Photo by Adam Solomon on Unsplash
It doesn’t matter whether the client’s a big brand or a startup—someone usually groans at the prospect of building a “tone and style guide” for their company. After all, the process can seem like a relative luxury when you feel like you’ve got dozens of more pressing needs for your marketing and communications.
However, investing in developing a simple, clear, strong set of guidelines for how you want your brand to present itself can prevent so many problems down the line. When done right, this document can sit alongside your mission, vision, and purpose statements as guiding principles for how you want to enrich the lives of your customers. It’s a document that’s as valuable as your SWOT analysis and the foundation of your content strategy.
The combination of voice, tone, and style answer three crucial questions for your prospect:
What values do you stand for?
Pick any three competitors from a market that’s not yours. Pull up their websites, their social media handles, and their paid advertising. You should see some easy distinctions between them—especially if one’s a clear market leader. Richard Branson’s Virgin brands often shake up an industry by speaking to audiences in ways they’re not used to—because disruption’s at the heart of whatever they’re doing. With hotels, banking, and now cruise vacations, Virgin brands use a swagger to balance some risk with a clear reward.
Here’s the remarkable thing—Richard Branson’s company doesn’t actually own all of the Virgin brands. In many cases, partner companies manage day-to-day operations, and they may even own a majority stake in each enterprise. (Often Branson sells off brands once each business has stabilized, a practice he started when selling Virgin Records to fund the expansion of Virgin Airlines.) But the voice, tone, and style are so consistent, they’ve got nearly guaranteed product/market fit: prospective customers immediately know what kind of service they’ll get when they make a purchase.
What’s it like for a client to work with you every day?
The best brands set expectations for voice, tone, and style that extend from the corner office to the cash registers. Contrary to popular belief, your voice, tone, and style don’t always have to mimic your competitors—as long as you’re building an authentic, definitive brand around open communication. Unfocused and improvisational might be fun on stage, but the lack of a clear presence often causes prospects to tune out, especially when evaluating you head-to-head with a competitor.
Consistency doesn’t even have to mean “nice,” as a viral video exposed viewers around the world to the quirky Ed Debevic’s—a Chicago eatery where diners expected the waitstaff to be rude and condescending. (The diner didn’t survive a neighborhood redevelopment project, but fans keep peppering their Twitter handle for details of an expected reopening.)
How does your content validate that you know what you’re doing?
This is where spelling, grammar, and presentation come in. When I work on retail or hospitality projects, I’ve got a simple test I challenge clients to pass: Can I walk through your store, your lobby, or your front counter without seeing any handwritten or hastily printed notes taped to your walls or doors? Things like that—just like spelling errors in a brochure—signal that there’s a big disconnect between your C-Suite and your cash register. (Keep in mind, if ALL your customer-facing collateral is hand-printed, that’s authentic. If SOME of it is, you’re suffering from some front-line challenges.) Really, the only handwritten notes I want to see from your business are thank you notes from your team.
It’s impossible to ensure that every interaction every customer has will stay 100% within the boundaries set by your guidelines. However, when you don’t have any guidelines, your customer experience gets dictated by just the last staff member with whom your prospect or customer interacted. (We find this happens most often with startups and very small businesses that haven’t yet progressed far beyond having one owner or partner handling much of the face-to-face business.)
As close as you feel you might be to your brand, I rarely recommend that a team build their own tone and style guide in-house. Discovering how you want your company to sound should be an introspective process, and it usually reveals an unexpected bias that may have been holding you back from truly connecting with your prospects. A skilled content strategist, working from your mission statement and from key stakeholder interviews, can help you bridge the gap between your current approach and the tone and style that truly fits the market you’re trying to serve.