How to Create Guidelines That Protect and Grow Your Brand

One of the biggest challenges brand managers face is ensuring consistency. Every touchpoint, customer service interaction, and digital channel your brand is responsible for sends a message to your audience.

When that message says something wildly different every time, appears incongruous with other communications, or simply lacks the look and feel of your brand, it tells your audience that your organization or strategy is disjointed, unprofessional, and slapdash.

Wrapping a great customer experience in a strategically-developed brand and enhancing it with engaging content is the bedrock of brand growth. But your reputation depends on an ability to do it not just once, but at a high level every single time.

Details Matter

In the words of legendary designer Charles Eames: “The details are not the details. They make the design.” Your audience might not even consciously be aware of it, but when a logo is miscolored or out of place, or your messaging doesn’t reflect your established brand voice, they will instinctively feel that something is off.

Even small brands fail on this account at times, but for larger brands, that deal in a huge volume of content and work with a large number of content creators, both internal and external, it’s an especially complex undertaking. Consequently, brands take great care to codify the minutiae of their identity so that it will be accurately reproduced and only shared in appropriate contexts. Big organizations hire people solely to monitor the brand and its content.

Hanlon’s icon designs for Good Neighbor Pharmacy

The advantages of getting it right, however, more than justify the effort. When branded communication is clear and consistent, comprehension and retention rise dramatically. When audiences become familiar with your standards they notice them faster, consume the information more easily, and it sticks with them longer.

Writing Your Brand Bible

Brand guidelines can be extremely extensive, covering every likely scenario a brand might be presented with, but there are three overarching categories that virtually every guide includes: Core Values, Verbal Brand Language, and Visual Brand Language.

Or, in other words, the answer to these questions: What do you stand for? How do you talk about yourself? And, what do you look like? In addition to answering these questions explicitly, provide usage examples to make it extremely straightforward for stakeholders using your brand guidelines to implement them without issue.

1. Brand Values

Brands, like people, don’t exist in a vacuum. They interact with others, express opinions, share stories, and set goals. Each of those things is a conscious decision that must be thought out by brand managers ahead of time. We do so by encapsulating the brand’s ethos in core values and vision and mission statements.

Core values describe a brand’s principles, the rules and attitudes that guide its behavior and shape its outlook. Vision statements explain a brand’s goals for itself. Where it wants to go, how it expects to get there, and what the future will ultimately look like.

Mission statements explain the ‘why’ behind the vision. Most brands want to do big things like expand their market share, reach a larger audience, or affect meaningful change in the world, but why? To be taken seriously and prove the authenticity of its values, the brand must articulate a rationale for its goals.

“When your branding is inconsistent or low quality, it tells your audience that your organization or strategy is disjointed, unprofessional, and slapdash.”

Author Simon Sinek gained fame for a TED talk in 2009 (which has racked up over 40 million views) that lays out his theory of the Golden Circle. Sinek argued that every company has three levels of explanation for its actions: WhyHow, and What. The outermost circle, What, describes their product or service. The next ring, How, describes the means by which they deliver their offering. Most companies are very good at communicating these pieces of information to their prospective customers.

However, a rare few have mastered the art of leading with their inner circle, the Why, the reason they decided to enter the market in the first place. According to Sinek: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

Consumers today have no shortage of research tools at their disposal. If they want to know what you’re selling, how it’s made, and how it compares to the competition, they can find that out with just a few clicks. Discovering your motivation is less obtainable, but it doesn’t have to be. Every aspect of a brand guideline should be infused with the Why, and every decision a brand manager makes should start with the Why.

2. Verbal Brand Language

A brand’s voice is discernible from the written and oral communications it expresses. It can be seen in things like slogans, taglines, value proposition statements (an explanation of why the brand is valuable and distinct from competitors), positioning statements (a description of the brand’s target market, category, differentiation points, and benefits), social media posts, press releases, product descriptions, and advertising.

The brand guideline should delineate the tone, complexity of language, and even the length of all verbal communication. It should also explain what words or phrases the brand does or does not use.

“When branded communication is clear and consistent, comprehension and retention rise dramatically.”

One important note that applies to almost all brands is that consumers are more willing to accept new information in a narrative form. That’s why so many brands today are focused on telling a compelling ‘brand story.’ That brand goal should be expressed in the guidelines as well. Overall, however, the verbal brand language should be narrowly tailored to resonate with the brand’s specific target audience.

3. Visual Brand Language

How your brand presents itself isn’t merely a matter of aesthetics and style, it has serious ramifications for profitability. A study by Motiv found that design-driven companies outperformed the S&P 500 by 228-percent over a ten year period.

Your brand bible should specify exactly how your visual brand collateral is developed, presented, and shared. Topics worthy of specification include:

  • Logos: Acceptable color variations, exclusion zones to separate them from surrounding content, minimum and maximum size, and backgrounds
  • Colors: Brand palette, combinations, dark or light themes
  • Typography: Print and web font choices, headings, subheading, and body copy
  • Images: Photo and illustration usage, data visualizations (charts, graphs, infographics), dimensions, page placement
  • Video: Dimensions, length, acceptable online hosts (Vimeo, Youtube, Facebook, etc.), content guidelines
Hanlon’s logo guidelines for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission

Create a Living Document

Though brand guides are all about nailing down the details, it’s important to not lose sight of the bigger picture. Always strive to keep things simple. Your brand guidelines are likely going to be quite voluminous and hopefully fully comprehensive.

Don’t make life difficult for the content creators and stakeholders that will be using the guide by overwhelming them with extraneous information. Tell them everything they need to know and nothing more. Also, stick to plain English. This guide is going to be used by people from a variety of backgrounds. Use language that the largest possible audience will grasp.

Lastly, never think of your brand guidelines as set in stone. It’s a record of the state of your brand as it evolves over time. Update it at least annually, especially to remove content or rules that have been deprecated, and conduct regular content reviews to ensure it’s being implemented consistently.