Before you try to outsource any marketing or copywriting for your business, one of the most important foundational pieces you need are brand voice guidelines or a brand voice style guide. Yet it’s a piece I almost always find that my clients are missing.
If you intend to let anyone else speak for your brand — be that a team member or a contractor — it’s important to take that extra step to start defining your brand voice so that they can do so more easily.
And, side note: if you’ve hired copywriters, social media managers, or virtual assistants in the past and were disappointed because their work missed the mark when it comes to voice — but you don’t have a brand voice style guide — well, get you one immediately and preempt those sorts of disappointments in the future.
What are brand voice guidelines or a brand voice style guide?
A typical brand guide includes information like brand colors, fonts, logos, photos, etc. But a brand voice style guide includes information about what and how you want to communicate as a brand.
Brand voice style guidelines are usually in a document or company wiki and typically include information about tone, syntax, diction, and a brand-specific lexicon. They are used by team members and contractors who need to write or communicate on behalf of the brand. And, importantly, they should be considered a living document and updated regularly.
What should be included in good brand voice guidelines?
The best brand voice guidelines are just that — guidelines. They’re less prescriptive (as in: you must do this) and more descriptive. I like to refer to them as guardrails, there to help keep your team on the right path when they’re representing your brand.
That said, there are a few elements that most brand voice guidelines will include for maximum clarity:
1. Official company name, tagline, and elevator pitch.
Just as you would include all acceptable variations of a logo in a visual brand guide, include all acceptable variations of your brand/business name, taglines, and at least one concise elevator pitch sentence that describes what the company does and for whom.
If there are any trademarks or copyrights that require the use of the TM or (C) symbols, this is also a good place to list them.
2. Overall brand goals.
This is a question I always ask clients when we’re co-creating their brand voice style guide as a part of a VIP day, but it’s often one they haven’t articulated before.
Your brand goals might include how you want to be perceived in the overall marketplace (ie: Lacy is the go-to expert on content strategy), but also how you want your audience to experience your brand.
I often ask clients, how do you want interactions with your brand to make someone feel?
Do you want them to feel supported, educated, challenged, excited, inspired, confronted, soothed…?
Understanding the goal of how you want the reader to feel can give the writer a ton of information that would be difficult to articulate in any other way.
How you want the reader to feel will give you a good start in describing your brand’s tone, but it’s important to articulate it as clearly as possible.
Tone is the overall attitude you as the author take towards your subject. It decides how readers will read a piece and how they will feel about the subject. It creates a mood.
Your tone is like your brand’s mood lighting. The same way the colors of your website, your photography, your graphics all set a mood and a tone for your business, so too do your words.
I often ask clients how personal their tone is, how formal or how conversational, how stylistic or plain. It encompasses everything from whether you use “I” or “we” when talking about your business to whether you start your emails with “Dear” or “Hey.”
This is also the most important place to employ the idea of guidelines or guardrails, because you won’t be able to enumerate or describe every single situation a writer might encounter.
One of my favorite tricks for writing tone guardrails is the “This but never That” formula. For example, your tone might be:
- Funny but never crass.
- Sexy but never sexual.
- Informative but never condescending.
- Friendly but never overly familiar.
- Formal but never cold.
And so on.
Syntax is basically grammar and sentence structure: How you string your words together.
Writing on the internet is almost as much a visual medium as it is a written one, because of the way we tend to read on a screen. Studies have shown that people tend to scan blog posts and online articles — especially long ones — and skim to find the parts they most want to read. That’s why subheadlines, bullet points, and call outs are important to the medium of blogging.
And those things are all a part of your syntax.
Your syntax section should include everything from which style guide you follow (I like AP style) to your feelings about the Oxford comma (I have strong ones).
Syntax is really the finest details of how you want your messages to be conveyed, and this is the section where you can feel free to get as specific as you like. If the tone section is more about guardrails, the syntax section is the extremely clear white or yellow lines telling you where you can and cannot go.
You might also want to include information on how your brand addresses sensitive subjects or prioritizes inclusive language. The Radical Copyeditor website is a fantastic resource for this kind of information.
5. Brand lexicon
I find it’s always useful to include a brand lexicon section that includes any words, phrases, terms, jargon, or product and program names that your brand uses frequently.
This is also a great place to start a list of words you do not want to use, especially if they’re common in your industry.
Brand voice guide examples
Probably the most famous brand voice guide example in my industry is Mailchimp’s, which they’ve made public.
You’re also welcome to check out my brand voice style guide as an example below:
Brand voice guidelines resources:
We offer a done-with-you service to create your brand voice guidelines as part of our full VIP day experience. In addition, I have these other resources you may find useful:
- Sign up for our free Leadership Marketer’s Library to read my ebook, “What is Brand Voice? The Blogger’s Ultimate Guide” and download our free brand voice style guide template.
- For more support, check out the Voice Identification Process Workbook: a brand voice development workbook with templates and worksheets to help you identify and define your own brand voice.
- Or sign up for a consultation to find out if a VIP day to have us create your brand voice style guide for you is right for you.