Starbucks’ tone of voice brand guidelines

Wouldn’t you think a global retailer’s tone of voice brand guidelines would have much in them?

Looking at Starbucks’ example of tone of voice guidelines, it appears not.

What’s going on? And what’s the impact?

a menu from Starbucks showing different options

Starbucks, Mallorca: I count 4 different languages in the description of their product.

I was shocked when I saw how brief Starbucks’ tone of voice brand guidelines are.

I know, having done this for 15 years, that their brevity is creating needs elsewhere. I’ll come to that in a minute.

But for now, here’s what they look like.

The Intro: brief and to the point. But too brief?

Five lines.

It doesn’t patronise the brand copywriter.

But does it give them enough?

I don’t think so.

And frankly, I’m not sure I understand what they’re talking about. Do you?

The heart of Starbucks’ tone of brand guidelines: is that it?

tone of voice brand guidelines from Starbucks

Believe it or not, this is the main part of their tone of voice brand guidelines.

What do I think?

I’d be lost if I were writing copy for them.

I get the old distinction between ‘sales copy’ vs ‘brand-building copy’.

And I kind of get what they’re saying about ‘Functional’ copy being wayfinding etc. But was anyone trying to build the brand on the signs for the toilets?

This is a categorisation of copy, rather than helping people know how to amplify Starbucks’ personality.

And some of the suggestions are banal: all copy should pay attention to the thing it’s describing rather than the copy itself. Even in brand-building copy.

And then that description for ‘Expressive’ copy…I don’t know what ‘expressive moments on focal products’ means.

Does anyone?

“And making every word count”? Isn’t that just like saying, “Write good copy.”

starbucks' brand tone of voice copy example for social media

Helpful examples?

In the examples section (which is immediately below the screengrab I’ve shown you above), the In-Store Signage seems to fall under the ‘Functional’ copy category.

But it seems to be making brand claims in an expressive way.

I’m totally confused.

Starbuck's brand tone of voice guidelines for Insta

That’s it. I give up.

This is basically the last panel of their brand tone of voice guidelines.

The more I read, the more confused I become.

So far, I’ve been told about two categories of copy, had no clear explanation of how they differ, been confused about whether they’re really used and seen examples that confuse me more.

How can a company as big as Starbucks produce so much material with such simplistic guidelines?

It’d be tempting to look at this set of tone of voice guidelines and conclude that you don’t need in-depth brand definitions to build a global brand.

And you’d be right.

But what you need instead are broad swathes of copywriters generating multiple versions of copy in the hope that something will be right, with several layers of managers editing and revising until it gets approved.

Oh, and lots and lots of time. You’ll need that as well.

Good brand tone of voice guidelines help you in two ways

  1. They save you time because you can brief more clearly and your copywriters can write more easily.
  2. They save you money because you don’t need to hire the most expensive copywriters to get what’s needed. A well-briefed junior copywriter will produce more than a senior copywriter who’s guessing at the brand voice.

(But remember, even if you’ve got great guidelines, you need good copywriter training, too.)

If I were rating guidelines, this would score a 1/10.

But frankly, I’m sure they don’t care.

Chris 'signature


PS I didn’t go down the rabbit hole of what used to be seen as ridiculous product names for Starbucks coffee. But I was momentarily distracted by what people with non-European names face in store.

If you want to see a good set of brand tone of voice guidelines (for a bank), check out this example – Monzo’s brand tone of voice guidelines.

And next time, I’ll take a look at the Girl Guides’ brand tone of voice guidelines.


About Verbal Identity

We are writers, strategists and linguistics experts: super-specialists in the magic and mechanics of language. We know how language creates thinking. And how – if you shape the language of your company, your comms and your customers – you shape what people think and do, read more…

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This