An effective brand style guide takes your corporate mission, vision and values and translates them into design and informs exactly how to communicate your brand. Your style guide should serve as the ultimate reference for any agency, freelancer or licensing company that will be working with your brand – as well as intuitive, easy-to-understand advice for internal staff.
Most important, it should establish an overall framework for use and interpretation of your core brand principles while also enabling the agility to evolve – to embrace new channels, mediums and marketing strategies.
Where to start
When formalising branding guidelines here are some things you should keep front of mind:
Begin with a company overview and brand rationale
Include your company’s ‘elevator pitch’ upfront – a short description of who you are, what you do, who you help and how you help them. This will set the tone for the rest of your style guide.
Then go on to explain the rationale behind your brand – perhaps a summary of your briefing to the design agency that created it, or an excerpt from their description of the brand identity you chose. This should cover how it reflects your company values and is how it was designed to create the right impressions on your target markets. Don’t forget that brands are about ‘emotions’ – so make it clear what you want your audience to ‘feel’.
Be helpful and specific
Make it very clear how your brand is to appear to the world. One way to illustrate this is to include examples of both correct and incorrect usage of your logo and other essential brand elements.
Create Master Templates for internal and external users
Give internal users templates for MS Word and PowerPoint documents (or whatever applications they typically use) so that it’s easy for them to produce on-brand documents, proposals and presentations. Also provide them with logo images they can use in any application, in the most suitable file formats.
Provide external design professionals with InDesign templates for widely used formats such as brochures, case studies and ads. As well as keeping them on-brand, templates will reduce their effort (and thus the fees they charge you!).
Create real visual examples to illustrate use of your brand
Go beyond templates to include real-life examples of how your brand elements should be used in action! Your style guide should include visual examples of layouts for web pages, emails, ads, printed collateral and other relevant mediums. These enable everyone to understand just how you want your brand to be interpreted and portrayed.
Brand tone or ‘voice’
How you ‘speak’ to your audience is an important aspect of your brand identity. Knowing who your audience is, how they speak, and how your brand identity resonates with them is all part of the equation. It lets your customers know what to expect from your brand, building trust. That trust is an important factor in brand communications.
Allow scope for your brand to evolve
To survive our competition, we must adapt and change. Brands change constantly – either organically, or to reflect different markets and changing fashions. If you create a style guide that restricts or ‘bolts down’ your brand – stifling it to such a degree that it can’t develop over time – you’ll regret it before very long.
There’s always room to grow and develop, and your guidelines should reflect this. Some ways to build in flexibility include:
A range of secondary colours enables your brand to be flexible and ‘stretches’ your brand in the future. Similarly, don’t necessary confine your logo to your primary palette, but consider when it could be used in monotone, reverse or in percentage tones if it would suit a new purpose.
Include examples of the types of imagery that best reflect your brand – whether photographic, illustrated or digital. However, you may want to consider loosening your guidelines to allow for specific purposes or evolving requirements. Perhaps, instead of stating ‘all images should include people’, allow for imagery including abstract movement for certain product lines. If your brand is based on retro images, consider allowing any black and white or sepia images – even if contemporary – when it’s more appropriate to a particular marketing or audience need.
While selecting a distinctive font for your logo and graphic elements can be a major part of your brand identity, you must also consider how fonts used in representing your brand appear in other formats. Always provide guidelines for the fonts to be used online as well as in general office documents. Remember that, unless sent as PDFs, office documents using non-standard fonts will appear as Times Roman (or worse!) to email recipients.
Above all, be (and remain) consistent
As I said at the beginning, your brand style guide must be clear and helpful to anyone referring to it. Just as your brand must adapt and evolve over time to meet your changing strategic marketing and tactical communications needs, the ideal style guide should instil consistency – so that the impressions your brand creates remain recognisable to your audience and in harmony with your overall organisational values and mission.