A friend was recently telling me about an internal committee at her company that was tasked with creating a corporate style guide for the organisation (a rather enormous organisation, I might add). Apparently during the first meeting, representatives from each team sat around a table and argued the merits of Arial versus Helvetica font for two hours, deeming the meeting a success when they finally agreed on which font to use for their corporate sales letters.
“What did the communications team think about that?” I asked. “Was the designer involved in this process?”
Turns out, the communications experts were in an office far, far away, and they didn’t involve a designer in the process at all. (You’re allowed to gasp in shock at this point. I did.) Unfortunately, it’s an all too common story, and it needn’t be. Creating and maintaining a corporate style guide is the most important aspect of building your brand, and one of the easiest. You can even do it yourself, if you happen to not be a rather enormous organisation.
So what is a corporate style guide?
Your corporate style guide outlines the ‘rules’, if you like, about your brand. It’s not a novel to take to the beach, but rather a reference tool to settle arguments in the office about whether there needs to be a semi-colon at the end of each bullet point, or whether you call your buyers ‘customers’, ‘clients’ or ‘partners’. It should all be there for you in black and white, faithfully protecting your brand from the one most likely to lead it astray—you.
Things to consider when creating your corporate style guide:
1. It needs to be a practical reference aid, not a bedtime story. So keep it in an easy to read format and skip the grammar lessons, it’s not the place.
2. Use Plain English instead of corporate speak or technical jargon as much as possible. This isn’t dumbing it down, it’s just keeping it simple.
3. Include all the basics—your target customer, mission, values, unique value proposition and the key messages that you need to communicate with every piece of material your business produces.
4. Speak to your audience—who are they and what kind of language do they use? This will depend on your industry, of course, but keeping in a similar style to publications and materials your audience regularly consumes will probably resonate more than creating wildly different ways to portray similar information.
5. Decide on your house style, and stick to it. There are no set rules for many components of the English language, but that’s not to say you should just choose whichever style suits you on the day. Have a think about:
- capital letters, punctuation (including quotation marks), grammar and italics;
- dates (17 November, or November 17th?) and times;
- words that your business would like to steer clear of, and useful alternatives;
- formatting of headings, lists and bullet points; and
- abbreviations of common terms or company names.
6. Capturing what tone of voice you would like to portray is important. You wouldn’t want an advertisement created that is humorous and casual, while your sales materials are written in an overly formal and conservative tone—the customer will get confused.
7. Your designer should be able to incorporate a design guide into your document relating to logos, corporate colours, fonts and other, ah… design-ery things. They’ll know what to do, just say the word.
8. You may like to incorporate templates into your guide, for regularly used documents including letterheads, PowerPoint presentations, spreadsheets and invoices.
9. Make sure you incorporate online components into your style guide, for example, how staff members interact with customers on social media and rules regarding linking (one business I worked with did not support links that didn’t lead back to the company website).
10. If advertising is part of your communications strategy, make sure you include current advertising messaging, templates, and guidelines around placement.
What do you think? Does your business have a style guide? Do you think they are the key to consistency for brands of all shapes and sizes?