Culture and language are knitted closely together. Without using the right language, it would be almost impossible for any brand to successfully penetrate a new market or strengthen an existing one.
Wayfair started to speak to its customers in American English back in 2011. A few years later, it expanded to Canadian French and later crossed the ocean to address its customers, partners and potential employees in British English and German (sometimes also in Polish, Spanish, and Italian). This unhurried and strategic transition has made it easier for Wayfair to establish itself as a strong protagonist in the e-commerce industry and successfully transmit its value propositions to different cultures and languages.
As the Creative Copy team in Europe, our mission is to ensure that Wayfair’s brand voice remains consistent in our European markets at all times, At the same time, we need to speak in an interesting and engaging way to our audience across a wide range of channels, assets and languages. For us — as for every brand — offering a consistent customer experience independent of the channel, platform or medium of communication is key.
At Wayfair, the Creative teams in Boston and Berlin have taken ownership of this task and oversee the integrity of the Wayfair brand voice. However, keeping an eye on the quality of the content we write across all Wayfair platforms is everyone’s responsibility. Our style guides are an all-important tool to help us with this task. In this article, I outline the dos and don’ts to make sure you have the right fundamentals for your brand copy style guide looking beyond language.
What is a style guide?
A style guide is a set of guidelines to help everyone in the organisation make decisions about style and tone. The goal of a style guide is to make sure everyone is on the same page so that your company’s written content is high quality, consistent, inclusive and targeted. Our style guides provide all Wayfair employees with an easy-to-use resource for creating content that is consistent, clear and uniquely Wayfair.
Our copywriting style guide goes beyond basic grammar and style suggestions. It includes an introduction to our tone of voice, guidance on bias-free communication, Wayfair Europe’s approach to translation and localisation, grammar rules for clarity, preference or practicality, FAQs and much more. It is a decentralised living resource which conveys grammar and brand rules while also taking cultural and linguistic differences into account.
Select a source language. A source language makes your guides easier to manage and you’ll always have a reference to go back to and ensure consistency.
Define the spine of your style guide. Identify the topics you want to transcreate for all languages and cultures (e.g. tone of voice, basic grammar rules, bias-free language, FAQ) and which will support your branding efforts independent of the country.
Consider region-specific business needs. Identifying the region-specific market size, strategy and needs of your business will save you time and resources when creating the style guide. By keeping these needs in mind, you’ll influence how both employees and customers make sense of your company’s strategy.
Define a structure and keep it tidy. There is nothing better than putting ideas on paper. This helps you not only visualise the aesthetic, but also answer two simple questions: will everyone be able to use it effectively and, most importantly, will they find and understand what they were looking for?
Ask for help. Creating a corporate writing style guide proves both how important language is to guiding the direction of your brand, as well as how complicated the task can be! Don’t create a style guide alone, and don’t do it only with the help of writers and translators. Ask potential users, designers and other members of your team for support to make your style guide the best it can be.
Create a glossary. Business glossaries are key when creating multilingual content and copy. If you have translators and a copy editing team, a glossary that includes your organisation’s vocabulary will help avoid simple but critical misunderstandings. Consider questions like: Which words do we use? Which words don’t we use? What can we go for instead?
Include bias-free communication guidelines. It is common to think only of gender-inclusive language when creating a thoughtful, inclusive and diverse style guide. However, it is just as important to consider ability and disability, age, nationality, religion and ethnicity. Remember that language is an enabler for people to understand each other, not to become like one another.
Don’t use machine translation. Machine translation can sometimes be efficient when you’re working with bulk content that will be checked later. However, over almost ten years of experience in the multilingual copywriting industry, I’ve found time and time again that elements such as tone and voice, personality, humour and culture-specific topics matter. And they can only be translated by real people who understand the content, and not just the words.
Don’t forget to reflect the values and principles of your brand. Try to avoid any personal opinions when creating your style guide and make sure you are reflecting the personality of your brand. You can do this not only by outlining the set of rules and words you use to speak to your audiences, but also by bringing visibility to the topics that matter to your company.
Don’t assume people know what you’re talking about. You’d be surprised at the amount of different meanings a team gives to words such as “asset”, “issue”, “ticket” and even “customer”! Remember to take a step back and consider the basics when creating your style guide. I always like to think of new joiners: would all the information in your style guide be clear and comprehensible to the newest person on your team?
Don’t make it all about copywriting. Think of education, structure and efficiency. You are creating a common knowledge resource for everyone, independent of their language and culture. You’re architecting information in different languages to transmit the same message and intention. And most importantly, at least for us at Wayfair Europe, you’re working on a resource that will help you answer people’s questions without having to reply directly to them.
Don’t forget to check the relevance of your style guide. Companies evolve, along with markets, languages and people’s needs. Remember to check and update your style guide regularly. Most importantly, make sure you also share these improvements with as many teams in your company as possible.
The time invested is worth it
Creating a multilingual style guide is a complex process. It requires corporate and linguistic talent. You’ll have to juggle a lot of balls: ensuring that you’re using the right language for your brand, that you’re not confusing basic grammar rules, and also reflecting on how your brand has shaped its communication strategy.
If like me you’re not a native speaker in the language(s) you’re creating your style guide in and for, you’ll need to ask for help and find resources to make sure it is mistake-free. If you have more than one team writing external or internal content, you’ll have to make sure everyone is on board and that you’re taking all perspectives and approaches into account. A successful style guide is by no means a solo project.
Creating a copy style guide involves more than words and messaging. It is a set of guiding linguistic behaviours, aimed at reducing misunderstandings and giving people security. To deliver the best possible experience for your customers, partners and employees, what you’re saying and how you’re saying it are equally important in making sure that your audience understands you.