By Heather Levy published October 23, 2016

How to Create the Ultimate Branded Content Style Guide

content-style-guide

I’m a sucker for first-person stories. When people share their personal experiences, especially in B2B content, they draw me in and I often read to the end, consuming their message while I’m at it. Often personal content humanizes a corporate brand and can pack a big impact — but only if that’s what the brand intends for me to feel.

American Express Open Forum features Member Stories to demonstrate how the global financial services company understands the issues faced by small-business owners.

american-express-open-forum

In the poignant blog post (When It’s Not) The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, a National Life Group staff member reveals a tragedy in his life and shares tips on how to cope with holidays. The life insurance company’s Main Street blog post (a Best Blog Post finalist in the 2016 Content Marketing Awards) expresses its desire to care for a customer.

national-life-group

These tones used by American Express and National Life could work well for some brands and for others it would miss the mark. Ensuring that your content reflects and expresses your brand essence or voice requires a comprehensive style guide. Without it, you risk sinking into bland drivel that takes your brand nowhere or worse, undermines it.

Ensure that your #content reflects & expresses your brand essence or voice via @heathrpemberton. Click To Tweet

A brand content style guide should cover more than grammar and specify tone, language, structure and the overall voice of your content. It contains four essential elements:

  • Brand attributes
  • Style and tone
  • Style rules
  • Examples of how to effectively use the brand voice and how not to do it

1. Define brand attributes

Has your organization documented its brand attributes? If your company has detailed brand documents, the challenge is to distill the information into sophisticated brand positioning incorporating four to five key attributes to guide content creation. If you don’t have detailed brand documents, the first step is to meet and brainstorm to define the core essence of your brand and then distill it. Don’t worry about perfecting your list of attributes. You can let them evolve over time.

For example, here are two types of companies’ brand attributes.

Premium chocolate brand:

  • Vibrant
  • Sophisticated
  • Personable
  • Dear friend

Security software brand:

  • Quality
  • Customer-centric
  • Innovative
  • Easy to work with

2. Translate brand attributes into style and tone

Words such as “vibrant,” “innovative,” and “quality” can have several meanings. For example, vibrant can mean active and energetic or it could mean positive, aspirational, and global. That’s why it’s necessary to specify how attributes should be articulated in content.

Furthermore, how writers express the terms “aspirational” and “global” in language, examples, and sentence structure defines how the content illustrates the brand.

For each brand attribute, first define its tone, and then specify the style of language and content that exemplify that tone.

brand-attribute

Notice that in one example, the term “sophisticated” means that the branded content won’t use first-person language as this would be too colloquial and familiar with readers. For another brand, “easy to work with” translates into text that respects the reader’s time through the creation of short paragraphs, subheads, and bulleted lists.

3. Create style rules

Brand content rules give contributors specific guidelines to create content that reflects the brand attributes. For example, a premium food brand that wants the content to reflect a vibrant tone and style might create a rule like this, “Stay active: Use active verbs and active tense. Avoid gerunds and present participles in favor of active verbs.”

This same company demonstrates its “sophisticated” brand attribute with a rule: “Don’t be too cute: Speak with authority and familiarity yet avoid parenthetical, cute, and trendy statements to conspire with consumers.”

A software company that wants to be customer-centric might create a content style rule such as, “Start with stories: Start each article with a customer moment that puts the software into use to solve a customer problem or help meet a goal.”

4. Give examples of do’s and don’ts

Create examples to show content that follows the rules. You can pull examples of what not to do from existing content or create fictional examples to make your point.

Example A:

Content style rule: Be sophisticated, not cute. Speak with authority and familiarity yet avoid parenthetical, cute and trendy statements to conspire with consumers.

How to do:

A bowl of candy canes makes a sweet distraction for the younger set and shows your whimsical side.

How NOT to do:

Serve candy canes in a bowl on the children’s table (and watch how fast they disappear).

While both sentences are grammatically correct, each sentence communicates a distinct style or voice. What’s important is to give content creators a comprehensive brand style guide so they can align their creativity with the brand attributes. This approach engages your target audience with a style that reflects both the brand and their interests.

A comprehensive brand style guide … align(s) their creativity with the brand attributes via @heathrpemberton. Click To Tweet

Want to ensure that your brand voice is the most effective it can be? Subscribe to CMI’s free daily newsletter for tips, trends, and more insights to grow a successful content marketing program.

Cover image by Viktor Hanacek, picjumbo, via pixabay.com

Author: Heather Levy

Heather Pemberton Levy is author of Brand, Meet Story, How to Create Engaging Content to Win Business and Influence Your Audience (Routledge, Sept, 2016) and writes about content marketing best practices at Storycomesfirst.com. She has developed over twenty trade books and hundreds of articles for major business media. She is currently vice president, Content Publishing at Gartner, the global IT research and advisory firm, where she leads editorial creation and publishing for the company’s branded content platform, Smarter With Gartner, trade books and internal communications. Follow Heather on Twitter at @heathrpemberton.

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