Value of Brand Guidelines

Lea Alcantara

Any successful business owner knows (almost) everything about their business. But when it comes to clearly communicating what that "everything" actually entails, many owners struggle. An extensive Discovery process can help owners (including ourselves!) learn exactly who they are and how to convey that. But if you simply stop there, all that information can easily become lost in a sea of Google Docs, Skype conversations or, worse, forgetting exactly where all your Discovery details are stashed.

As a business grows to include more employees and communication needs expand, having a single reference point for everyone concerned — clients, vendors and employees alike — can remove confusion and, ultimately, fulfill one of the primary goals of branding: consistency.

That one place is the brand guidelines.

Single Point of Reference

Brand guidelines can be as simple or complex as the business and the business' needs. They can contain (but are not limited to):

  • Style guides, which deal with application of layout, color, type and imagery. Depending on the company, this can be broken down to online and offline rules.
  • Logo usage guidelines. Businesses often have different versions of logos and need guidance as to when, where, why and how they will be used.
  • A succinct brand promise — usually 1-3 sentences long — that conveys what the brand wants to accomplish for its intended audience
  • Brand goals that detail the brand promise through specific action (e.g. how the brand benefits its audience) — also succinct
  • Brand adjectives: usually 3 short words that convey the brand
  • Directions on copy and tone, online (e.g. body copy) and offline (e.g. brochures and even staff conduct rules for conferences)
  • Directions on social media behavior and tactics
  • Anything else the company brand touches (Signage? Uniforms? etc.)
  • Examples of all of the above

vs. Style Guides?

Sometimes, brand guidelines can be mistaken for style guides. The easiest way to differentiate between the two is that style guides focus primarily on visual application aspects of a brand and can be a part of brand guidelines. Style guides, at least for the web, are often living web-based resources that detail the HTML and CSS rules for a website. Brand guidelines are not necessarily web-specific.

FFP Style Guide Color
Family Friend Poems' online style guide details the specific HTML and CSS rules that ensure brand consistency on the website

Communicating Corporate Identity

There is no one perfect way to create brand guidelines. They can be extremely detailed and extensive, as this Nike Football Brandbook conveys. And while I value succinctness in any brand exercise, the I Love NYC's brand guidelines emphasizes storytelling — an integral part of their brand — so the more lengthy approach is appropriate in this case.

...The code is more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules.

Barbarossa to Elizabeth, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl

Clarify Focus

For smaller businesses, however, clear instructions are key. For our client Family Friend Poems (FFP), we wanted to convey his needs as precisely as possible, because the goals of his site are relatively straightforward: be a hub for those seeking comfort and joy through poetry, with the primary audience being young women. And since his audience is online, the brand guidelines did not have to dive into various ways it would be applied in person or print.

According to our client Aaron, the process to getting to FFP's guidelines was "like going to marriage therapy." We didn't want all that hard work to go to waste!

Having brand guidelines helped sharpen his focus on the website and its goals. They gave him one place to refer back to when considering next steps to help his business. They were also great for onboarding his social media hires. He didn't have to go into a lengthy presentation with his new hires, nor did he struggle to convey what his vision was. The brand guidelines did all that for him in clear detail.

FFP Brand Statement
A sample page of FFP's brand guidelines that details the brand goals

Share Internal Culture

For Bright Umbrella, brand guidelines were part of us documenting the culture of our company. When we rebranded, we also began strengthening our social media initiatives for the business and the podcast. Using the findings from our brand exercises, along with our messaging strategy, we built our brand guidelines to be a simple resource that immediately conveyed our personality, which could then inform our social media "voice."

Screenshot of Bright Umbrella's focused, 3-page brand guidelines
Pages from our own brand guidelines. Download the PDF!

When our intern Erin began managing our social media, we shared our guidelines with her to quickly convey the tone we wanted on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. She tells us:

Bright Umbrella's brand guidelines give me a concrete tool by which to measure any writing I do for the company. They actually give me more confidence in my own voice as a representative of our brand.

Erin Lewis, Bright Umbrella Communications Assistant

Build Connections

Beyond strengthening internal understanding of the company, the collected ideas within a brand guidelines document can help prospects, clients and vendors better understand what your company's culture is all about.

Prospects can see if the company is the right fit beyond the goods and services because the brand guidelines give a flavor of what to expect when working with that company. Current clients can strengthen their understanding of the company they engage with. Vendors can create their own materials to match the company brand — such as endorsement or partnership logo use — with a simple, single reference.

Create Collateral

Brand guidelines also saves us time when generating new creative. The guidelines are a starting point for any new material — online or offline — that we may decide to create for the business. This eliminates the dreaded Blank Photoshop document, and the established rules give me, as a designer, a clear starting point. When the project is complete, the brand guidelines are a great reference to check if what I just created "fits" within the entire system.

Operating Without Brand Guidelines

There are instances where brand guidelines don't exist. This is often a reality for startups that just need to get work out there and busy designers who tend to have complete ownership of a project. The guidelines end up being all in your head.

For a while, this may simply work due to a small team and direct communication. However, I've personally found that without a reference document of any sort, it takes a lot of time digging into the project documents to find what HEX code that color is or what font size a headline should be. While not a difficult task, it's five minutes here and there that add up to time that could be better spent on building the site or application.

This becomes especially magnified when a new person joins the team. If the brand guidelines are all in your head (or spread across project files and resources), communicating all the intricate rules, exceptions and execution of even the smallest widget becomes a larger chore.

Brand guidelines just make sense.

Subscribe to the Forecast

Resources for smart business and smart websites

Ready to See Results?

We've got some bright ideas — let's talk!