Styles Guides and Audio Signatures

Posted by on September 5, 2011

Ad Campaign: a series of ads bound together by a set of distinctive identifiers.

Can you name the identifiers that mark your campaign?

Okay, there’s the font you use for your company name and the color scheme you use on your business cards, letterhead and signage. But the world overflows with fonts and colors. What other distinctive identifiers cause your readers, listeners and viewers to immediately recognize your ads as yours?

Think of an ad campaign other than your own that you admire. What are its distinctive identifiers?

Every successful campaign has a style guide that gives its ads their “connectedness.” The longer you use a memorable style guide, the more recognizable your brand becomes.

Customers prefer the known to the unknown, the familiar to the unfamiliar.

The Morton Salt girl has changed dramatically over the years, but always within a clearly defined style guide that makes her seem forever the same; right foot forward, left foot back, umbrella cradled in the crook of the right elbow, salt pouring behind her as she carries it in the crook of her left elbow, and the rain falling at an angle, right to left, as though pushing the girl forward rather than opposing her. And the color scheme is strictly dichromatic: yellow and navy blue.

Salty Sally has had six different faces and has changed her clothes and shoes and hairstyle in virtually every incarnation but she remains one of the most recognized brand icons in the world due to Morton’s commitment to work within the boundaries of a highly specific style guide.

A good style guide is built upon the words “always” and “never.” What is always in your ads? What is never in them? What are the boundaries of your style guide?

A distinct brand personality is the result of a memorable style guide. A tight style guide makes your company feel reliable in the mind of your customer.

It’s easy to be creative when you’re free to do anything you want. The test of real creative genius is whether you can be unpredictable and consistent simultaneously. Can you create something new, surprising and different within a recognizable framework carved in stone?

If you do what people expect you to do, you bore them. If you say what they expect you to say, they turn their attention elsewhere.

Predictability is death in advertising. But consistency is the lifeblood of brand building.

Predictability is the result of bad writing.

Consistency is the result of a style guide.

Good writing within a memorable style guide is the mark of a master.

In works of fiction, the style guide is known as the Character Bible. It defines how each character thinks, acts, and sees the world. If a fictional character says or does something that doesn’t ring true, it’s because the writer stepped beyond the boundaries of the Character Bible.

Bill Watterson created the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes within a devilishly narrow style guide and an unbelievably tight Character Bible. Hobbes is a lanky tiger with a dry wit when only Calvin is in the frame of the cartoon with him but when anyone else is present, Hobbes is a small, stuffed tiger with button eyes. Watterson steadfastly refuses to license Calvin and Hobbes television shows, plush toys, action figures or other products. This unforgettable pair will forever be limited to the printed page.

Watterson is giving up tens of millions of dollars and he knows it. I admire him.

Animals are much better equipped than you and me to judge color differences, depth perception, pattern disruptions and smells. The gift that allows us humans to rule the world is our ability to attach complex meanings to sounds. Some of these sounds are called words but other sounds have specific meanings as well.

You no longer see when you look away, but you hear and retain information even when you’re no longer listening. This is why the average person can sing along with more than 2,000 songs, none of which they ever intended to learn. Does your style guide include a unique audio signature that is used in all your electronic advertising? Do you employ specific word flags, rhythms, sound effects or vocal styles that cause listeners to know immediately that you’ve walked into their world?

Mick Jagger, Billy Joel and Frank Sinatra might sing exactly the same word in precisely the same key, but you’d still know which one was who, right? You’d know instantly, without even having to think about it.

Never use the house announcer in your electronic ads. Own a voice that is distinctive and memorable. Don’t share it with anyone else in your marketplace. That voice will be an imporant element in your style guide.

Guess whose voice I believe in most?


Roy H. Williams

PS – Style Guides and Audio Signatures will be demonstrated in the upcoming session of Wizard of Ads LIVE, the worldwide video classroom. We saved an online seat for you. Are you coming? The next class is Monday, September 12, 2011. Give us an hour and we’ll give you the world.

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