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Style Guides: A Lesson in Consistency from In-N-Out Burger

I was in college when I first discovered In-N-Out Burger’s secret menu, and let me tell you, it was a liberating experience. No more struggling to find the right words to politely ask if they could please toast the bun, and no more feeling bad for preferring ketchup to mustard. I was finally “in the know” on the fast food chain’s secret language, and I could order my double-single, extra toast, ketchup instead, whole grilled with well-done fries and a drink like a pro.

At this point, the secret menu at In-N-Out Burger is far from a secret; in fact, tons of other restaurants have since begun adopting their own secret language, from Shake Shack to Jamba Juice. While it may seem like these new players are piggybacking off an old trend, what they’re really doing is something that savvy marketers and publishers have been doing for generations.

They’re creating style guides for their brand.

Editorial style guides are the secret menus for publishers, and everyone from Vogue to The New York Times has one all their own. (Think it’s an accident David Brooks always capitalizes acronyms shorter than five letters, but not six?) A style guide is a document that defines grammar, punctuation, usage, and design guidelines to help a team of editors and writers — internal and external — communicate consistently. In my career, I’ve created them for websites, magazines, syndication services, and more. As a brand publisher, a style guide does more than that. It helps produce consistent copy that always hits the points with a uniform perspective. When it comes to content marketing, a good style guide combines the best of the traditional editorial document with creative project brief. Here’s what you need to get started:

  • Target Audience. Is your typical reader a blue-collar, middle-aged male or a highly-educated surgeon? Create a profile of your reader that includes details like what he likes to do on the weekends, where he eats, what he looks like, etc. The more detail, the more likely your writers and editors will speak directly to him.
  • Content Goal. What are you hoping to provoke in the reader? Signing up for more content? Increased brand affinity? Develop an understanding of expertise? Sales? Whatever it is, say it.
  • Voice and Tone. Do you want your voice to be conversational or professional? Do you want to sound like an expert or a friend? Will you use first or second person narrative? List what your brand sounds like, and what it doesn’t sound like. Specify if and how it changes depending on the channel.
  • Content Specifications. This section should include specifics like headline character limits, subhead treatments, when to use italics, the optimal word count for various content vehicles (a blog post might run 300-500 words while an article might run 800-1500 words), etc.
  • Points of Style. This section should be in alphabetical order and will include everything from how to refer to your company, acronym usage, words to avoid, grammar guide, spelling conventions (ex: pageviews or page views) to whether or not to use a serial comma (ex: apples, oranges, and bananas). It should include off-brand points of style, so examples of things not to use: political, alcohol, etc.

Compiling a comprehensive style guide doesn’t have to be a daunting task. If you’ve done a good job developing your content strategy and have begun creating content, you should have all the relevant information handy. And keep in mind — it’s a living document, meant to evolve over time as your brand grows, media change and your content matures. We maintain style guides for each of our clients (and for ourselves) and are constantly updating them as we move along. Need more info on how to create a style guide for your organization? Contact us.