There’s A Big Hole in Your Brand Guide

by Sara Arnold

March 22, 2016 at 9:44 am

It’s become depressingly common for us to request brand guidelines from a new client and find lovely explanations of logo usage, color palette and fonts, but not a single page—nay, not a single PIECE of a page—focused on copy tone and voice.

And I’m not just talking clients either. If they have brand guidelines, it means someone (likely another agency) developed them. Which means this agency didn’t think to include any references to copy. I’m looking sternly at you, agencies.

This lack of voice and tone guidance is even more obvious with companies that don’t use a professional copywriter and end up passing writing duties on to whomever is available within the organization. Of course, then it never sounds like the brand—it sounds like the person who wrote it. And that’s a big problem.

Memorable brands are memorable because they are distinctive. What’s distinctive about them? You might say I’m biased because I’m a copywriter, but I think it’s the voice. Let me make my point. Allstate, Dos Equis, Duluth Trading Co., Geico—each of these brands immediately calls to mind a certain attitude and personality. Besides their logos, can you recall any other design elements about these brands? With the exception of Duluth, which has a pretty awesome visual style, I bet the answer is no.

I’m not discounting design; far from it. My point actually is that design and copy should live together in harmony as a brand identity. Look and feel has to match tone, and vice versa. A brand is a cohesive collection of elements that, combined, evoke a feeling and create a connection.

Personally, I like to dive deep when developing a brand guide. Besides the relevant creative elements, here are some additional elements to really round out your guide and make it a true creative resource for all internal and external teams.

Tone & Voice – This is clearly the point of this post from the beginning, but seriously, setting this down is super important. Your brand personality is just as important as how you look, and you should put just as much effort into developing and documenting it. Even if you have set brand attributes, it’s definitely worth fleshing them out into a full-fledged voice.

Key Messaging – This can be really useful if you have different service lines or key differentiators you often call attention to. By highlighting these in your guide, you can ensure all your sales and marketing efforts are focusing on the right features.

Phrasing & Terminology – I remember a software company I worked with who had a LOT of inconsistency in how certain words were written. Hyphen usage, words written as one or two (webform or web form?), capitalization questions (is it Kickstart Services or KickStart?), and other phrases and terms. I ended up including guidelines on these in the brand book to ensure all copy used the same spelling. Sometimes, it’s not even a question of what’s right or wrong; if a standard hasn’t been set within an industry and it doesn’t matter grammatically, these things are more about preference than correctness. Just make sure it’s a brand preferences and not a personal preference.

Contact Info – How do you write your company phone number in copy? Dots? Dashes? Parentheses around the area code? I wouldn’t be surprised if you hadn’t really thought about it. Now’s a good time. In addition, you should indicate a preference for writing your URL. Most companies have ditched the “www” since you don’t really need it anymore, but it’s another good thing to decide on and set in stone in your brand guide.


Sound like a plan? It’s my goal to never inwardly sigh again because I’ve received an incomplete brand guide. As a writer, I WANT to make you sound distinctive. I WANT to make you memorable. I just have to know who you are first.

March 22, 2016 at 9:44 am

Sara Arnold

Nearly a decade of advertising and marketing experience has taught Sara one thing—there is no consensus on the use of the Oxford comma. Shrugging off that complication, Sara focuses on wrangling words into compelling stories. She’s continually digging into creative strategy and looking for unique ways brands connect with customers. Also, cat videos. Lots of cat videos.