In a wired world where companies communicate across multiple platforms, brand consistency is key. To achieve that consistency, most organizations create a style guide to house guidelines on writing style and tone, visual standards, and the usage of brand assets like logos.
A brand style guide helps employees, freelancers, and the media design for, write about, and talk to customers engaged with the brand. Here, we'll take a look at how a few brands are developing and using style guides that help them achieve their goals—and how you can use these examples as you create your own.
There's evidence that brand consistency can increase revenue by over 20 percent, drive customer relationships that are more valuable to your company, and help companies gain followers. For an example of a workflow to make your brand more consistent in a matter of months, read about how Zapier did it.
What Makes a Great Style Guide?
For decades, brands have realized the importance of thoroughly defining their assets. See NASA's 1976 Graphics Standards Manual, a design classic that finished up at a hefty 60 pages simply discussing the use of the NASA logotype.
Today's style guides tend to be a bit briefer, but they all share one goal: Convey the brand's identity in a way that helps people speak as the brand—and about the brand. To that end, the nine digital style guides discussed below share five important attributes:
They have personality. A style guide builds a voice and personality for your brand. All nine of the featured style guides adopt the brand's own tone and voice, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it nod to the importance of consistency.
They're easy to navigate. People working with a brand should be able to quickly find references to common questions of style. The style guides on our list are organized using visual hierarchies that make it easy for readers to skim through and find what they're looking for.
They're pre-approved. Having rules for your brand helps protect its identity. When these rules are codified in a style guide, you won't have to seek new approvals each time your assets are used in a new context—whether it's on your own site or by the media. Each of the brand style guides below discusses guidelines for common use of assets as well as situations where additional permissions would be required.
They're comprehensive. A style guide should be a one-stop shop to answer frequently asked questions about brand identity. That means style guides include discussion of visual assets along with guidelines for written copy. While some of the brands on our list keep them separate, they all offer guides for both design and copy.
They're accessible. All nine of the style guides we discuss below are accessible by the public. This cuts down on back-and-forth file sharing and the potential for lost asset files.
Even with these similarities, each of the following brand style guides takes its own approach to cataloging its rules of style. Here's why each one stands out:
Atlassian for its conciseness
Co-op for maintaining a living style guide
Formstack for explaining the rationale behind each guideline
Frontify for providing guidelines specific to each of its content channels
Hootsuite for its sense of humor
HubSpot for incorporating its style guide into its marketing materials
Skype for applying its unique visual aesthetic throughout the guide
Mailchimp for publishing its style guide under a Creative Commons license
Zapier for the equal attention given to internal and external contributors
Stands out for its conciseness
Atlassian, the software company that includes such properties as Trello, Bitbucket, and Jira, starts its style guide speaking to the Atlassian brand's personality: "bold, optimistic, and practical with a wink."
Its style guide is certainly practical, as each of its core brand guidelines is outlined in just as many words as it takes to explain the point, with graphics provided for further emphasis. In Atlassian's own words, "'just enough' is better than 'all the things.'" And that's why they explain their writing style in just four sentences.
It's a refreshingly simple perspective, especially for an enterprise software company with 13 distinct product lines (and growing).
Stands out for maintaining a living style guide
Style guides may define a brand, but like the people and trends behind them, brands can evolve. Co-op, a UK-based cooperative that provides shopping, insurance, and legal assistance services to its members, gives stakeholders an opportunity to update the style guide, creating a living style guide that's always being refined.
There are alpha, beta, archived, and current versions of many of the sub-documents within Co-op's design manual. Each version is clearly labeled and, where applicable, links to archives are included. Co-op even publishes an ongoing record of any changes to its design manual to help guide version control.
Stands out for explaining the rationale behind each guideline
For nearly every item in its style guide, Formstack includes the reasoning behind it. This process begins with an explanation for the style guide itself: It's a "blueprint to help us create beautiful, streamlined, and thoughtful experiences across all brand-related entities."
Another example: Formstack breaks down how and why it chooses certain keywords for its main channels. The answer? Different keywords are used on each landing page to aid search engines in identifying which pages are most relevant to specific key phrases. That's a level of detail that most brands wouldn't call out in their style guide, but Formstack wants readers to be crystal clear on its brand strategy.
In its content style guide, Formstack even includes a 10-second and a 45-second elevator pitch about the company purpose. Savvy style guides like this one commonly include useable one-liners, slogans, goal statements, and similar copy to help internals, freelancers, and the media better understand and communicate the brand's reason for being.
Stands out for providing guidelines specific to each of its content channels
While brands should use the same voice and tone across their marketing channels, there's a growing trend toward using each of these channels for different purposes. After all, if the content is different, it encourages customers to follow a brand on multiple channels.
Frontify is brand management software, so it makes sense that its brand style guide would be an example to follow. And sure enough, its style guide discusses the purpose of each marketing channel, including product landing pages, the Frontify blog, Medium, Twitter, LinkedIn, and more. For example, Facebook is the home for sharing Frontify's daily activities, news, and sources of inspiration, while YouTube is the place to publish product videos, tutorials, and the occasional webinar.
This level of clarity in identifying where content types should live helps keep the purpose of Frontify's various channels distinct, while still allowing for a consistent brand voice.
Stands out for its sense of humor
Without a defined personality, brands are boring—they sound just like everyone else. By establishing and maintaining a unique tone, brands can stand out and even start to feel a little...human.
Since its debut in 2009, social media management platform Hootsuite has stood out for its humor. Its brand guidelines include such gems as a warning not to simply invert the colors of the standard logo: In Hootsuite's words, "that leads to a sad (and somewhat cross-eyed) icon." Hootsuite also encourages its contributors to consider "weird" images in appropriate situations, particularly those with an owl motif (although tiny dinosaurs are also permitted).
By using humor to tell people to use humor, Hootsuite is a prime example of how a style guide can reflect the brand itself.
Stands out for incorporating its style guide into its marketing materials
Making a style guide publicly accessible serves as a form of marketing by giving users a closer affinity with the company. Like all others on this list, HubSpot's brand guidelines are available to anyone.
But HubSpot takes this one step further with its style guide for written content, which is published as a section of an eBook called "The Internet Marketing Written Style Guide." To view the combination eBook and style guide, you have to provide an email address and opt in to the HubSpot Research mailing list, after which you'll get the download link. It's a win-win that allows HubSpot to grow its mailing list and allows subscribers to expand their internet marketing knowledgebase.
Stands out for applying its unique visual aesthetic throughout the guide
Style guides that combine design and copy tend to be heavy on visuals—none more than Skype, which relies on its characteristic speech bubbles to convey its style guidelines.
As noted—and emulated—in the style guide, speech bubbles should always be handmade and not computer-generated; this gives the bubbles a recognizable energy. To maintain consistency across an every-bubble-is-a-snowflake design style, Skype always uses the Akbar typeface within those bubbles.
The use of speech bubbles in explaining the brand's ethos is particularly effective in the section devoted to establishing user personas. In these sections, a representative sketch of each of Skype's core demographics is accompanied by a speech bubble explaining who they are and why they Skype. The visuals also provide a quick reference to the brand's tone with language dos and don'ts.
Stands out for publishing its style guide under a Creative Commons license
Mailchimp, which touts itself as the largest marketing automation platform for small businesses, seeks to offer products and services that help its customers grow. Their written style guide is no exception.
Mailchimp's Content Style Guide is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license. That means others are allowed to copy and build on it, as long as they give a nod to Mailchimp (and don't make any money from it). In fact, Zapier used Mailchimp's content style guide as inspiration for our own.
Mailchimp's guidelines for brand assets are brief, but its written style guide is comprehensive, including suggestions for grammar and mechanics, blog post formatting, email newsletter writing, and rules for handling commonly-confused (aka "slippery") words.
So if you're building a written style guide from scratch, head to Mailchimp for a head start.
Stands out for the equal attention given to internal and external contributors
The Zapier team is over 175 strong, and we're distributed all over the world. We also frequently collaborate with freelancers and other partners, which makes it important for us to have a style guide that's thorough and accessible (we link to it from our footer).
We cover everything from line height to animation to capitalization in headers, and our content style guide even discusses how to write for each of our various channels and audiences. Our favorite part: The entire guide is keyword-searchable. Our goal was to make it easy for anyone—internal or external—to find what they need, from our preference surrounding contractions (yes, please) to our typeface (Open Sans, designed to be neutral yet friendly).
In the name of accessibility, we even have the option to "Download All Assets," so that anyone can easily repurpose these assets according to the guidelines presented in our style guide.
How to Create a Style Guide for Your Brand
You've seen nine examples of how a style guide can improve brand consistency and the customer experience. As you write and design your own style guide, you can mimic the most critical elements of the guides above while keeping your brand distinct by answering the following questions:
What is your brand's personality?
How is that personality communicated through your written copy?
How is that personality communicated through your brand assets?
What content channels do you use, and what is the purpose of each?
How can you format your style guide to fit your brand's individual style?
Your style guide will help writers and designers for your brand work more efficiently by creating a centralized knowledge base. And what's more: Customers notice and reward brands that value and promote consistency. Taken together, these benefits make the time and resources spent on creating your brand's style guide well worthwhile.