A few months ago, I received some interesting feedback from a client about a communication piece: “This is great—I love it. It’s really clear. But, can we toss in a few spelling errors and take out some of this punctuation?” I was shocked. He had spent so much time and energy creating brand guidelines. When I asked why he would want to abandon them, my client said, “That’s how people communicate with each other today, right? We don’t want them to think we are stuffy.”
Why would we purposely want to make the language of our communications unclear? The elements he wanted me to remove are essential to promoting the clarity he so appreciated. Though small marks, punctuation elements like commas help guide readers and reinforce meaning. For example: the sentence “Let’s eat Grandma!” has significantly different meaning than “Let’s eat, Grandma!” But, upon some further research, I found that intentional typos aren’t a new concept today. In fact, the New York Times once wrote an article completely without periods to emphasize the punctuation mark’s falling out among social media users and staccato texters.
All of this got me thinking about how rules—especially brand guidelines—play a role in effective communications. What’s a writer, designer, or brand steward to do in a world where communication is becoming more freeform and relaxed, even as products and services are becoming more complex?
The answer: Balance communication trends with clarity. Go back to basics and define (or re-define) clear guidelines to document your business’s brand. Whether your business’s style is casual, formal, or otherwise, define your standards so your staff can re-enforce and effectively communicate the way you want them to.
What are brand guidelines and why do they matter?
Brand guidelines are the language and design rules that often define the standards for your business’s communications. Brand guidelines help strengthen the importance of your brand—one of your business’s biggest assets. In a study done by Booz Allen Hamilton, brand guidelines even drove measurable business outcomes: “brand-guided companies have profitability margins nearly twice the industry standard.”
But, good brand guidelines are more than just rules on whether or not to use the serial comma or how to place a logo. Rich brand guidelines are the culmination of guidance that leads to a holistic, consistent, and clear brand experience for your customers—no matter the channel. They include guidance on voice, goals, principles, grammar, accessibility, application and more. Even specific guidance about certain words are important. In the end, brand guidelines promote clarity through consistency and easy replication. Looking for a great real world example of brand that’s doing guidelines right? Take a look at MailChimp’s Content style Guide.
Creating brand guidelines that work for your business.
So, where’s the best place to start when you’re looking to create rich and clear guidelines? First, check to see if your business has guidelines already—most do. A good place to look is your Marketing or Branding department. These experts will likely be your partners in adjusting guidelines or creating new ones.
Here are a few ways to promote consistent guidelines in your company:
Understand your brand’s voice.
How does your brand “sound” to customers? Is it expert, but not arrogant? Silly, but sincere? Think about the experience you want customers to have in different settings, and match your brand’s voice to those experiences.
Be a clarity advocate.
Having a less formal voice doesn’t mean throwing clarity to the wind. In fact, clarity is the primary reason for brand guidelines. And documentation is the essential first step to being a clarity advocate. Ensure that the brand guidelines are actionable and promote clear communication. Post them in a place that is easily accessible for all employees so everyone has the tools to be clear and consistent.
Train and evangelize.
Train the people who communicate in your business—that’s everyone!—about your brand guidelines. Whether formal or informal, online or in the classroom, assisted learning about brand guidelines will help convey their importance.
Practice what you preach.
It’s not enough to just talk about brand guidelines—you have to actually use them. And they should be applied to every communication piece that you interact with—even that quick internal PowerPoint that you threw together for a team meeting.
Be open to (documented) change.
Language is fluid, so brand guidelines should be living documents rather than rules carved in stone. Is your team ready to make the jump from health care to healthcare? Need a new way to talk about your partners? Check in with your employees and customers regularly, and look at language trends across industries. Though a punctuation-free style might not be in the cards for your more corporate company, perhaps a friendlier voice will do.
Maeve Ruggieri is a writer, researcher, and content strategist at ThoughtForm. She helps clients become better communicators by wrangling masses of complex information into clear and engaging stories.