If you printed out all your digital employee benefits communications from the last year and lined them up on a table with all your print pieces, what would you see? Communications that look cohesive and consistent—like they all come from your company? Pieces that fit nicely next to any external advertising or other communication your company produces for potential clients?
Why am I asking you this?
Somewhere along the way it became the norm to produce employee-focused materials that look nothing like the communications produced for external audiences. That probably happened for a couple of reasons: First, there just weren’t enough internal communications staff—and budget—to help with creating or guiding the development of your benefits communications. And second, benefits professionals are just that—benefits professionals. Most of you don’t come to the field with a solid marketing background, so concepts such as branding, style guides, brand pillars, and attributes are not part of your everyday vocabulary.
Here at Segal Benz, we have worked for the past decade to change the approach to benefits communications. Companies hire us to create benefits communications that engage and compel employees to take action. Even if you work for a company that doesn’t have an internal communications budget, we believe that you can still communicate to your employees like a pro—without a marketing background or an internal communications team! You just need to add a few simple tricks to your toolbox.
Before we get started, there’s something you need to be familiar with: the concept of your company’s brand. Yeah, I said it. You might feel compelled to dismiss it as a buzzword, but it’s actually an extremely important term that describes a communications fundamental. In the simplest definition possible, brand is how the public thinks of your company.
It’s not the logo, the color scheme, the look and feel of your company website, or its tone of voice in advertisements—it’s all of that and more. Brand is, in effect, how the public perceives your products or services, and your company as a whole. That means customer service and where or how people think your company fits into the marketplace.
Your company worked hard to define its brand, and it works doubly hard to maintain it. It can control some aspects, such as how the logo is used and the look and feel of its communications. But all too often, this attention to detail stops at external communications and isn’t applied internally to ensure that employees are also aligned with the brand.
We can give you all the tools and tips from our toolbox, but none will influence your brand as much as your employees do. Your employees are your biggest brand representatives. What they say informs public opinion about your company—their impression of your brand is critical. So it’s important to make sure that your employees feel they are part of the same company and that they represent the company in a consistent manner to the public. This is where your communications come in.
Pro tip: Brand guidelines + style guide = “We are family”
No matter if it’s an ad for your company’s products or services, or an employee benefits communications piece, anything produced that represents the company should have the same look and feel. What you’re communicating will influence the specific design or campaign theme, but, together, all your materials should look and feel as though they’re part of the same family.
If you’re not a designer or marketing pro, how do you make this happen? By tapping into what already exists: your company’s brand and style guidelines. They’re the foundation of internal and external brand cohesion. They establish the tone and voice for all written copy, explain what your brand is all about, and detail how the logo, colors, and images should be used. Some companies have more than one guide—one to address overall brand descriptions and design direction, and another to guide content. These documents are essential to clearly defining your brand attributes and personality so that everyone who has a hand in creating your communications is on the same page when it comes to how your company expresses itself visually and in words—to both internal and external audiences. Since benefits communications include terminology that’s specific to benefits, we recommend that you create your very own brand guidelines and style guide just for your communications. Select which colors out of your company’s overall brand palette you want to use for benefits communications. Decide on which images or subset of icons you want to use, and create a library for easy access. Create a style guide that includes the proper use of your company name and any variations allowed, what you call your employees in your communications, and words and phrases that are specific to your industry (with standard definitions, if these terms aren’t user-friendly). It’s also helpful to include a cheat sheet for often misused words/phrases and key grammar tips.
Also include which official style manual you adhere to (AP? Chicago Manual?) to ensure consistency when in doubt. Of course, you can diverge from it when you need to, but the key is to be consistent in how you use words and phrases, and how you format information, such as always using title case for headlines.
Here are a few things you’ll need to decide:
- How do you use your company name? Full name all the time or is there an abbreviation?
- Are you going to use e-mail or email? (Most style guides prefer email, which is more common online, but the hyphenated version is still acceptable.)
- Will you use website or web site? (I see website most often, and this version just made it into Merriam-Webster.)
- How will you use industry-specific acronyms? Will you follow AP style and spell out each word for the first use and include the acronym, or does your audience already know what HSA and HDHP stand for?
- What are your company’s full, legal benefit plan names, and how do you abbreviate them for employee communication?
Make a cheat sheet that includes common grammar rules, too
No one except a proofreader has to be an expert in grammar. Make a cheat sheet for your key terms and phrases that are often misused, then distribute it. Here are a few rules from our list:
- Health care or healthcare, depending on which you choose. (We use health care, if you’re curious.)
- Spell out months, except in charts or graphs.
- Use only one space (not two spaces) after periods, colons, exclamation points, and question marks—after any punctuation that separates two sentences.
- Use numerals for numbers; do not spell them out.
For example: Nearly 9 out of 10 employees are happy with their jobs.
- In all copy, whether it’s in the body or in a table, use the % sign: Only 2% of respondents said yes to this question. (This is a newer style change; the preference used to be to use the word percent, but now it seems that the norm is starting to be the % sign.)
- Commas and periods always go inside quotation marks. Colons and semicolons always go outside quotation marks. Like this:
The company announced, “Employee training will begin next week.”
Last week you said, “I sent the package”; it still hasn’t arrived.
- When using phrases or titles that are acronyms, spell out the entire phrase or title, then put the acronym in parentheses the first time you use it. Then you can use the acronym for future references.
For example: evidence of coverage (EOC).
- Use two commas to set off a year when it follows the month, day, and year.
For example: The event on June 11, 2008, was a nice one.
- For job titles, always capitalize titles before the person’s name; lowercase after.
For example: President John Doe; but Sally Smith, founder.
- Lowercase an official or occupational job title whether it precedes or follows a person’s name, but capitalize official department or company names.
For example: Refer all questions to department manager Ann Green.
Ann Green, department manager, will answer all decisions.
Whatever benefits-specific brand guidelines and style guide you adopt, be sure they both cover the points that will be helpful to those creating your communications, and that they’re used by everyone who has a hand in developing them—your communications team, design staff, and the folks who manage your website. You’ll save yourselves a lot of time if everyone’s on the same page from the get-go. And we all know that time is one thing that’s in short supply, especially when Annual Enrollment rolls around.
For additional help gearing up for open enrollment, download our 8 Insurance Terms Every American Needs to Know, and our tip sheet, 4 Tips to Get Straight A’s During Enrollment Season.