It doesn’t matter how sophisticated your marketing department is—there’s a ton of confusion about what brand guidelines are, the value they offer, and the role they play in defining, maintaining, and creating a brand identity.
The issue is largely one of semantics. Brand guidelines, brand standards guide, branding guidelines, style guides, brand books, brand identity guidelines—these can either be treated synonymously or as wholly separate resources, depending on which “brand expert” you’re speaking with, reading, or listening to at that moment.
Semantics aside, these terms represent roughly the same idea. And to create effective brand guidelines, you’ll need to first understand what they actually are and why they matter. Then we’ll get into how you can structure yours to put your brand and company in the best position to succeed—and look at some brand guidelines examples from our own brand book here at Element Three.
Let's dive in.
What Is the Purpose of Brand Guidelines?
Regardless of what you call them, brand guidelines are a tool designed to give your brand consistency and flexibility. Yes, they are often used by designers to make certain they’re using the right fonts, color palette, and versions of your logo. But effective brand guidelines should be much more than that—smart organizations use brand identity guidelines as a resource that everyone in the company can use to understand how to represent their brand.
From your sales, marketing, and customer service teams, who are out there communicating with prospects every day, to the finance director who’s at a networking event and gets asked what their company does, everyone should have more than a cursory understanding of what genuinely makes your organization unique.
Brand guidelines take many forms, so rather than telling you exactly what you need to include in your brand guidelines, I’ll share what we include in our own, not because ours are authoritatively the best around, but because we do this for a living and they will at least get you thinking (plus I do actually think they’re pretty good).
Why We Exist and What We Do
The source of every other important part of our brand is the brand identity. We’ve laid ours out in a couple of paragraphs, covering all the bases regarding who Element Three is and what a business might get if they work with us. It’s a short and sweet distillation of most everything you need to know going in, in a form that works as boilerplate for both internal and external eyes.
Element Three is a marketing consultancy that believes in accountable, transformative marketing. We build long-term relationships with clients set on market leadership, fusing traditional and digital tactics to solve big problems and move businesses forward.
At the core of it all is our noble purpose, our reason for being. No, it’s not just making money—it has to be more than that, something much deeper. This is where we find the passion to work late when the project demands it, why we recommend our business to our friends and family as a place to buy from or even to work.
We’ve also created short introductions that everyone from the executive team to new hires can use to explain who we are and what we do. That’s our elevator speech, which tells our brand story clearly and concisely—there’s one tailored to when we’re talking to someone at the executive or c-suite level, and one for when we’re talking to peers in the marketing industry.
I'm with Element Three, a firm of smart marketers. Our sweet spot is working with companies that are at a tipping point of growth—their customer experience and go-to-market strategy no longer serve who they're becoming. We help companies tell a clear story and build a predictable marketing and sales engine.
I work at Element Three. Our sweet spot is working with companies that are at a tipping point of growth. We help them figure out: their story, what makes them stand out from the rest; their strategy, what to do with the time & money available for marketing; and set up scorecards so we both know what’s working and what isn’t.
All of this—from our brand identity to our noble purpose—is the foundation of the rest of the brand. What’s to come is how that brand is represented, verbally, visually, and tonally, to stakeholders inside and outside your organization.
The Brand Wheel
Now it’s time to get into some of the deeper details of your brand. No mission statements or speeches here—just the nuts and bolts of what will make up your look and voice and style.
The brand wheel is a five-part representation of those nuts and bolts. It starts in the outer sections with discrete, mostly measurable and provable facts about your organization and drills down into the very essence (or, if you prefer, soul) of your brand.
First come your brand’s attributes. These are the surface facts about your company that an observant prospect or potential employee would notice when researching you. It’s high-level information about you—kind of a 10,000-foot view—but it’s based on data or verifiable information. Mostly these aren’t things you’re choosing, they’re just natural parts of your business. They might even be found on a sell sheet. Ours include:
Next we look at our benefits, the things that our clients gain when they work with us. For Element Three, that’s not just “marketing” or even “a good return on investment.” It’s more specific than that, it’s the people your company works with and what you give them that your competition might not offer or even consider. Think about the decision-makers who choose to buy from you, and why they do so. Here are the benefits that Element Three provides, and to whom.
After that comes our core values, the things that we celebrate and promote within ourselves. This is more of an internal message rather than something you’re going to put in front of your customers (though you can also do that); this is the answer to the question “what kind of company do we want to be?” If you haven't defined yours yet, there are countless really good examples of company core values out there to gather some inspiration. At E3, we defined ours with the acronym “A BEST CO.”
From there we move to the personality of your brand. This isn’t just what you’ll put forth in your marketing—it’s your own internal personality, the traits that are must-haves for a new hire. It’s how you work and solve problems together. It’s what defines whether or not someone will click in place in your organization. No, of course you don’t need (or want) a bunch of clones, you can’t have a great team without diversity. But possessing these traits will make a team member successful, no matter what other traits they may or may not share.
Finally, we distill our brand down to its core, the brand essence. When you look at everything you have to this point, you can use that to determine where it all comes together, and see what the essence of your business is. It can be your slogan or tagline, or it can just be something you keep to yourself. But either way, it’s you.
So now you should have a pretty good idea of who you are. But what about your look and your sound, the ways that you represent yourself to stakeholders internally as well as externally?
Knowing yourself is the first step. The next part of building your brand identity guidelines is you need to clarify how others will see you, how you’ll represent your brand through different branding elements. There are two main parts to this, both of which come directly from the work you’ve already done to this point.
Is / Isn't List
First is the is/isn’t list, which does exactly what it sounds like—it shows the things that exist in your brand and business, and the descriptors that oppose who you are. The two parts of the chart work together, complementing each other to build clarity regarding where you stand. But the “isn’t” side shouldn’t just be the opposite of the “is” side. Antonyms aren’t helpful.
Look at ours as an example:
As you can see, “Unexpected” and “Restating the Obvious” aren’t necessarily opposites. But words like “Typical,” “Average,” and “Ordinary” don’t say much about us. We can say we aren’t ordinary all we want, but only results can really prove it. We can say without a shadow of a doubt that we’re never complacent, and that standing still in an industry that moves at warp speed definitely is in opposition to the natural curiosity and search for truth and new ways of doing things that are parts of Element Three. In this context, then, “Unexpected” and “Restating the Obvious” are perfect opposites.
The is/isn’t list should incorporate what you already know about your personality, it should reflect the way that you do business, and it is more than just the sum of its parts, building a clear picture of who you are and the traits that you want to avoid.
Visual and Verbal Tone
That all feeds into deciding on the visual tone and verbal tone for your content. Just as your brand is unique to your business, so should be your look and your sound. As long as both jibe well with everything you’ve established to this point, they should function quite well for you.
For example, at Element Three our verbal tone is all about two things: confidence and honesty. We don’t act like we assume we know everything already—we go out and make sure. And when it becomes clear that hard decisions have to be made, we don’t shy away from making them. So when we talk to our audiences, confidence and honesty are the law of the land. No beating around the bush, no equivocating. Just confident honesty.
Visually, we actually have a few different options. Our corporate look is more buttoned-up, clean and authoritative. Our attraction brand is a little less traditional, and shows off a little more personality. And for our employer brand, talking to and about our people, it’s more vibrant to show off our energy.
There are differences, sure. But having clear guidelines for the look and sound of our brand gives it a consistency that allows prospects and customers and employees to know what they’re going to get from us, no matter what.
The Finished Product: Your Outward-facing Brand
Everything we’ve talked about so far is the foundation of your brand. Now that you have all that established, you can get into the active aspects of the brand—the assets that you’ll use in your marketing, the things that people will actually see. This includes brand elements like your logo, color palette, photography, illustrations and icons, and typefaces.
All of the work you’ve done to this point to build your foundation pays off here. Your guidelines inform your decisions on these questions—you shouldn’t just choose a logo that looks cool or colors that you think are pretty, you should be choosing based on the personality and characteristics that you’ve established for your brand.
One thing to remember: your brand is going to be presented to many different audiences. In some cases this is fine—the face you’re presenting to your customers and prospects should be capable of speaking to all of them with minor changes, rather than a wholly different experience for everyone. That’s part of your brand-building process. But if you’re also working to build your employer brand—and you should be—it might be a little different from what you’re showing customers, and that’s okay.
Just make sure you treat your employer brand right—that is, treat it the same way you treat your outward-facing brand. Go through the same process we just discussed again, but this time think about your current and future employees as the audience, instead of your customers. You might end up with slightly different assets, or even a sub-brand. It all depends on what your employees need.
Building Your Own Brand Is a Conversation
Looking at the whole of our brand guidelines, it may feel daunting—overwhelming, even. There’s a lot there, and if you’re in a place where you’ve never even thought about these things before, it’s a lot to do all at once. But while there’s definitely a process to it, a formal route from “nothing” to knowing your brand intimately, it’s really something much more simple than that at its core. Really, what you’re doing is having conversations about yourself. You’re thinking about who you are and who you want to be, and how you and everyone in your organization can show that off to people.
There are a lot of parts, a lot of things to think about and keep track of. But to paraphrase Sun Tzu and G.I. Joe, knowing yourself is half the battle. Do the work now, and your marketing will show it.
Thomas fills a few roles at E3—writer, editor, and resident European soccer expert—but his chief responsibility is content creation. When he's not crafting thoughtful content for the Element Three blog, he's captaining our kickball team, watching the Mets, or talking up Indianapolis to anyone who will listen.
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