in certain places, like below your logo on your website. Brand positioning and messaging is important to include so that your content creators will have it top of mind as they write or create images for you. This helps them create content in your brand’s voice and cultivates consistency.

Your style guide should clearly define your voice and tone for content. Your brand's tone might be conversational and informal, using a lot of first-person and second-person references. Or you could be more buttoned-up and formal, avoiding contractions and speaking only in the third person. This all depends on the industry you’re in, who your audience is, and your (and your audience's) preferences. Ideally, you’ll be able to sum up your brand’s voice and tone in a few words, like “confident, but not arrogant,” and add in what that means. You may also want to adopt a more formal tone for more technical content like whitepapers, but a more conversational style for blog posts.

Your style guide should clearly define your voice and tone. It can be conversational and informal or buttoned-up and formal. This all depends on the industry you’re in, your audience, and their preferences.

As part of your tone, you can also provide words and phrases to use — or not use. For example, you may want to use words like “bold” and “daring” in your copy when you can, but avoid “staid” and “ageless.” You can also include whether or not to use negative language and industry terminology, as well as provide guidelines for localized words and phrases. For example, if it’s a word or phrase that isn’t commonly used, you might require that it’s italicized and translated.

Your style guide will also include whether you want to explain certain acronyms, or whether they’re something your audience already knows. For example, if you’re writing to a CrossFit audience, they will know what AMRAP is (it’s “as many rounds/reps as possible.” But if your ICP is more general, you’d want to make sure to define it.

Finally, be sure to specify the reading level your materials should be at. The average American adult reads at a Level 2 or 3 on the PIAAC literacy scale. They’re not highly proficient, but they can read basic texts. In the past year, 24% of American adults haven’t read a book. Depending on your ICP, you’ll want to be clear as to how in-depth your materials are to read. The Flesch-Kincaid Scale is one method to use as a guideline.

Consider your audience when you decide what level to write at. If your audience is a more general consumer audience, you may need to keep your reading level at the national average. However, the audience for a B2B company that sells chemicals likely has an audience with in-depth industry knowledge, so writing at a higher reading level would be more appropriate.

The Next Level: Audio and Video

If your brand hasn't already expanded into podcasts and videos, it probably will soon. Now is the time to set some guidelines for these marketing vehicles. Wherever possible, include links to examples that your content creators can reference.

For podcasts and other audio, you’ll want to specify the formats and tone. For example, you may want all podcasts to be interview-style with just one guest. You should also include the length of the podcast in your style guide, as well as the tone you want to be used. It should be similar to what you use in your written guidelines, whether that’s formal or conversational.

With video guidelines, not only will you be specifying formats and tone, but you’ll also need to consider visual elements. Reference the visual guidelines you’ve already laid out, including colors and models. But you should also think about including attire, like the types of clothing and colors that are acceptable for different shots. You can also identify what types of props should be used in videos, as well as the backgrounds and locations. Much of it will be similar to your visual guidelines and audio guidelines — in the name of brand consistency.

Include Checklists and Resource Lists

If you really want to be on top of things, your style guide can also include checklists you’ve created to ensure the content your team creates meets all of your guidelines, as well as providing some useful resources for your content creators. These checklists should be broken down into sections: visual, written, and video, for example. Some of them may feel repetitive, but it can be useful to provide an easy way for a creator to check for consistency without having to read through the entirety of a style guide every time they create something. This also makes it easier to onboard new creators or to provide quick guidelines to a subject matter expert or guest blogger.

Templates are another great resource to include in your style guide. For example, you can include layouts for ebooks or graphics that you tend to repeat a lot.

If you want to get very specific with references, you can point to your preferred dictionary, like the American Heritage Dictionary, Fifth Edition. You can also provide information on writing resources, readability checkers, and where to find stock images.

Finally, keep in mind that as your brand evolves, so should your brand style guide. The market for your product may change, you may introduce a new product, or even go through a complete rebranding. Update your style guide regularly to reflect new positioning, new products, and new content formats.

However you decide to create it, a brand style guide can help keep you consistent across channels, whether that’s social, print, or web. Make the commitment to a style guide, and stick with it to produce messaging that resonates with your target audience. A brand style guide will help you scale your content marketing efforts by ensuring everything is created correctly in the right format, with the right voice, tone, style, visuals, and reading level — no matter who creates the content for you.

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