The Creative Force of Brand Guides

8 Tips for Ensuring Their Transformative Power

Hero image
Illustration by Jon Graeff
Hero image
Illustration by Jon Graeff

Style guide vs. brand guide.

From leather furniture to oatmeal to travel experiences, my design career has offered me a vibrant range of creative partnerships. The diversity keeps me on my toes, feeling fresh and challenged. I love it, actually. I’ve learned so much along the way.

My teams are tasked with all kinds of deliverables, but perhaps the most empowering one, the one that opens the most doors for our clients, is a brand guide. The point is to give partners the strategic and creative tools they need to grow and maintain their brand.

You should know by now that, like parenting, gardening, or learning how to make a mean margarita, maintaining a brand is the gift that keeps on giving. Setting some parameters up front will lay the groundwork while leaving room for growth.

As you get started, keep your eyes on the long game. There are many details to consider — but first, let’s take a step back. Here are some common foundational considerations I’ve learned from creating brand guides.

Start with a strong foundation and adapt as your brand matures.

Like people, brands have their own style and behaviors. Your first impression is likely based on initial look and feel. But after you get to know someone, you begin to understand their core values and how they behave in a variety of situations.

Timeless elements —like brand logo and color palette — are the consistent sign-off of your brand. This content is the foundation of your style guide. It’s an appropriate first step in defining a new brand.

On the other hand, a brand guide is the robust demonstration of your brand behavior across many touchpoints. If you inherited a mature brand with an established strategy and expression that flexes across a wide range of experiences, a brand guide is the right tool for you.

This foundational thinking in your brand guide is essential not only to your marketing plan, but your business—what products or services you offer, and how and why you offer them. All these decisions ladder back to the brand strategy.

When you think about it, you are the guide. You are the sherpa that will demonstrate and document what’s possible for the brand. It’s an exciting creative prospect. Leave no stone unturned.

Tip: Represent a spectrum of experiences in your guide, demonstrating how elements like voice, imagery and typography adapt to different situations. Showing the work is the best way to explain the rationale and rules. Especially since most people won’t actually read the entire guide, but will skip to the salient points that meet their needs. That reminds me…

Another tip: Where you can, stick to bulleted, “scannable” written content with clear subheads to break it up. You don’t want the details to get lost.

Why? Who? How?

Start with a pointed brief and know the audience.

Are you creating a guide to validate the fact that you have a brand? For your in-house team, agency partners, or both? To convince the CEO’s spouse that orange is the right color for the identity?

Your collaborators will come to the table with varying levels of brand experience and taste. Consider your audience, then be strategic in how you deliver the information.

If you’re speaking to brand-savvy agency partners, it’s appropriate to include concepts and philosophical ideas. But if your audience is that eager, enthusiastic and resourceful team in human resources, they’ll need precise, detailed steps for on-brand execution.

Tip: Divide your guide into sections, then distribute the information, depending on the relevance, to specific audiences. Example: Tier 1 access is for the not-so-brand-savvy HR employees and includes the style guide section with definitive do’s and don’ts. Tier 2 access is for brand expert agency partners and will include the style guide plus spectrums of broader conceptual brand experiences.

Your brand is alive.

Your brand needs to evolve to remain relevant, so should your guide.

Creating a brand guide is not a fleeting or precious exercise. There will be many versions as your brand grows and changes. Don’t feel anxious about nailing it the first time.

Tip: Putting a publish date and version number on your guide (v1.0, 1.1, etc.) is an intuitive way of acknowledging that it’s a work in progress. Even better, an ever-evolving online guide is always relevant.

Go out and play.

Experience is the most valuable way to learn.

You can only set parameters on what you know. Building and maintaining a brand is both an art and a science — you have to prove out the work. So make up some projects, jump in, get messy, enjoy!

The most magnetic brands have a clear understanding of when to lean on core, timeless expressions and when to embrace timely, promotional expressions. So it’s best to explore a wide range of brand touchpoints along the consumer journey.

Tip: Pick the medium most appropriate and impactful for your brand. Maybe it’s a new landing page, billboard, app screen, service script, or Facebook presence. Do the work to learn the guardrails.

Carpe diem.

Now is the time to push the work.

While you’re exploring the stretch of your expression, ask, “Why not?” Keep the work honest by evaluating it against the brand strategy. As your team creates and gets to know the spectrum of the expression, you can document your learnings as good and bad examples (do’s and don’ts).

Tip: Go all in! Test the limits of the brand expression to better understand how far it can go. If you don’t have to reel it back in, you haven’t pushed far enough.

Striking a balance.

Know the rules and when to break them.

You want to inspire, not handcuff your creative team. And chances are there will be many collaborators shaping your brand. Being clear about the brand behavior without stifling growth and creativity can be tricky.

How your brand shows up will flex with the context of each moment. In each case, you want to demonstrate relevant, attention-grabbing behavior. That’s why pushing the work in different moments along the consumer journey will help gain a better understanding of the stretch of your brand behavior.

Demonstrating consistent limits will build consumer integrity. Integrity builds loyalty. And loyalty is the true goal.

Don’t forget to stretch.

Your brand is not what you say it is, but what your following says it is.

You can lead your brand as best you can, but you must listen and be open to your consumers. Because consumers don’t care about brands, they care about their lives.

Adjust, learn, and grow your brand, then grow your guide. A successful brand will attract, engage, and influence its consumer following as long as it remains true to its purpose.

Have fun. And Namaste.

Enjoy the process. It’ll show in the work.

Some of the most creative deliverables I’ve had the pleasure to work on were brand guides. Set a strategic foundation, tell your brand story, then go for it — demonstrate your brand expression at its best.

If nothing else, remember: brand guide is a powerful creative tool, and the best inspire a balance of integrity and room for growth.

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