Content Marketing Blog

What is a style guide, and why do you need one?

From print to Pinterest, in 2019 you have a plethora of avenues for communicating with your target audience.

This is great, but there’s one catch – you don’t have a monopoly. These same channels are open to your competitors.

The challenge for today’s marketers, therefore, isn’t simply discovering which platforms to use. Rather, you need to ensure that each cog in your marketing machine is turning in unison in order to outperform your rivals in reaching prospects.

Central in this cohesive effort are style guides. Today we’ll explore what exactly is a style guide, why you need one, and answer some FAQ when it comes to creating your own.

  • Spoiler alert: If you searched ‘style guide’ because you’re concerned about your fashion choices, this isn’t the article for you. However, for what it’s worth, never let anyone tell you how to dress.

Here's why your business needs a style guide.

What is a style guide?

Think of your style guide as a Yoda-like source of information for your external marketing teams: Oracle-like, ever-present and, if you so wish, green.

If that Star Wars simile was lost on you, another way to consider your style guide is as an instruction manual. It defines how your company will present itself across all its marketing channels including your website, social media, digital ads, print and email campaigns.

Within its dusty pages should be all the information your writers, graphic designers, social teams, and any other producers need to create content that best serves your goals.

What is included in a style guide?

The exact contents of your style guide will depend on the types of content you create. There are, however, a number of items that you will find detailed in just about any style guide worth its salt. They are:

1. Logo and imagery

You need to get the visuals associated with your brand exactly right. Why? Well, according to Hubspot, 93 per cent of purchasing judgements are made on visual perceptions.

Among the more exciting aspects of defining your company image guidance is drawing up a company logo. While this may seem like a one off, separate project, logo creation should always be done within the framework of your style guide.

93 per cent of purchasing judgements are made on visual perceptions.

The impact of the world’s most eye-catching logo in is undermined if it bears no common ground with the rest of your brand’s imagery.

Other important elements in this part of your style guide are:

  • Where to source imagery? Are you happy to use stock imagery, or do you want to create your own?
  • Will your imagery include people? If so, it should include the whole spectrum of your target market.
  • How should your graphics look? If you’re including stylised graphics, highlighting examples of content you like from other companies can be a good starting point to help designers produce the results you’re after.

2. Colour palettes

Linked to imagery and logo creation is selecting your brand colours. These colours will be used on everything from your website to physical print-outs (yep, these still exist!), so think about how they will impact the viewer.

Hubspot has created a great infographic suggesting why certain brands chose specific colours in their logos. For example:

  • Blue – Often deployed to purvey feelings of calmness, trustworthiness and honesty, this colour is used by brands ranging from Visa to Facebook.
  • Red – Evoking passion and energy, it’s no coincidence that companies such as Red Bull and Coca Cola opt for red as their primary colour.
  • Black – Black can be associated with sophistication and luxury as well as authority – think Hilton hotels and the BBC.
  • Multi-coloured – It’s likely that Google and Ebay hoped that a multicoloured logo would help position them as positive, bold and playful additions to our digital lives.

3. Tone and style of writing

Prior to drawing up your style guide, ideally you’ll have developed some user personas. These documents should contain all the pertinent details of your target market – namely ages, genders, interests and pain points.  

Using this, in combination with social listening, you should be able to develop a way of writing that resonates with your audience. Hint: Here, your style guide should go beyond relevant subject matter, and consider factors such as language choice. For example, is slang appropriate, or are you best sticking to a more formal tone? Also consider where you want your editorial team to source information from, and whether there are some topics best avoided altogether.

4. Typeface

Choosing a typeface – this is what you got into marketing for, right? Joking aside, there’s a reason why a health insurance business might choose to go with a different font to a fashion brand.

While a balance must always be struck with regards to readability, your typeface contributes to an overall impression of your brand. For example, geometric fonts with standardised proportions help to create a clean, simple feel, while handwritten-style fonts look more creative or causal.  

Why have a brand style guide?

Okay, so we know what a style guide is, and what you should include, but why have one in the first place?

More than one-third of customers claim trust in brand influences their choice of retailers.

For a start, style guides are a huge time-saver. Yes, you have to go through the process of creating them, but think of all the questions you can answer with the simple phrase ‘refer to the style guide’.

However, time-saving isn’t the only advantage that a style guide can bring to the table. Others include:

  • Making it easier to connect with customers: More than one-third of customers claimed trust in brand influences their choice of retailers in a PwC survey. A well-researched style guide will enable on-point branding that speaks to your target audience about the subjects that motivate them, in a language they understand.
  • Helping your in-house teams: Your team can boast the best writers to ever put pen to paper and graphic design’s answer to Da Vinci, but without a style guide to refer to, they’ll be all at sea. Once they’ve been with you a while, your producers probably won’t need to refer to the style guide too often. For new starters, however, it’s vital to get them up to speed.
  • Building effective relationships with agencies: If you choose to outsource some, or all, of your content production to a content marketing agency, style guides take on an even greater importance (trust us). Agencies can take a lot of work off your plate, but only if you give them the information they need to produce results that meet your standards.

Creating a brand style guide: FAQ

While we’ve already covered the most important things your brand style guide should contain, certain questions arise over and over again. To save you time, here are your answers:

  • How long should a brand style guide be?

There are no hard and fast rules here, but bear in mind that your style guide needs to be engaging so staff want to refer to it. Endless pages of unbroken text aren’t going to achieve this, so be inventive – using a brand story is a popular way to kickstart a brand style guide.

Brand stories compile your organisation’s vision, mission statement and core values into one easy to digest parcel. For example, Skype use speech bubbles to get across these messages, and then continues with them throughout the document to make it more eye-catching and interesting to read.

Think how you can make your style guide more engaging for your staff to use.

Skype made their brand style guidelines by using graphics of speech bubbles, reminding staff that communication is at the heart of their business.

  • How often should you update the style guide?

This is an interesting one. On one hand your style guide needs to move with your business, reflecting the current state of your marketing efforts. However, a style guide that’s in constant flux will create confusion among staff, defeating its very purpose.

The most important reason for updating a style guide is due to a company rebrand. Perhaps you’ve decided a different tone of writing is needed to communicate with your customers, or that your graphics have started to look outdated. Whatever you’re changing, it’s important that these amendments are incorporated into your style guide, especially if you have long-term staff who are used to doing things a certain way.

Naturally, if the changes only impact the editorial team, for example, there’s no need to start the entire document from scratch. Just ensure the affected departments are across what’s new and, arguably more importantly, understand why these alterations have been made.

This said, it’s a good idea to designate periodic reviews for your style guide to take onboard any little bits of feedback you’ve picked up on. Keep an ongoing document to take note of feedback that may come in dribs and drabs from various departments – come review time you may see patterns in this information that can inform changes to the overarching style guide.

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Al Hall
Al Hall About the author