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How not to write guidelines

‘An early April Fool’s joke’ said the first tweet, mocking the University of Warwick’s tone of voice guidelines. And then those guidelines went viral on Twitter… well, as viral as these sort of things go.

Read between the tweets (you can rewind through some of them here) and it soon becomes clear that people aren’t just mocking the guidelines because they’re unintentionally bad, which just to be clear, they are. But because they’re for – shock horror – a university. It’s one thing for businesses to do all this vulgar branding nonsense, that’s just what they do, but it’s quite another for hallowed universities to steep so low. Which says volumes about how people see universities (and branding). We’ll come back to that, but first the guidelines themselves. What makes them so bad?

The We All Need Words guideline to… how not to write guidelines.

1. Hang everything on a woolly positioning statement

Warwick’s tone of voice guidelines start with a brand positioning statement, ‘What if?’

'What if' we did branding without the positioning statements? What then? Without going over too much old ground, we have a low opinion of brand positioning statements. They’re a kind of emperor’s new clothes. People dream them up to convince the board and themselves that they’ve got a ‘brand’: I must have a brand, it says so in my guidelines and this statement ties everything together. Except all they’ve actually got is wordy blah that is so abstract it’s hard to do anything with. But what if you have to include a positioning statement in your guidelines? You can either mention it passing and move on. Or follow the University of Warwick’s example, and really go for it. Their ‘What if’ positioning statement is an empty question banging the reader on the head over and over again. Everything in this guideline hinges on the phrase ‘What if’ beyond all reason.

'What if' I'm writing on behalf of the history faculty?
‘What if’ I’m writing for the history faculty?

2. YOU MUST say this

[Insert hackneyed phrase here.]
Imagine no guidelines, I wonder if you can…

When a brand manager says they want a consistent tone of voice, they often mean they want an approved list of words or phrases for people to sprinkle into their writing. But it’s really hard to write well if you have to keep shoe-horning in an on-message statement about the future every few sentences. It’s why David Cameron sounds so weird at the moment every time he tries to slip “long-term plan” into his answers. You only have to read the University of Warwick’s recent words to see the weird effect it’s having on their writing. Pity their social media team trying to write things that don’t sound like someone from the brand police is pointing a gun at their heads:

3. Tie it all together with an incredibly convoluted system

...as if writing wasn't hard enough.
…as if writing wasn’t hard enough.

Embed the language of possibility? Applying the seven principles? Change the tone depending on what you’re writing… This incredibly over-explained process makes our heads hurt just reading it. It’s insane.

4. Illustrate it with bad examples

One of the things that makes most guidelines hard to put into practice is that they’re usually so selective. The examples of the new logo, ad or whatever are handpicked to be shown in the best light. If this is the University of Warwick’s tone of voice in its best light, we hate to imagine what a bad bit of writing would look like.


But what of the points people made on Twitter about tone of voice being ‘extraordinary’, ‘absurd’ and ‘bollocks’?

Well, when a tone of voice turns out like this, we agree. And, depressingly, most of what people call ‘tone of voice’ ends up being like this – whether it’s for a big business, a charity or a university. It’s a real problem for us. People say ‘we’ve got a tone of voice, we just need help refining it’, when what they really mean is that they’ve come up with a fuzzy positioning statement, followed by a three, five or seven principle process that no-one can follow. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: brands would do better to think more about their stance or take on things and the words they use to express it, and worry much less about whether to call it ‘tone of voice’ and put it in some guidelines. All that does is get people’s backs up and plays into their preconceptions of marketing and branding being a lot of fluff.

But what’s interesting about the University of Warwick is that it wasn’t just ‘tone of voice’ that rankled with the Twitterati. After all, lots of companies have tone of voice guidelines like these (alas). What really touched a nerve here is that these guidelines are for a university.

Following Mark’s line of thinking, it’d be better if universities got rid of this branding and marketing nonsense once and for all and got on with research and teaching students. But here’s the thing, universities need good branding more than most businesses. You only have to think about all the different universities out there, struggling to stand out while saying the same things. As is often the way, we think the problem is bigger than tone of voice. It’s about their brands – and standing for something. We once did some work for Goldsmiths, part of the University of London. If you don’t know them, they’re one of the UK’s most famous art colleges. Alfred Hitchcock, Lucian Freud and film maker Steve McQueen went there. The band Blur formed there. There’s a furniture shop opposite the campus with a hand-written sign saying “We once sold a chair to Damian Hirst” (another name the university can drop). Goldsmiths is a Who’s Who of interesting, arty, creative people. Yet when we worked with their marketing team they said they were worried about being typecast an arts and humanities university. Most universities would kill for a brand as strong as theirs, but they wanted to throw it away and say diddly squat.

We’ve got a theory that marketing departments create guidelines drowning in process like these when they want to give the appearance of doing branding, but really, subconsciously, they want to keep their heads down and not get noticed at all. We reckon universities fall into this trap a lot (search for examples of their guidelines and you’ll see what we mean) because they’re faced with an almost impossible conundrum. On the one hand their marketing folk know they’re part of a market competing for fee-paying students. On the other, most people who work in universities don’t see themselves like that. So what you get is a compromise. Something that’s called branding and tone of voice, but that does nothing of the sort and says nothing at all either.

You can read the University of Warwick’s guidelines in full here.