Brand guidelines are the cornerstone of any successful brand. For any marketing team — especially as your company grows — it would be impossible to build a consistent brand without them. And without documented, accessible and well-communicated brand guidelines, your marketing team, internal creative agency and external agency partners will struggle with the look and feel of every new project.
What are brand guidelines?
Brand guidelines help frame the public perception of a company. They should encapsulate its personality or culture, and should be used to help define every type of communication you send out.
Before you start creating or updating your brand guidelines, it’s important to understand how they will be used. Think of them as the one document that will ensure everyone who touches your brand represents it in the same way. This is especially true for new hires, external marketing stakeholders and staffers who are not co-located with the main marketing team, as well as any of the external creative agencies with whom you work.
And just as much as brand guidelines should explain how your brand should appear, or how your logo should be represented, they should also explain what not to do.
To ensure your brand remains fresh and retains its impact in the market, your brand guidelines should also be updated at regular intervals.
So if you’re the person charged with developing or overhauling your company’s brand guidelines, where do you start? Here, designer Tim McPherson shares some insights into his creative process to help you create or overhaul your own brand guidelines.
Step 1: Include/update the mission statement
What is your company all about? What is the one thing it is focused on doing above all others? It’s important to have your company’s mission statement down somewhere in writing, and to include it in your brand guidelines, McPherson says.
State the story of the company, and how that informs what drives it in terms of its values and mission statement. Reference the company’s founders and why they created the company. And if what drives the company today has changed, the mission statement may need to be updated.
Here’s Skype’s take on it:
Step 2: Define the audience
Know the demographic to whom your brand must appeal. Are you targeting young men aged 18 to 24? Mothers with school-age children? Homeowners? Everyone with a mouth? Identify your core target market and be clear about targeting your brand to appeal to them.
“Sometimes you might have contradicting demographics that you’re aiming for, like you want to be young and hip but you want to appeal to octogenarians,” McPherson says. “Often when you get given a brand like that to design, it ends up being everything to everyone, and that means that you’re nothing to anyone in particular — so it becomes ambiguous.
“That’s not always a bad thing, but brands who are singular in their vision, often have more meaning — which creates an authenticity that runs through every touchpoint.
“Authenticity, ultimately, is what people are really looking for. Even when they are not consciously aware of it.”
Step 3: Get the views of stakeholders
If your company is driven by a single founder’s vision — Jeff Bezos from Amazon, for example — it’s critical you’re across his objectives and opinions when it comes to any update to the brand guidelines.
But brands also live in the hands of the people who apply them, as well as your customers — so make sure you talk to or conduct research with a range of key stakeholders, customers and users so you can develop a comprehensive view of what the brand means to them.
“Another mistake is when a brand is dictated by individual sensibilities versus collective thought,” McPherson says. “By ‘collective’, I mean it’s from everyone in the organisation, not just the CEO or the CMO.
“The one thing in any creative endeavour that gets in the way is subjectivity — you need objectivity and many different perspectives. So talk to people at the bottom as well as at the top. It’s not just consistency in the logo and type and the aesthetic stuff that you’re after, it’s consistency in attitudes, and that can sometimes be an effect of the brand guidelines, or the guidelines can be a result of it.”
Step 4: Survey the competitive landscape
Check out what your competition looks like. If everyone else is using blue, or a particular font, or a cat in their logo, you may want to take a different tack and stand out from the crowd, or just do it better.
Step 5: If your brand was a person…
When you’re trying to bring a brand to life, it often helps to imagine it as a person. It may seem silly, says McPherson, but it can help a designer to understand the brand personality and create a framework for consistency, such as by asking: ‘How would person x behave in that situation?’
“One of the most valuable mental exercises you can do is to anthropomorphise a brand. What kind of reputation does this ‘person’ have? Who would want to hang out with this person? How would they talk, and in what accent? What kind of music do they listen to? What do they do on weekends?
“This may seem ridiculous, but with consistency being the key reason for having brand guidelines, consistency of thought is the first thing that needs to be established — hence the framing of the company and brand as an individual or a character.
“That mental play naturally frames the brand, without thinking purely in colours and fonts, which is often how inexperienced designers think.
“One example, is thinking about what they would wear: their fashion sense. When you think about it, this often relates to taste, function and style, right? If you were to think of dressing yourself in the morning — do you wear bright colours or muted tones? Or do you have a uniform, specifically for a purpose? That’s the way your brand walks out the door every day.
“Essentially, this exercise is a way to really get your empathy muscles flexing creatively. If this consistency of thought isn’t employed at the start, you’ll have a brand that doesn’t know ‘who’ it is. Your design choices will be based on what you like, rather than the person your brand would be. Your customers won’t develop an association and awareness of who you are — just as if you didn’t have an identity yourself.”
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Step 6: Tone of voice
What adjectives would you use to describe your company’s tone of voice? Is it formal or conversational? Does this change depending on when and how it’s being used?
“Brand guidelines are often very mathematical but the tone of voice is the soul of the brand,” McPherson says. “Tone of voice is that human connection. Think about what your brand would sound like if it spoke to you rather than how you might talk about it on a page.”
Include a section on words you use or phrases you like, as well as those you don’t, to help those reading grasp it fully.
For inspiration, check out how MailChimp applies specific use cases:
7. Visual design elements: the look and feel
The visual design elements are probably what spring immediately to mind when you think of brand guidelines. This encompasses things such as:
- Official brand colors
Make sure you’re aware of the basics, such as colour theory, if you’re updating your brand colours. Include Pantone colours for items that will be printed, CMYK values and give the exact hex code for web use.
- Logo options, and how they should be used
It’s important to depict your logo in various guises, such as reversed out, or monochrome, so you can maintain consistency in how your brand appears and prevent designers taking liberties with your logo. Include all variations of your logo, and sub-logos, and specify how additional words used for different divisions of your company should appear.
- Photography and iconography
Be specific about your requirements for photographers, encompassing things like mood, lighting, whether you use real people or models, or the values you want to reflect when depicting staff. Include any iconography to be used, and specify when and where it might be applied. Include rules for the spacing around images.
- Fonts and typography and how they should be used
Choose fonts that best reflect your brand’s personality and company culture. You’ll have a number of different styles that work well together; specify where and how they should be used. You can include sizing, kerning (the spacing between your letters and words), and leading (the distance between lines of text on the page) for clarity.
- Signage and office design
Increasingly, brand guidelines apply to the physical premises of brands, from signage to franchise outlets, office foyer design, and even the interior design and layout of offices, such as the values they should promote (for instance, by being open plan), different types of workspaces they include, and so on.
And when you’re documenting your visual design choices, include visual examples of what to do and what not to do for each rule.
McPherson warns that “with brand guidelines it’s about what you don’t do more than what you do, because ultimately brand guidelines are about constraining choice”.
“Design is a process of elimination and a brand guideline is a distillation of the design process in the brand itself.”
Here’s an excellent example from Optus:
8. Test, test and test again
The more feedback you can get on your font, logo and other design choices, the better, says McPherson.
“All designers should be testing – whether it’s by showing it to your mom, or the guy who sits next to you — the more eyes you can get on it, the better.
“Testing can be done formally or using an ad hoc approach. Everyone has an opinion. Then you need to distill all of the commentary down into an effective execution.
“It’s about being a good filter – you’ve got to learn how to sort the good stuff from the sh*t.”
9. Document and distribute
Once your brand decisions have been made and approved, they must be documented, whether it’s in a downloadable PDF or in a particular location on your website (if it’s a public document) or intranet (if it’s internal).
And when they’ve been finalised, they must be communicated and distributed to all relevant users to ensure they’re easily accessible.
Sometimes that’s just marketing, sometimes it’s other internal marketing stakeholders such as human resources, and sometimes it’s other related parties such as franchisees, marketing teams in other territories or satellite offices, external creative partners, and other agents such as resellers.
McPherson explains that ensuring people stick to brand guidelines can be difficult, so unveiling any updates to all stakeholders and communicating the reasons for the changes will help make everyone aware of the need to adhere to your new brand rules.
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10. Integrate into your workflows
Despite that, it can be difficult to ensure that all stakeholders comply with your brand guidelines.
“What’s missing is some sort of oversight so you know when someone is actually adhering to the guidelines or not,” McPherson says. “So teams need to have some sort of ability to integrate brand guidelines into workflow systems.
“It’s about disseminating the guidelines so they’re at everyone’s fingertips throughout the design process, and having assets that are pre-approved or already designed for the context so that team members can just drag and drop based on what they’re doing.”
Using a digital asset management system that works with a marketing resource management platform such as Simple will ensure your most up-to-date brand guidelines are included where necessary in your briefs.
That way, it’s a simple matter to collaborate with your teams, agencies, suppliers and third parties and ensure all work utilises the latest pre-approved assets and complies with your newly updated brand guidelines