What’s a Brand Style Guide?
Do you use a brand style guide for your written content? If so, good for you. If not, I hope by the time you finish this post you’re convinced to consider it.
A style guide is not a list of rules; it’s more like a list of preferences of the creators of the guide. It will include suggestions for punctuation, words to use and not use, capitalization, and much more.
Its main purpose is to keep your writing consistent across all pieces of content. Your website, physical collateral such as brochures and booklets, apps, and advertising should conform to your brand style guide.
Most corporations use AP (Associated Press) style, though it was created for journalists. It’s also widely used in content for the web and marketing and communications.
Why Do You Need a Style Guide?
Especially if you have multiple contributors for the content you produce and publish, a brand style guide can help standardize your language and guard against bias, whether intended or not.
Using a brand style guide mean you are not at the mercy of the grammatical whims of an entire generation who has grown up using mobile devices and text messaging, many of whom may struggle to construct a complete sentence. In many cases, proper grammar is considered optional, and too many media outlets have eliminated editors.
You need a brand style guide for the same reason you need guidelines for how your visual assets are used. Here’s a section from Instagram’s extensive guide to the use of their brand assets, such as the logo and icon.
Their goal is a consistent appearance for their brand, no matter where it appears.
A writing style guide operates in much the same way. If you capitalize a word in one paragraph and not another, your content will be inconsistent and less than professional.
The web is a competitive place; there is always someone else waiting to take your customers and prospects if you falter. Professionally-written content gives you an advantage over your competition and helps add credibility to your articles. You won’t build thought leadership without well-written, consistently-styled content.
How Do You Use a Style Guide?
Nine Common Questions that a Style Guide Will Answer
There are many more questions, but these nine are the ones I’ve looked up most frequently and have the most questions about.
- Do you place a period at the end of a bullet point? If you use AP Stylebook, the answer is yes, but The Chicago Manual of Style recommends a period only if the list item is a complete sentence.
- Do I capitalize company titles? According to AP, no, unless it directly precedes the person’s name and is a formal title. For example, you would write President George Washington, but George Washington is the president.
- How to quote or cite a source in text.
- How to report poll responses.
- When to use that and when to use who. Use that for a thing, who for a person.
- How do you style academic degrees? Bachelor of Arts, B.A., Ph.D.
- What to do if a profane or vulgar word is an integral part of a quote you cite. Use a partial spelling with hyphens substituting for some of the letter.
- Do I hyphenate technology-related words like email? Only for generic terms like e-commerce, but not for email — it’s the one exception.
- One word or two? Health care is a commonly-questioned term; AP recommends two words.
Which Style Guide to Use
There are numerous style guides for different writing purposes. The Chicago Manual of Style is used primarily in the book publishing industry. In academia, you’ll find Modern Language Association (MLA) and American Psychological Association stylebooks. In the news and journalism world, the AP Stylebook (Associated Press) is most used. The AP Stylebook was originally created for newspapers, where space has traditionally been scarce, so it leans toward saving characters wherever possible.
Because it’s used by journalists, AP is the most current. It’s updated every year, so if you need guidance regarding technology or world events, it’s an excellent resource.
Although writing for the web does not necessitate space-saving measures, web copy should be brief and to the point, with short sentences and bullet lists preferred over paragraphs. For this reason, when a style guide is used, much of the web follows AP style.
Create Your Own Brand Style Guide
No matter which style guide you use, there will be areas in which you may differ with their choices.
For example, on this site, I follow AP style with a couple of exceptions. I use italics for titles of books, magazines, and works of art, whereas AP does not use italics at all.
I also firmly embrace the Oxford Comma; that is the comma after the and in a series. For example: I had bacon, eggs, and toast for breakfast.
It’s not as important that you follow your chosen style guide to the letter as it is that you are consistent. You’ll never see me surround a book title with quotes, because I hate the way they look.
I describe my brand style guide as AP+Oxford Comma+Italics. You can describe yours however you please, as long as everyone who produces content for your brand agrees to abide by the style guide or you have editors on your team to ensure compliance.
One of my favorite tools is the AP Stylebook online subscription. Its advantage over the physical book is the ability to search entries, and the updates. The cost is reasonable and well worth it, in my opinion.
Gather your team and discuss the terms and expressions that you frequently use in your writing. Your industry and the topics of your content will guide this conversation.
Consider any preferences or conventions unique to your industry and incorporate those into your style guide. If you frequently write for military audiences, there may be styles specific to the armed forces that you need to consider.
General Hints and Tips
Be careful with capitalization. Some writers believe that capital letters convey respect. That’s not necessarily true. Too many capitalizations look amateurish and silly. Don’t capitalize words just because you want them to seem important.
Watch punctuation. Be sure you use an apostrophe only for a contraction, never to make a noun possessive. It’s means it is, and is not a possessive form.
Hyphenation can cause confusion. Hyphenate a compound word when it precedes a noun it modifies. For example, a street-level sign, but the sign was at street level. Login and log in are commonly confused in this way. You log in to a website, but you have to know your login information to do so.
Remember, your reputation and credibility are on the line with every word you publish — make your writing consistent and professional.