How we onboarded our content team to a new brand voice

How we onboarded our content team to a new brand voice

5 minute read

How we onboarded our content team to a new brand voice

5 minute read

How we onboarded our content team to a new brand voice

Erin Crews

Senior Design Manager, Mailchimp

You might’ve noticed that Mailchimp got a new look last fall. As part of crafting our new design system, we revisited Mailchimp’s voice—that is, principles for how our brand expresses itself through language. Voice and tone have always been an important part of our brand personality, so we knew we’d need to document even slight changes carefully.

But documenting guidelines is just the first step. To bring a cohesive brand voice to life, all our writers need to feel confident applying those guidelines to their everyday work. Fail to get them on board, and we might as well not have bothered.

Gather the right stakeholders

To facilitate meaningful feedback (and find your style guide champions), you’ll need to get the right people in the room before finalising your voice and tone guidance. Deciding when to begin sharing work with stakeholders can be tricky: You want to have core principles that are fully formed enough for a larger group to react to, but not so far along that substantial feedback would derail the whole endeavour. Often this is when the work is about halfway done.

At Mailchimp, a few months into our rebrand process with Collins, we kicked off a style guide roundtable with representatives from key teams:

  • Content marketing, UX content strategy, and technical content
  • Brand marketing
  • Social media
  • Communications
  • Customer support

In all, about a dozen people met each month to review progress and give input on our new voice principles. It created a space for teams from different parts of the company—who interact with customers in different contexts—to align on what scenarios our guidance needed to account for and what would make it useful for their teams. 

Some people just wanted to share their thoughts on the guidelines, but others jumped at the chance to get more involved—volunteering to help with revisions or leading training for all our writers. These are your brand voice evangelists! Find them early. Buy them coffee.

Stress-test your voice principles early

One of the fastest ways to put your guidelines to the test is to see how people use them to write example copy. After a few rounds of revisions, when our voice principles had mostly stabilised, we ran our first workshop. The goal was to leave with some example copy that could be used in a writer's guide later.

We assigned everyone a voice principle and had them write “do” and “don’t” examples based on that principle. Then they shared their copy with a small breakout group to discuss what was working and what wasn’t. Each group picked 2 favourite examples to share with the larger team.

We walked away with examples that we later incorporated into our guide, but we also ended up with copy that missed the mark. That told us where we needed to focus our attention on clearer guidance, or in one case, where a principle just wasn’t quite right for our brand.

Still, we knew we needed to make some tweaks to the way we ran our next workshop. Here’s how we made the second session more focused.

Include your designers

As Jared Spool has pointed out, our users don’t separate our design from our content. They experience them together, and think of them as the same.

We’ve known this for awhile, but we began feeling it more and more acutely as our new brand identity—and particularly our illustration system—took shape. Our plainspoken voice helps to ground the more abstract visual elements of the system, and so the interplay between art and copy had become even more critical than before. If they were created separately, they wouldn’t make sense together.

A photo of some of the content team at Mailchimp at a brand voice workshop


Early on, my brilliant colleague Brandy Porter (now at Vox) had been facilitating illustration workshops for our designers, while I was leading voice and tone workshops for our writers with my content comrade Whitney Homans. In one session, we tried rewriting some existing social copy using our new voice principles. The caption for one seasonal brand art piece—a campfire scene constructed entirely of paper, with our mascot Freddie standing in for the moon—had our writers stumped. They kept finding themselves writing puns, which we now avoid (for the most part) in favour of dry humour. 

The real problem was about process. It went something like this:

  1. The design team came up with a creative concept
  2. The designer created the art
  3. The writer was asked for some copy to go along with the art
  4. The writer wrote 6 options and none of them were quite right

It’s easy to fall into this workflow, but it means that writers don’t have the context they need to do their best work. And in our campfire example, we were trying to practice our new brand voice using art that was part of our old design system. Divorce the copy from the design, and they both break down.

After a few weeks, we realised that if we wanted our content and design to feel integrated, we should be running joint workshops with our writers and designers in the same room.

We focused first on empty states in our app, knowing they provided enough of a blank canvas to get our team’s creative juices flowing and enough constraints to refine multiple ideas over the course of a morning. We invited an even numbers of writers and designers and used a modified version of Crazy 8s.

Copy and design workshop agenda

  1. Intro: Illustration guidelines, voice and tone principles, and workshop structure and goals (30 minutes)
  2. Ideation: Working in pairs (1 designer and 1 writer), come up with at least 5 concepts for your empty state (20 minutes)
  3. Filtering: Pass your ideas to the pair on your left. Choose the strongest idea for your peer pair to continue working on. (10 minutes)
  4. Refinement: Work together to create a final version of the selected idea (30 minutes)
  5. Sharing: Walk the whole group through your final copy and illustration (30 minutes / 5 minutes each)
  6. Eat pizza

Starting out with a highly structured workshop helped our teams get comfortable with new working habits, encouraging designers to consider language early in their process. As our writers and designers found their flow, we loosened up the agenda for later working sessions.

Tips for running your own workshop

  • Communicate the end goal ahead of time. These types of exploratory workshops aren’t the best place to polish copy, but many writers will instinctively spend the time self-editing. Before our next workshop, I let everyone know that we wanted to end the hour with lots of shitty first drafts we could choose from and perfect later. 
  • Consider assigning homework. For our second session, I asked everyone to find an example of humor in our existing content that would be off-brand in our new voice, and to bring those examples to the workshop. That way we could spend our limited time rewriting them in our new voice.
  • Balance individual activity with collaboration. Everyone, but especially your quieter team members, will get more out of your workshop if you set aside time for both solo work and group discussion. Try dedicating about a third of the agenda to individual brainstorming or reflection.
  • Look for a change in scenery. Getting people out of their usual surroundings can help to encourage new ways of thinking and working. We booked a room in Mailchimp’s second office across town to shake things up.

It's still a work in progress

Our brand voice will never be done evolving, which means we’ll never be done figuring out how to help our teams bring it to life. We’re sure to uncover new use cases and needs that stretch the limits of our design system and require new ways of working. And we’ll keep sharing what we learn on the way.

You might’ve noticed that Mailchimp got a new look last fall. As part of crafting our new design system, we revisited Mailchimp’s voice—that is, principles for how our brand expresses itself through language. Voice and tone have always been an important part of our brand personality, so we knew we’d need to document even slight changes carefully.

But documenting guidelines is just the first step. To bring a cohesive brand voice to life, all our writers need to feel confident applying those guidelines to their everyday work. Fail to get them on board, and we might as well not have bothered.

Gather the right stakeholders

To facilitate meaningful feedback (and find your style guide champions), you’ll need to get the right people in the room before finalising your voice and tone guidance. Deciding when to begin sharing work with stakeholders can be tricky: You want to have core principles that are fully formed enough for a larger group to react to, but not so far along that substantial feedback would derail the whole endeavour. Often this is when the work is about halfway done.

At Mailchimp, a few months into our rebrand process with Collins, we kicked off a style guide roundtable with representatives from key teams:

  • Content marketing, UX content strategy, and technical content
  • Brand marketing
  • Social media
  • Communications
  • Customer support

In all, about a dozen people met each month to review progress and give input on our new voice principles. It created a space for teams from different parts of the company—who interact with customers in different contexts—to align on what scenarios our guidance needed to account for and what would make it useful for their teams. 

Some people just wanted to share their thoughts on the guidelines, but others jumped at the chance to get more involved—volunteering to help with revisions or leading training for all our writers. These are your brand voice evangelists! Find them early. Buy them coffee.

Stress-test your voice principles early

One of the fastest ways to put your guidelines to the test is to see how people use them to write example copy. After a few rounds of revisions, when our voice principles had mostly stabilised, we ran our first workshop. The goal was to leave with some example copy that could be used in a writer's guide later.

We assigned everyone a voice principle and had them write “do” and “don’t” examples based on that principle. Then they shared their copy with a small breakout group to discuss what was working and what wasn’t. Each group picked 2 favourite examples to share with the larger team.

We walked away with examples that we later incorporated into our guide, but we also ended up with copy that missed the mark. That told us where we needed to focus our attention on clearer guidance, or in one case, where a principle just wasn’t quite right for our brand.

Still, we knew we needed to make some tweaks to the way we ran our next workshop. Here’s how we made the second session more focused.

Include your designers

As Jared Spool has pointed out, our users don’t separate our design from our content. They experience them together, and think of them as the same.

We’ve known this for awhile, but we began feeling it more and more acutely as our new brand identity—and particularly our illustration system—took shape. Our plainspoken voice helps to ground the more abstract visual elements of the system, and so the interplay between art and copy had become even more critical than before. If they were created separately, they wouldn’t make sense together.

A photo of some of the content team at Mailchimp at a brand voice workshop


Early on, my brilliant colleague Brandy Porter (now at Vox) had been facilitating illustration workshops for our designers, while I was leading voice and tone workshops for our writers with my content comrade Whitney Homans. In one session, we tried rewriting some existing social copy using our new voice principles. The caption for one seasonal brand art piece—a campfire scene constructed entirely of paper, with our mascot Freddie standing in for the moon—had our writers stumped. They kept finding themselves writing puns, which we now avoid (for the most part) in favour of dry humour. 

The real problem was about process. It went something like this:

  1. The design team came up with a creative concept
  2. The designer created the art
  3. The writer was asked for some copy to go along with the art
  4. The writer wrote 6 options and none of them were quite right

It’s easy to fall into this workflow, but it means that writers don’t have the context they need to do their best work. And in our campfire example, we were trying to practice our new brand voice using art that was part of our old design system. Divorce the copy from the design, and they both break down.

After a few weeks, we realised that if we wanted our content and design to feel integrated, we should be running joint workshops with our writers and designers in the same room.

We focused first on empty states in our app, knowing they provided enough of a blank canvas to get our team’s creative juices flowing and enough constraints to refine multiple ideas over the course of a morning. We invited an even numbers of writers and designers and used a modified version of Crazy 8s.

Copy and design workshop agenda

  1. Intro: Illustration guidelines, voice and tone principles, and workshop structure and goals (30 minutes)
  2. Ideation: Working in pairs (1 designer and 1 writer), come up with at least 5 concepts for your empty state (20 minutes)
  3. Filtering: Pass your ideas to the pair on your left. Choose the strongest idea for your peer pair to continue working on. (10 minutes)
  4. Refinement: Work together to create a final version of the selected idea (30 minutes)
  5. Sharing: Walk the whole group through your final copy and illustration (30 minutes / 5 minutes each)
  6. Eat pizza

Starting out with a highly structured workshop helped our teams get comfortable with new working habits, encouraging designers to consider language early in their process. As our writers and designers found their flow, we loosened up the agenda for later working sessions.

Tips for running your own workshop

  • Communicate the end goal ahead of time. These types of exploratory workshops aren’t the best place to polish copy, but many writers will instinctively spend the time self-editing. Before our next workshop, I let everyone know that we wanted to end the hour with lots of shitty first drafts we could choose from and perfect later. 
  • Consider assigning homework. For our second session, I asked everyone to find an example of humor in our existing content that would be off-brand in our new voice, and to bring those examples to the workshop. That way we could spend our limited time rewriting them in our new voice.
  • Balance individual activity with collaboration. Everyone, but especially your quieter team members, will get more out of your workshop if you set aside time for both solo work and group discussion. Try dedicating about a third of the agenda to individual brainstorming or reflection.
  • Look for a change in scenery. Getting people out of their usual surroundings can help to encourage new ways of thinking and working. We booked a room in Mailchimp’s second office across town to shake things up.

It's still a work in progress

Our brand voice will never be done evolving, which means we’ll never be done figuring out how to help our teams bring it to life. We’re sure to uncover new use cases and needs that stretch the limits of our design system and require new ways of working. And we’ll keep sharing what we learn on the way.

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About the author

Erin Crews

Erin is a Senior Design Manager at Mailchimp, where she leads a team of content strategists who help their product and marketing partners craft content that's clear, useful, and human. She oversaw content strategy for Mailchimp's website redesign and the evolution of its voice and tone during the company's rebrand. In a past life, she was a writer, editor, and communications manager in higher education.

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