A brand is more than a logo, name, trademark and set of colors — it’s the culmination of every experience people have with your organization. Like a compass, brand guidelines point toward creative North, empowering your team to move that collective experience in the same direction.
As your organization evolves, so will your brand. Thus, it’s important to have a set of brand guidelines that establish creative boundaries for communications, yet maintain the flexibility to change. I will discuss how you can design, apply and evolve brand guidelines to achieve that balance.
Why Bother With Brand Guidelines?
Brand guidelines translate your company’s identity into a functional set of rules your team can apply to creative work. The challenge is to find a balance between criteria and ambiguity. Some brand guidelines dictate too many parameters, which can constrict creativity. Others are too vague to provide any practical guidance.
Brand guidelines should empower your teams with confidence in their creative choices. Regardless of the digital channel — be it social media, your blog or a podcast — the teams need to know what to say and how to present your brand accurately. Their ability to take action depends on the content of your brand guidelines.
What Goes Into Guidelines
Someone at your company must take ownership of creating, communicating and evolving your brand guidelines. That is one of my responsibilities at Widen, the content technology company where I work. My team and I have learned that good brand guidelines need to include the following basics:
- An explanation of why the brand guidelines are important to your organization
- Font choices and a way to find those selections
- Parameters of logo use
- Your brand’s color palette
- Examples of successful communications with notes about what makes them exemplary
In most cases, you’ll benefit from adding some advanced guidelines. These could include:
- Your organization’s mission, vision and values
- Templates for slide decks, social media, internal documents, videos, etc.
- Brand tone and voice
- Optimal copy length and size for body copy and headlines
- Photography and illustration style
- Boilerplate copy for key messages
- Brand attributes and characteristics (who we are and who we are not)
- Trademark language
The advanced guidelines recognize that different roles and personalities have different needs. Templates, for instance, serve people who need to take fast action without uncertainty (e.g. salespeople). Creatives, on the other hand, often prefer to interpret and apply brand guidelines in more tailored ways.
To develop a set of brand guidelines that empower your coworkers, partners and vendors, I recommend breaking the process into four steps:
1. Make the Creation of Brand Guidelines a Democratic Process
People bristle at rules that seem imposed rather than chosen. Whether you’re creating or re-writing brand guidelines, consult the people who will be most affected by them. Talk to teams independently about what they need from guidelines, how they plan to use them and where they can most easily access them. This dialogue will drive buy-in for your guidelines.
2. Publicize Your Brand Guidelines
Put your brand guidelines on a company intranet, digital asset management system (DAM), STP site or some other accessible platform. Run an internal PR campaign with emails, social posts, meetings and maybe creative stunts (brand flash mob or meme campaign?). Make the brand guidelines publicly available unless you need to keep them internal for legal reasons.
3. Decide What Is On-Brand and Off-Brand
Someone needs to determine whether new content is on-brand or off-brand. This process could raise complaints about the “brand police” if your team doesn’t understand the decisions, so always explain your rationale for turning content down. Reference specific brand guidelines and give constructive feedback to the creators.
Nina Brakel-Schutt is the Business Development & Brand Strategist for Widen. Her work with Widen began at the start of 2012 after spending the last 20 years working in brand strategy and integrated marketing communications on the agency side in Chicago, helping large and small companies strengthen and communicate their brands. For six years, she served as Managing Partner at her own brand consulting firm, Identity 3.0. She’s also been an adjunct professor of marketing at DePaul University. Her client experience spans many industries with organizations like Allstate, Lund International, Aptar Group, WMS Gaming, General Electric, and Rush University.