What Is a Style Guide?



June 4, 2021 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

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Whether your business relies more heavily on written copy or visual elements, you can benefit from developing a strong brand identity. Consistent design and messaging help build trust in your brand and its products or services. Initially, brands can maintain a consistent voice by relying on a single writer or designer. However, as a business grows, your in-house creatives will need some help. This is where a style guide comes in. A style guide can help ensure that new content conveys a consistent message and voice even as you employ the services of multiple writers, graphic designers, and marketing professionals.

What Is a Style Guide?

A style guide is a handbook that in-house or contracted vendors use to create content that follows a consistent voice and brand identity. Style guides are essential for maintaining control and consistency across products and promotional materials. For visually creative projects, a style guide may dictate how and where a logo should be placed, which colors are allowed or not allowed, what type of lifestyle photography is on-brand, what font styles should be used, and more.

For example, a style guide for a consumer goods brand may include creative instructions and restrictions to ensure that all packaging and advertising for that brand is consistent and easily identifiable in the marketplace. A style guide will also dictate the type of language or voice used by copywriters. The more detailed and precise a style guide is, the more likely it is that early drafts of a project will be on-brand and require minimal edits.

An effective guide will instruct vendors on how a project should be completed and carried out with less oversight needed. This, in turn, can help reduce the costs associated with extra rounds of project edits when using outside vendors. In-house teams, meanwhile, can spend less time going back and forth, freeing them up to work on other projects. As companies work to develop a brand identity, they should update and maintain a robust style guide to go along with it.

What Is Brand Identity?

The purpose of a style guide is to align projects with an existing brand identity for better consistency. Brand style guides and the company’s brand identity work hand-in-hand to strengthen each other. A well-established brand will have a robust style guide to direct the creation of end-user-facing products, whether this be copy or actual visual elements. When vendors and in-house resources follow an established style guide, they will create more consistent work, further enhancing brand recognition to the consumer.

But what exactly is brand identity? Put simply, brand identity is how a brand’s products are viewed and recognized by consumers. For example, a brand like Simply Orange has a goal of creating a brand identity that is natural, close to home, and trusted in the orange juice space.

A strong brand identity affects more than the physical labels and product packaging that a company uses. Your brand identity should be reinforced in advertising, website materials, sales copy, Amazon listings, and anywhere else your product is seen. Brand identity can also impact when, where, and how you advertise. An upscale cooking product likely wouldn’t advertise in a homey meals-focused magazine. While the product and magazine are both about food and meal prep, the markets aren’t the same. This is why understanding brand identity is crucial.

New brands that aren’t as established may not feel that a style guide or strong understanding of their brand identity is needed at the earliest stages of growth. However, understanding who your target consumer is allows you to reach a more focused audience. It’s better to advertise to 100 people who are definitely interested in what your brand has to offer than to reach 1000 random people.

Understanding your brand’s identity means being able to target those 100 people rather than wasting money advertising at random and hoping for the best. If someone offered you a chance to increase conversion rates on targeted ads without actually spending more on those ads, wouldn’t you take it in a heartbeat? A brand identity can help you do that.

Why Is Brand Identity and Consistency Important?

Brand identity is nothing without consistency. A bit of soul-searching along the way is okay, but changes should move slowly to avoid causing confusion among consumers. A well-defined style guide can keep fresh content coming in without things starting to feel stale or straying off-brand.

Imagine your favorite cereal brand. Picture yourself going to the store, finding your favorite cereal immediately, and adding it to your cart. You can probably do that pretty quickly because you know exactly what colors, fonts, words, and logos to scan for. But what if your favorite cereal brand started changing the packaging of the box dramatically every month or two. Suddenly, finding your favorite cereal would become an incredible chore. The reason this doesn’t happen in the real world is that brands don’t want to confuse their consumers.

The same principle holds true for written content. Written content needs to stay on-brand and consistent just as much as the packaging of physical goods. The tone, message, and voice of website content is the brand identity that repeat visitors are coming to consume. If this changes and becomes less reliable or off-brand in some other way, there’s no guarantee that those loyal readers will visit again. Instead, they will search for new content that fits where your brand once did. Fortunately, staying consistent can prevent this from happening.

Another area where consistency is important is in the marketing funnel. A standard customer acquisition approach is to attract customers to sign up for email correspondence. Next, emails are used to direct potential customers to complete an action. This could be to pre-order products, upgrade their subscription, or any other goal you want to accomplish.

It’s important to keep the content presentation, the tone, and the writing style consistent throughout the funnel. By the time they make a purchase, a customer may have interacted with several platforms, including but not limited to external sites, emails, and your own website. If the look and messaging tone change too drastically from one medium to the next, they may wonder if they clicked the wrong thing, feel like they made a mistake, and leave your sales funnel. Staying consistent in both look and written delivery helps reduce these clicks away from your funnel.

Why Start with a Mission Statement?

Businesses, small or large, looking to create a style guide and define their brand identity should begin with a mission statement. A mission statement is another key aspect of a brand and its corresponding style guide. Mission statements bring with them several benefits both related to style guides themselves as well as other overarching points.

Mission statements help define what may be needed in a style guide. They set goals and expectations for the brand which serves as the foundation for building a style guide. Because of this, starting with a mission statement is a great place to begin when creating style guides.

What Are the Types of Style Guides?

Image via Flickr by kuldeepk2k

Style guides serve as instructions for consistency across products. Products in this case can be any number of things including consumer packaged goods, written content, or even regulations.

Creative Branding Style Guides

A brand design style guide can dictate how a product should appear with other items in its brand on a shelf. The style guide also determines how to handle print or digital advertisements. Brand style guides even affect how internal communications are created. Consistency is king, and a style guide drives consistency across multiple departments and outlets. Brand design style guides ensure things such as font choice, messaging hierarchy, colors, logo placement, and other design elements are used in such a way that each branded item looks like it fits as part of a family.

Writing Style Guides

Some style guides work beyond a single company or brand. For example, written and regulatory style guides may influence things across multiple brands and businesses. Written style guides, such as the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style, dictate how words are used, if contractions are used, how numbers are written, and more. They provide clarification on grammar rules that the English language may leave open-ended.

For example, there is no rule in the English language that states whether a number should be spelled out (e.g., “ten”) or represented in numerals (e.g., “10”). Style guides like AP and Chicago set rules to create consistency across a great number of written works in a field. This way, it’s less confusing for readers to absorb information. It can also help multiple writers achieve a similar voice without sounding too similar in their actual delivery.

Written Content Style Guides

In addition to broad written style guides, individual companies who produce a lot of written content may have more specific written style guides for their writers to follow. These types of style guides can direct the voice or tone of written media. For example, a satire news website won’t want the same tone and messaging as a website that features breaking news stories. Here, the Chicago and AP style guides are a great start, but companies need more specific written style guides to ensure the right tone is delivered while using the aforementioned writing rule books.

Businesses looking to grow their presence in the market can benefit greatly from a style guide and content rollout plan. CopyPress can work with you to develop an in-depth and effective written content style guide that drives compelling content and increases your brand’s footprint in the online space. Regardless of how many writers you need, CopyPress can get you started with a content plan that grows search results and improves trust in your brand.

Regulatory Style Guides

Another type of style guide is one that defines regulatory standards. Drug facts panels and nutrition facts panels are amazing examples of a regulatory style guide at work.

The makers of Tylenol and the makers of Aleve, for example, are different companies with different design teams, different visions for their product, and different ways to tackle problems. However, when you look at the back of their respective packaging, both feature a drug facts panel that gives a specific set of information in a specific order. They all look the same despite being entirely different brands. This is because the FDA tells brands how these drug facts panels need to look with a publicly available style guide, which is a prime example of a style guide driving consistency.

How to Create a Style Guide

With a powerful understanding of what style guides are and how diverse they can be, the next question is how to create a style guide. Follow these steps to get started:

1. List the Mission Statement

Create a style guide with the company mission in mind. The mission statement should be listed first when creating a style guide, whether you’re working on a creative guide or a style guide for written content.

2. Define the Target Audience

Think about your ideal audience. Are they young, old, men, women, mothers, fathers? All of these buckets that people fall into represent different ways of thinking and acting. The goal of a business is to make a sale. Ensuring that your style guide clearly defines what your target audience is and how to best target them is the key to success.

3. Set the Tone

After the target audience has been defined, it’s time to dictate the tone and voice of your brand. Is your brand quick-witted and funny? Is it matter-of-fact and to-the-point, meticulous, or casual? Do not assume that the vendors you’re working with will understand how to stay on-brand without a well-written style guide that dictates the tone you want to achieve and target audience you are trying to reach.

4. Highlight Key Competition in Your Channel

When working on any project, it’s nice to see directly how your product stacks up against key competitors. Having them listed or described in the style guide can prevent you from duplicating their message or look. It also helps you make decisions that can give you an edge over them. Since the competitive landscape is always changing, be sure to keep this section up to date.

5. Showcase Key Differentiators

The next section to include in your style guide goes hand-in-hand with the competition segment. List and highlight your key differentiators. Why is your product or service better? Why should a potential customer choose your brand over one highlighted as your competition? The answers to these questions should be clear in this section of the style guide. Your style guide also needs to give direction on how to leverage these differentiators in the best, most effective way possible.

6. Direct Creative Asset Development

In a creative style guide, you must also include a section listing how certain creative elements are to be used. Here are a few things that should be included:

  • Logo placement. Highlight where the logo should appear on branded work.
  • Logo colors. Define what colors the logo should be. When should the full-color log be used? When should the single-color logo be used?
  • Logo alterations. Are designers allowed to rotate or alter the logo in any way? List do’s and don’ts with visual examples.
  • Headline and font treatments. Define which font families should be used for what type of content. Headlines, subheadings, body copy, and any other specific type treatments should be demonstrated.
  • Photography selection and treatment. Showcase the type and style of lifestyle and studio photography that should be used in branded materials.

Work through the list items above, being as specific as possible while still being clear and concise. Once they are all put together, it’s time to go through and create the style guide for your brand or business. The type of work your brand specializes in will determine the overall format the style guide should be in. Brands that specialize in written content can create a written document that showcases the line items above. However, brands that work with designers and create complex visual content will need to create a style guide using software such as Illustrator or InDesign to demonstrate those complex visual components in a more compelling way.

7. Make It a Living Document

A style guide serves as an excellent foundation for consistent and on-brand content. However, things are always changing. Even if those changes happen at a slow pace, your style guide should be a living document that reflects these slow improvements to a brand. If you leave your style guide untouched, you run the risk of it becoming obsolete, and you’ll need to likely start over. An out-of-date style guide also leads to greater inconsistency in written and visual content.

Style Guide Templates

Another option for brands looking to develop style guides is to use style guide templates. A style guide template is a tool that provides a rough foundation from which to build a custom style guide. It’s a perfect solution for those who struggle with building something from a blank document. Style guides are an important tool for any business, large or small, so make sure yours is on-point and thorough. If you don’t have the tools to create an effective style guide from scratch, style guide templates are an excellent place to start.

Having a style guide is essential to maintaining consistency within a brand. Style guides help direct both visual and written content to achieve a consistent voice and messaging in marketing materials and copy. They help to define brand identity. Your style guide should include everything an in-hour or third-party content creator needs to create compelling on-brand content. If you need a little extra help drafting your style guide or creating content that fits your brand identity, the CopyPress team would love to assist. We have the talent and experience necessary to achieve high-quality, on-brand content for your business.

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