Why your brand needs a style guide

_Blog - Why your brand needs a style guide

Brands need content. It’s at the heart of the ‘brand as publisher’ concept.

They need to use the power of words to reach out to their audience and deliver the product or service they need.

As Zazzle’s MD Simon Penson put it in a post for Moz, the idea here is: “that you’re able to build an engaged, loyal audience of value for your brand… an audience you can then monetize later.”

Yet it’s one thing realising that you need words to deliver this for you, but quite another to know how to deliver them. Luckily for me, that’s where writers come in.

Having made the jump from journalism to marketing, it’s great to see that there’s a demand for people to help brands sail these waters.

George Orwell’s content rules are still relevant today

Sometimes a company may find themselves pondering how they should write. The first port of call should be George Orwell’s ‘six elementary rules’.

The 1984 and Animal Farm writer might have written these rules in 1946, but they’re just as relevant in a world of social media and online content that would have been alien to him.

  • The rules are as follows:
  • Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do
  • If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous

With apologies to Orwell, we might summarise those rules in the following way:

  • Don’t waffle
  • Don’t confuse the reader
  • Don’t try to show how clever you are (it’s about the reader, not you)

But that’s Orwell and good (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun, it’s a journalism thing) but brands need to consider the words they choose and not just the way they construct them.

If brands are to become publishers then they need to start behaving like publishers and adopting some of the working practices they have perfected.

Orwell’s rules need to be implemented on top of some sound foundations and that’s where a content style guide comes in.

Tellingly, in fact, those rules appear at the very top of the style guide of The Economist, introducing the important rights and wrongs that follow.

Style guide: the newsroom bible your brand needs

The style guide is the bible of the newsroom. Its yellowing pages are thrown in your direction as a rookie reporter and it’s this that you’re beaten over the head with – metaphorically and, depending on the aggression of your news editor, literally.

In a newsroom this will help you understand the correct way to write out military ranks or religious roles – the sorts of things that will inevitably lead to complaints if you get them wrong.

That’s the important thing to bear in mind when it comes to a style guide and, in particular, a brand’s style guide. Errors with this are distracting and damaging.

We can all appreciate this when it comes to typos, for example. A bad typo will be captured in a screen shot and sent around the corners of the internet – on platforms where your embarrassment is a source of great mirth. It certainly happened to me as a journalist.

Here are a few examples. Poor old ‘Jermy Corbyn’ doesn’t took too happy to have his name spelled incorrectly on the front of the Independent:

independent jermy corbyn cover

How about this one? The National Council for the Training of Journalists will be red faced at its inability to spell ‘journalism’:

nctj typo

Then there’s this from a Digiday interview with Piers Morgan – with an incorrect lower case ‘jack’, awful spelling of ‘England’ and confusing sentence structure:

digiday piers morgan interview

These errors show that it happens to the best of us. I love the content produced by the Independent and Digiday and benefitted from the training of the NCTJ. These are not bedroom bloggers scrawling out nonsense. They are highly respected bodies with high standards and they still make mistakes.

There is no silver bullet to eliminate typos, you just need to find the best proofreader you can get your hands on and put your faith in their expert eyes.

The reason why it’s important to flag up typos in this piece, however, is that brands need to realise that style errors can, in my opinion, be more toxic that a typo.

That’s where the Digiday example comes in handy. Try reading that sentence aloud and you won’t sound very coherent. These are not just errors made from a misplaced keystroke.

Why is style important and what do issues look like?

Style issues leave a similar stain on the material they are contained within. By ‘style issues’ we mean things like:

  • Slipping Americanism into your text – there’s no ‘defense’ for that
  • Not knowing the difference between complementary and complimentary – which one is a freebie and which a nice word?
  • Switching between E-mail, email, e-mail – it’s the written equivalent of the person who cannot settle on a radio station for two minutes
  • Popping apostrophe’s in the wrong place (like that one, grrr!)

So, why are these such a problem?

Firstly, like typos, they are distracting for the reader. This means that they’re likely to focus on these points rather than what you actually want to say. That undermines your text and all the efforts you have put into writing it.

Secondly, they paint your brand in a bad light. There’s an association in the reader’s head between content accuracy and professionalism.

If a business doesn’t know where to plonk an apostrophe in a word, can it seriously be trusted to handle your custom? Does it pay such a lack of attention to the products and services it delivers?

That might seem grossly unfair but, you know, life’s not fair.

As a publisher you gain the trust of your readers by producing valuable content. Text that is littered with errors will not gain or retain any trust. Readers will also, rightly or wrongly, expect you to adhere to the same standards as publishers. Bloggers might be forgiven for clumsy text, brands won’t.

Four great style guides to look at for inspiration

Fancy a read of some of the best content style guides in the business? Here are four that we enjoy – and turn to from time to time:

The BBC

The Economist

The Guardian and Observer

The Telegraph 

Why you need your own content style guide

These publishers have made their style guides available online but in the era of ‘brand as publisher’ I think it’s increasingly important to consider a ‘brand-friendly’ content style guide rather than try to wade through those.

There’s a need to strip away journalistic terms and add in a few basics that will help people who aren’t writers ‘by trade’. Then, depending on your industry, you can replace the journalese with the terminology that is relevant to your business – the equivalent of the military ranks and religious roles that could leave you red faced.

That’s why we’ve decided to step up to the task. Zazzle’s content team, which has experience in a variety of roles ‘on the other side of the fence’, has produced a content style guide (registration required) that you can download and adopt right away. It covers about 40 essential pointers that can help you to develop a solid ‘style’ that can run throughout your written content.

It forms the basis on which you could take Orwell’s writing rules forward. If you’ve not got a content style guide then you’re not ready for the world of ‘brand as publisher’. With this, we can get you up to speed. Remember too that this isn’t about punishing the people who don’t know these rules.

Not everyone knows every rule off the top of their head. That’s precisely why the guide is there. It’s a vital resource and something to fall back on when it comes to those things you always find tricky or that you just can’t quite put your finger on in the heat of the moment.

No-one has a monopoly on wisdom but we’re pretty proud of our guide. Please download it, use it and let us know what you think.

How to adapt our style guide for your business

Brands who want to take their role as publisher seriously will need to use our style guide as a starting point. So, after you’ve downloaded it, what do you do next?

Here’s our step by step guide:

  • Download the Zazzle template and save it somewhere where everyone can get access – we like a shared GDoc, you might prefer something else
  • Have a brainstorm session in which you list all of the terminology relevant to your business
  • Agree a ‘preferred style’ – whether that be a spelling or whether or not you’ll use a hyphen or capital letter
  • Add all of these to our guide template
  • Leave the guide open to edit so that any new terms you come across can be added in
  • Send it out to any third party writing content on your behalf, everyone needs to be singing from the same hymn sheet and this is your hymn sheet.

That should all be fairly straightforward – although get in touch if you have in questions and we’d be happy to talk through any content style dilemmas you have. We’re like that…

 

Tom Smith is a Search and Data Consultant at Zazzle Media.

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