Best Practices for Establishing Your Brand Guidelines
It’s relatively easy to keep your brand consistent when there are only a few creatives and marketers touching it. But as your company grows and more people work with your brand (both internal and external), the risk of compromising the integrity of your brand increases dramatically.
“But it’s just a few pixels!” you might say. Or “This new color palette looks fantastic, it can only help us”. While brands need to evolve, don’t give in to the temptation to tweak on an ad hoc basis.
Why? Because inconsistencies can impact customer trust. Brands that look or feel unintentionally different can erode trust by opening the door to comments like:
- Did the marketing team make a mistake with that ad?
- Is it just me, or does that color look off?
- Wow, that felt off-brand.
On the flip side, there is a proven benefit of consistent brand application. Consistent branding can drive a 10-20% increase in revenue.
Before we get into the details of what brand guidelines are and how they keep your brand consistent, let’s quickly recap a few related terms.
A brand is made up of three components
- Brand: A brand is a set of perceptions, ideas, and feelings that a person has about a company and its products or services. It’s intangible. It’s how we feel emotionally, whether that’s positive or negative.
- Branding: Branding is the active process of shaping the perceptions that people have about your brand. It’s what you do, not how customers feel about you. Branding encompasses all the actions that you take to build awareness and reputation around your company and its products and services.
- Brand identity: A brand identity is the tangible expression of the brand. It includes common elements like your brand’s name, logo, typography, colors, brand personality, and tone of voice. It’s what your customers can see and hear, the design and voice of the brand.
What are brand guidelines?
Brand guidelines are standards and rules developed by an organization to maintain a consistent brand at every touchpoint. They act as a framework for anyone who is communicating on behalf of your company via visual, verbal, or written communication.
So, whether designer-Joe is working on a new ad or podcast-Sally is recording an educational series, they have a clear set of parameters to work within that will ensure the brand always looks, feels, and sounds the same.
While brand guidelines might seem to limit at first, they can promote more creativity. Knowing what you can and can’t do allows teams to create within an established framework instead of starting from scratch each time.
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Essential brand guide elements and best practices
A comprehensive and effective brand guide encompasses much more than proper logo application. It provides direction for all visual, verbal, and written communication.
A brand story is a narrative that tells the “why” behind your brand. A cohesive brand story can be used internally to align your team on the core values and identity of your brand, and externally in marketing materials to communicate your story to the outside world. An effective story typically touches on the following points:
- Who you seek to help
- The impact you seek to make on the world
- What qualifies you to make an impact
- The emotion you want people to feel from your brand
Proper logo usage is critical to brand consistency. Without clear guidelines, there’s plenty that can go wrong. Here’s what your guide should include:
- Sizes and layouts in which the logo can be displayed (e.g. horizontal, vertical, square)
- Minimum clear space between your logo and other elements
- Various colors in which the logo can be displayed (e.g. black and white or inverted colors)
- Examples of how not to display the logo
Brand color palette
Brand guidelines help define exactly which colors are permitted within any visual communications. Show swatches of your brand color scheme and be sure to include the information needed to accurately reproduce those colors (Pantone, CMYK, and RGB-HEX codes). Your color palette should outline:
- Primary color palette
- Secondary color palette or accent colors
- Neutral or background colors
- Shades and tints
- Specific color combinations
Typography and font guidelines
Consistent typography not only keeps written communication on-brand, but it keeps text clean and easy to digest across all your collateral. Typographic elements include:
- Primary and secondary brand typeface
- Hierarchy typeface of font styles and sizes
- Text colors
- Headline styles
- Formatting options (e.g., bulleted list, paragraphs, body text spacing, etc.)
- Sample paragraph and headlines
- Acceptable font alternatives (if your primary and/or secondary font is not available, your brand guide should specify the fallback font)
Imagery is a key contributor to the emotion communicated by your brand. It helps clearly communicate your message to your target audience. When adding imagery style to your brand guideline, include examples of the types of images your brand uses as well as those to be avoided. Define the following aspects of imagery:
- Lighting style
- Color tones
- Indoor vs. outdoor locations
- Include or exclude people
- Stock photos vs. original photos
Graphics, iconography, illustrations, brand elements
Beyond imagery, it’s important to outline what other visual elements can be used, and how they should be applied. Create a framework for:
- Style (e.g., bright and playful, professional and corporate, etc.)
- Frequency of application (e.g., 50% graphic/illustration, 50% imagery)
- Color application
- Icon sets
Although you may have many people communicating on behalf of your brand, it should seem as though it’s all coming from one person. All written and verbal communication should be guided by a defined brand voice and feel cohesive and familiar across collateral. Ideally, your brand guideline includes a few samples of copy as well as a brand voice guide that defines:
- Writing style (e.g., American vs. British spelling, Oxford comma use, etc.)
- Messaging (all communication should be easily tied back to the core messages of your brand)
- Brand personality and tone of voice (e.g., casual, knowledgeable, edgy, etc.)
- Specific language dos and don’ts (e.g. refer to the company as a corporation, not an organization)
Style tiles demonstrate how your brand elements will work together out in the wild. They show various pieces of marketing collateral that your brand is likely to communicate with. Examples of style tile applications include:
- Web page header
- Display ad mockup
- Social media graphic
Formats for Brand Identity Guidelines
There is no one right way to format your company’s brand guidelines, so it’s best to evaluate the needs and preferences of the team(s) who will reference them the most. Listed below are a few common formats and examples.
Print Your Brand Guideline as a Brand Book
It might seem old-fashioned, but nothing’s more concrete than a printed brand book. Check out this example from NASA.
Design a PDF
Simple to update and easy to share, a digital PDF is one of the most common formats for brand guidelines. Check out this example from IBM Be Equal.
Produce an eBook
While similar to a PDF format, an eBook provides greater flexibility for viewing on different devices. A PDF will look the same no matter the device, but an eBook will adapt the page layout based on the device you’re using. Check out this example from 1Brand.
Put Your Guide Online
It might seem like extra work but putting your brand guidelines on your website or online platform can make it easy to share your brand guidelines across larger, distributed teams and external stakeholders who may be using your brand. Rather than sending over a document, you can simply share the URL and your team can access your brand guideline anywhere, anytime, on any device. Check out this example from Uber.
The most successful brands in the world have thorough brand guidelines that preserve the integrity of their brand over time and across many varying channels. Not only do guidelines bring clarity to internal marketing and communications activities, but they help your business grow and sustain a good reputation in the market. A reliable, consistent brand cultivates what we’re all aiming for: brand recognition, trust, and customer loyalty.