Marketing Communications Style Guide: A Dress Code with Style

Marketing Communications Style Guide: A Dress Code with Style

This is part four of a four-part series on marketing communications style. For more information on the subject, please visit parts one, two, and three.

It’s time to recap our earlier posts on tone and style and dig into the details of what makes for a great marketing communications style guide.  In this fourth and final post, we’ll discuss how companies can incorporate the following in one guide:

  • How a company looks (visual presentation)
  • What a company says and does (audience-focused content)
  • How it says it (tone and voice).

Each of these should be a component of an effective marketing communications style guide. Without these elements, at best, an audience will pick up on the inconsistencies. The absolute worst case scenario is they’ll instantly forget anything the company tried to say to them. When scouting for information, customers won’t see only your blip on their radar screen, so your communications must be memorable and unique in some way.

The first step in developing a marketing communications style guide

Create the Communication Big Picture. Involve top management. Start the same way your company would develop a new product or service: from the top down. All elements of the Communication Big Picture should focus on the audience—not the company. It’s easy to say, but far harder to accomplish than many corporations think.

What companies do: Speak in words that resonate with customers and address their challenges, problems, and aspirations. Flesh out, as much as possible, the customer personas we discussed in a previous post in this series, and see products and services through their eyes and through their words. It doesn’t hurt to invest in a survey or focus group, for example. Take customers out to dinner. Ask questions at trade shows…and take notes. Compile keywords and phrases that customers use.

What companies say:  Too many marketing communications are merely echo chambers. Create information that is truly useful to customers, not just the corporate line, or a finely wrought and hammered-to-mush elevator speech or engineering checklist.  Prioritize information as well. What’s top-of-mind for your audience, and what is really just self-serving corporate-speak? Ernest Hemingway once said that the most useful tool any writer could have is a good BS detector. If marketing doesn’t use that detector, customers will. Your products and services are not the center of your customer’s world—you’re just one of dozens of companies they’re considering.

Once marketing has honed what the company does and what it should say, look over the current collateral. Does it reflect the Communication Big Picture? If it doesn’t, marketing needs to have a brain-storming sit-down with top management. It’s time for a “dress code” makeover. Put it down in words. Start each conversation in this process with the customer in mind.

How it’s said: Refer to customer personas you have developed (see our third post on style), and decide on a consistent tone and voice for them. Get specific. Should marketing ever directly address its audience (“you”), or should it keep communications in line with other customer expectations and address them in only the third person? Yes, we’re talking about khakis versus suits again from our previous post. Are there over-used phrases, buzz words, and jargon that would make the audience’s eyes glaze over and miss the core message?  A great way to assist marketing collateral developers is to compile a chart of “words to avoid” and potential alternates in a box next to each that reflect the preferred corporate style and words customers actually use (see above). Here’s just a short checklist of other items to consider for how it’s said:

  • Tone: formal or informal? Where on the scale?
  • Only use active verbs, or are more Latinate verbs acceptable? (See our second post on style)
  • Never use passive voice, or if so, when is it acceptable?
  • Are sentence fragments ever acceptable?
  • What punctuation, sentence variety, and paragraph lengths are recommended?
  • What acronyms are acceptable, and which are not?
  • How should marketing handle trademark and other symbols (numbers, percentages, etc.)?
  • What words should be avoided?
  • Are rhetorical questions allowed?

That’s a short list. Consult the AP Style Guide or the Chicago Manual of Style for other important elements of usage for guiding the communications team. Once a company develops tone of voice and usage guidelines, it should compile them in one document. This is your trial tone-of-voice map.

How the company looks: Next, work with a good graphic designer or the internal design team to define a corporate visual presence that matches the tone of voice. It should work hand-in-hand with the corporate persona. For example, we worked in the past with a global hardware manufacturer, selling to C-level execs, which used simple, chalky-looking cartoons on nearly every page, and in every PowerPoint presentation. The visuals just didn’t match the serious, big-ticket challenges their audience confronted. They’ve since moved to a new visual style that better reflects their audience.

Test drives and templates

Once a company codifies a visual look and feel, it should test-drive it with customers if possible. (Does this tie go with this jacket?) But nail down everything, from the use of white space and fonts, to the exact CMS colors and library of acceptable images and graphic elements. You’d be surprised how much customers are affected by color, for example. (Researchers found that up to 90% of snap judgments made about products can be based on color alone.[1])

Finally, for the greatest consistency, companies should create templates for each piece of collateral it develops on a regular basis. Each template should be in Word, PPT, or Adobe Creator masters and include not just the visual layout, but also clearly delineate in each section the tone and type of information that is required—including word count and mandatory information.

Review, revise, and revisit the marketing communications style guide

Put all this down on paper. Distribute it to all concerned, and call for comments. Make changes where necessary. Once the team has come to an agreement on the guide, finalize it in a PDF file—but just as important—perhaps deliver hard copy to every individual who is involved in marketing communications, or more importantly, post it prominently in your marketing communications portal. A style guide with a clear table of contents should be at arm’s length or a mouse click away for anyone who puts words or graphics together. Have an online cache of templates, graphic elements, photos, logos, etc. ready for the team to access.

But don’t think it ends there. Revisit the style guide on a regular basis; markets, competition, and yes, even target customers may change over time. What sounds and looks appropriate today could seem stale and ineffective even six months from now. Marketing communications style guides should evolve and improve over time.

In summary

At Hoffman, we find that marketing communications style guides are an enormous benefit. With guidelines in place, we can easily adopt the appropriate tone, style, and look our clients need. It’s great to know exactly what a customer wants, right? We’re such fans of style guides and templates we’ve helped a number of clients develop their own, or revise guides they’ve already had in place. We know many employees may complain about the length of the guide and breadth of the items covered, but it’s your dress code and brand.

How long is your marketing communications style guide? Do you think elements are missing? Is it time for a style guide makeover, and why? Or maybe you think this whole notion of style guides is too restrictive and unnecessary…we’d like to hear from you.


[1] Color Psychology. Psychology Today, 2014.

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