brand guidelines

Our brands are increasingly brought to life by others out of our direct control. Innocent Drinks describes its brand as composed of “thousands of nice little touches”.

It can be tough to synchronize the brand so that it feels consistent at every touchpoint. Many brands create strict guidelines to keep everyone in check: a style guide, visual standards, identity manuals, etc. While useful and inspiring if done well, brand guidelines can easily devolve into command-and-control compliance if taken too far.

I came across an interesting Fast Company article on the “creative straightjackets” of many brand guidelines:

“Anyone who’s ever written copy for a marketing agency has probably had to deal with a dreaded “style guide”–a Kafka-esque document laying out all the rules for what you can and can’t say, and how you should and shouldn’t say it. The soul-deadening power of these manuals goes double–they’re a creative straitjacket, and they’re horribly, horribly boring.”

The article goes on to profile MailChimp, one of my favorite brands. MailChimp manages my email newsletters. They are my fifth email newsletter provider over the last 12 years, but the only one that I’ve liked, and the only one that’s bothered to build a compelling brand personality, particularly around the more technical messages.

MailChimp created a simple copywriting style guide called VoiceAndTone for all of their creative partners. It captures the nuances of tone depending on how the user will likely feel when reading it. Rather than clamp down on creativity, it inspires creativity even when reporting tracking stats.

Here’s how MailChimp describes the style guide:

“This isn’t meant to be used as a lookup tool or a set of rules. It’s meant to change our perspective, and help us put ourselves in our readers’ shoes. This is really an internal tool, so its content is MailChimp-specific. But any company can relate. Our content has power. The right tone of voice can turn someone’s confusion into trust, skepticism into optimism, boredom into curiosity. The wrong tone of voice can turn someone’s interest into annoyance, anticipation into disappointment, frustration into full-on anger. That’s a big responsibility, and the best way we can handle that responsibility is to be empathetic writers. That’s why this guide exists.”

Instead of brand police, we should be more like brand sherpa: experienced guides that help our creative partners climb higher.

(Marketoonist Monday: I’m giving away one signed print of this week’s cartoon. Just share an insightful comment to this week’s post by 5:00 PST on Monday. I’ll pick one comment. Thanks!)

  1. John Borda says

    Ah, a “style guide”- that’ll be $100 extra for painkillers and Valium while I try and make a decent website out of that!

  2. Mark Griffin says

    Having written and designed many guidelines I have reached the conclusion that an A4 page suffices. The logo(s), colours, fonts and key brand values. Any more will be ignored, unnecessary and too prescriptive to allow freedom.

    Anything more than this I’m quite willing to undertake but I’ll charge the earth for it.

  3. SLD says

    Brand sherpa is a great analogy. When helping clients define their brands, we push for creating a talk track – not a script. A talk track helps everyone understand the brand voice and address key advantages and, of course, challenges. It keeps everyone on the same path, and still allows for exploration along the way.

  4. Bill Carlson says

    Well, this is a really tough one because I can counterpoint every point I come up with. Just guessing this discussion will stimulate comments which focus on the extremes as opposed to the center of the continuum.

    Too much rigidity vs. “anything goes” creativity? I’d vote for rigidity because the alternative kind of contradicts the point of “brand”, no? A brand obviously needs image consistency across tactics and continuity over time and if we use rigidity vs. flexibility to anchor a continuum, I’m guessing we all lean more toward the rigidity end with the debate being how to avoid the very end.

    Presumes, of course, a well-done creative effort on the brand. And if you want to avoid being rigid to the point of being stale, then the brand image should be revisited on a regular basis – frequency likely being a function of the product category though revisiting could be often while changes don’t need to be. And if flexibility of brand presentation is valued, then program it into the standards – find the best of both worlds.

    Drifting too far towards the “anything goes” end of the continuum is what prompts brands to want standards, so there seems to be agreement that some level of consistency is in fact important. Beyond that, a brand can be around a long time while the people/resources working on it rotate through it and they need to understand the brand’s image, etc. as well as take into consideration the full breadth of the brand’s integrated, multi-tactic, multi-channel marketing efforts.

    In the middle of the continuum, then, one person’s so-called “soul-deadening power of these manuals” is another’s way of insuring that all the work on research and brand history is applied to the brand’s maximum benefit.

    So, “all things in moderation”…

  5. stylish96 says

    These days, too many marketeers are not creative (although they’ll never admit it).
    So this is what the creative brief has become – a long list of requirements.

    It’s not realistic to expect revolutionary campaigns from such specified requirements, with reluctance to try something new. At a time where every penny counts, why not let your creative agency earn their commission through campaigns that actually work, and remain ahead of your competition.

  6. Frustrated team says

    We’re going through this right now…Only our branding strategy is an unwritten set of standards held by one person. Creativity is asked for and delivered, but then revamped and retooled into something unrecognizable from the original.
    It’s like playing the “Operation” game when I was a kid. Creative ideas are like going after the “Adam’s Apple” or the “Funny Bone”….guaranteed crippling electric shock for originality! So ideas become more like going for the “Leg Bone” ; simple and safe….and unrewarding….

  7. timm says

    This rings so true. The creative process always likes to be stone walled, mainly because people want to have to much control or are to scared to take a small risk and try something new.

  8. David Hensley says

    As a creative, I appreciate the discipline – and freedom – of a really tight brief, provided that the client is happy for us then to explore broadly and come up with any original ideas that fit the brief and spirit and personality of the brand.
    The frustration comes when the client actually has a much more restrictive brief in mind, and once you present says “Oh, we didn’t mention this, but also don’t want any copy or imagery that mentions children/ghosts/animals/elves…” – or whatever else we have used to develop cut through.

  9. Larry Burns says

    Tom – again you hit a ‘forever hot button’ – its taken varying forms over decades but it always arises more loudly in time of upheaval and change, like now. Brand Sherpa is an interesting image, but to me it connotes a bit of ‘following a clearly defined well worn path’.

    I’ve thought about my company’s role (a supplier of product sampling programs)in both the creative process and the disciplined adherence to desired outcomes. I think of my teams more as “Brand Stewards” (Websters #5: “one who actively directs affairs”) Key to me being “active direction” because in 2012 anyone involved in brand marketing must be willing to allow those “1000’s of little touches” to occur far from central control. We take this role definition quite seriously as we do make choices and decisions in doing our jobs well that have an individual person by person impact on brands we support.

    To me, a greater sense of clarity around a brands purpose, why it exists, how it matters to it’s customers lives, where it fits, etc. is far more important and useful to long term brand health than any particular campaigns “creative brief”.

    Yes, of course we need solid creative briefs – we need to offer business direction, graphic standards, etc. to creative teams because brands desperately need to offer messaging that gives humans reasons to hear the brands message, convey the right “positioning”, communicate, and all the reasons we “market”. I would think, (with far more simplicity than is often used as we slice and dice humans into infinite “segments”) a brands essence can be the guiding force that offers creative ‘guide rails’ .. not dictates but looser boundaries such that creative is produced that feels in sync with the brand .. and/or where the brand is seeking to go. In some cases it is very easy to determine “Well, we know Brand ___ would never do that”, in many cases however it is a sea of gray with limited sharp B&W lines to rely on.

    Of course, one thing this clearly speaks to is the need to truly understand not the way we, as marketers speak about the brands we “manage” but rather how the brands users speak and think about the brands they actually “own”. Just a thought.

    To rant on for a few more lines – I’ve also tried to open discussion of “control” versus “create” within Marketing Research in particular around Market Mix models which are also in some ways stifling creativity of a different sort. (Link if you are curious

    Clearly new ways of thinking are beginning to emerge in how we ought to describe, understand and evolve what “Brand Management” needs to mean in 21st century. Yet, Tom you are assured of job security as ever moving targets will constantly yield new material to remind us of our struggles…. and to remind us to have some fun!

  10. DSprogis says

    One can’t discuss creativity without mention of “outside the box” in one way or another. It seems to me there are two boxes, the inner box and the outer box. Creative folks are called upon to think and work outside one box, the inner one, but inside another more vague outer box. Let’s call the space between the boxes the “margin” and we know that few clients have a very wide margin! Creative folks are asked to weave their creative copy or art in this margin which often quite gray and constrain themselves to additional guidelines layered on top.

    Good luck finding Flow under those constraints!

  11. nomad says

    Unfortunately, there will always be brand guidelines in one form or the other – some more rigid and restricting and others allowing for some freedom and flexibility. It’s what we do with and within those guidelines that make a difference. Taking that little space allowed for creativity and turning it into effective cut-through communications, I think, is the true test of creativity.

  12. Bill Carlson says

    Larry said things pretty well, I think, and I would embrace the statement “To me, a greater sense of clarity around a brands purpose, why it exists, how it matters to it’s customers lives, where it fits, etc. is far more important and useful to long term brand health than any particular campaigns ‘creative brief’.”

    Which is something that needs to be captured in order for there to be consistent learning and sharing among all those who touch (rotate through) the brand. Otherwise you play the game of “telephone”, though I think we need a “new age” term to replace that idea… 😉

    Also, for what it’s worth, there’s an intermingling here of points about brand standards vs. creative briefs and while they certainly need to work together, it’s really two different issues, I think.

    Regardless, DSprogis makes a point I couldn’t figure out how to express by referring to working in the “margin” — not sure it’s his same point but stealing his concept, that outer box might be considered brand standards according to what Larry describes while that inner box might be any particular creative brief. Sometimes a tight creative brief with clear goals and constraints is exactly right (it’s not wrong just because a creative mind with bigger ideas thinks so) but yes indeed, would support the idea of concepts which overflow that box a bit and yet which would still fit in the larger box.

    In reality, every brand has standards of some sort — some vary by the person (any time a creative person wants to “think out of the box”, they are defining their own view of how to present the brand), some vary by the moment, some are more rigorously captured but flexibly applied and some are so stringent as to stifle creative evolution of the brand.

    Back to “all things in moderation”, but it’s not the standards that are the issue, it’s how we all choose to apply them.

  13. Daria R. Rasmussen says

    It goes down to static vs. dynamic approach. Static gives us the feeling of control, it helps us to create a cozy place where we can sit comfortably cuddled in brand guidelines and avoid any failures. But static discourage any form of boldness or drawing outside the lines where magic happens and new things appear. Dynamic is the completely different world, more complex, more demanding thus probably it scares us more as it doesn’t offer the safe solutions. Dynamic is where you take risks.
    Brands still need guidelines that reflect their purpose & character but those need to be more agile or driven by dynamic rules, defining how stretchy the rules are and how far we can go before we lose the identity.

  14. Virginia Durksen says

    Excellent use of a hyphen in anal-retentive, Tom. Years ago, t-shirts I had made for my colleagues at the Editors’ Association of Canada asked the question “Is there a hyphen in anal retentive?” The answer was “Who cares? Anal-retentive editors.”

    Every act of writing is a creative one that can also require hundreds of less than creative decisions about how to spell words and where to put commas and logos. Re-branding the style guide as sherpa might help adjust the intentions of those who write and those who use the guide. But just because people insist on using style guides for the wrong things doesn’t make the guide any less useful for the right things.

    And when the sherpa image loses its ability to remind us that a guide is just a guide, we’ll probably need another synonym. Coach? guru? skipper? escort? lodestar? beacon? wayfinder?

  15. Marc Mendoza says

    Brand guidelines exists so that:
    – logos aren’t destroyed by non-designers
    – the brand can become a household name by maintaining consistency (mcdonald’s didn’t become popular by making 50,000 different burgers)

    If we’re talking from a creative writer’s prespective – it’s unfortunate that something like a guideline restricts one’s creative flow. As if there were no other options to express oneself creatively. Also, is it not more of a challenge to write within constraints and still be able to create something worthwhile? Or have we all gotten lazy that way too?

    It’s also not mentioned that brand guidelines come from creatives – ones who thought about how to communicate the brand to the audience in the first place. Or are they just “anal-retentive” people as well?

    At first I thought the cartoon was poking fun of corporate people, and non-designers who like to “jazz things up” and “layup a nice pretty design”. Then I realized this was from their point of view and quickly laughed at the article.

  16. says

    Hi all,

    Wow, great food for thought this last week, many thanks! You helped me think through the right balance here! This week’s print goes to Larry Burns. I love the focus on brand purpose as the guiding light and the question on who actually owns the brand. Great stuff. And, Virginia, the anal-retentive part of me is glad I got the hyphen right. Thanks!


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