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Brand Guidelines: What’s in Them, and What Makes Them Effective

A brand is a living thing. It is born, grows to maturity, and changes over time. At critical junctures in a brand’s life, it may even transform completely. Brand guidelines provide structure to this process. Love them or hate them, brand guidelines serve an important purpose. Externally, they establish a brand look, feel, and tone for audiences who need consistency to build associations. Internally, they provide a blueprint for marketing efforts and eliminate time spent creating every new ad, post, or piece of collateral from zero.

Let’s break down what usually goes in brand guidelines:

1) Color Palette

The brand palette is usually the centerpiece of guidelines since it’s the most noticeable aspect of the brand for your audience. Audiences might not notice that you use Helvetica while your competitor uses Lato, but they’ll start to associate your colors with the brand quickly.

The palette should consist of a main color (or a duo/trio of main colors), as well as designated secondary or accent colors that are used when an additional “pop” is needed. We try to keep this section simple with a strong, recognizable primary palette, a few select accents, potentially some guidelines on grayscale use, and some verbal “rules of thumb” for when it’s necessary to go outside the palette. Make sure to include all relevant color designations (CMYK, Web, RGB, Pantone #, etc.).

Color paletteWarning:

We’ve seen sprawling guidelines where the palette includes multiple alternate combinations in minute detail, complex ranking systems for accent colors, or even usage guides that rank main colors differently based on the type of piece. Do not do this. That level of detail in the palette slows down creative work and boxes in your brand. If you’re saddled with one of these, consider consulting someone to help narrow it down.

2) Typography

Even though typography may not be as recognizable as color, it’s a key area of your brand where you want consistency. If you’ve kept with a clean sans-serif font and use all-caps in headings and suddenly switch to a fussy serif font with heaviness in lieu of capitalization, people will notice.

Typography guidelines should contain directions for the primary font, font weights used, contexts for font styles or breakouts by ad type, and sizing guidelines where relevant. A lot of times we see typography sizing pegged to the size of the logo, which is a workable method.

Warning:

Providing too many options for typography can lead to a Frankenstein brand where designer preference, rather than brand continuity, is the driver for what fonts, weights, and capitalization schemes are used in a particular piece. Fonts are cool, but you can’t collect them all. If you’re having trouble narrowing down what to use, an outside perspective can help.

3) Graphic Elements

A list of graphic elements, like lines, shadows, shapes, or boxes (to name a few) are a common fixture of most guidelines. These frequently take inspiration from the brand logo. If your logo has a bold underline, you may use an underline as an accent elsewhere, for example.

These elements provide helpful inspiration to designers and preserve brand consistency across pieces, since they also tend to drive cohesion between the logo, typography, and imagery.

Warning:

These items can be like glue that helps the brand “stick” together—but too much glue makes a mess and freezes a brand in place. If there are a wide range of graphic elements to be included, you’re essentially saddling all future pieces with a level of design clutter that may get in the way of bold photography, impactful headlines, or logo integrity. Your ads will probably still be recognized easily…but not favorably.

4) Photography and Imagery Guidelines

If there’s one thing people don’t have to worry about when it comes to photography, it’s choices. The availability of fine quality stock is at an all-time high, and your brand is always free to do a photoshoot (budget allowing) if that seems like a better option. But having so many choices is a double-edged sword. That’s why brand guidelines for photography are crucial.

Do you want environmental shots? Product shots? Human-focused shots? Are people looking at the camera? Are they in groups, or alone? If they’re in focus, what’s the background like? Do you use color photographs always, or is black-and-white permissible? Or is your brand more about high conceptual, or not? If so, how obtrusive can image manipulation be? Do you allow for drawings or vector-based imagery? When/where? Laying down these ground rules and giving good examples is crucial.

Camera lens with lense reflections.Warning:

The list of questions to answer in your guidelines is long, and the best way to do this effectively is to combine a “do” list with a “don’t” list. “Do-only” guidelines can easily leave some major “don’t” items out, and “don’t” only lists still allow for a huge range of potentially problematic images, since (as we mentioned before) the possibilities for imagery are basically endless.

5) Logo Use and Variation Guidelines

Logo usage guidelines and variations should be given to help create flexibility in how the logo appears across your ads and digital properties without losing brand equity. If you have a colored logo, there should be a grayscale variation. If you have a dark logo, you need to provide an option that’s reversed to accommodate placement on dark images.

While some of these use cases may not be relevant depending on your imagery/photography guidelines, thinking through logo placement and size with edge cases in mind is always helpful.

Warning:

Logo usage is NOT one of the areas where you want to be lax. If you don’t give guidelines for size (especially in relation to copy), proportionality, placement on an image, proximity to branded copy, number of times it appears in a piece, etc., this effectively puts handling of your brand’s most visible symbol in the hands of individuals—and their individual opinions.

6) Tone / Style Guide

Tone and style are sometimes found in their own guidelines deck but may also accompany the main brand guidelines. Sometimes this is as simple as saying “we adhere to <insert stylebook>” but most of the time, brands want to have more control over tone and language than that.

You don’t have to be exhaustive here—simply include notes about how you want to be perceived, the level of formality, capitalization rules based on context, punctuation preferences, and what regional dialects you’ll be following in regards to spelling (i.e. U.K. English vs. American English).

Warning:

If your brand guidelines speak in a different voice than the standards you’re defining, it may be confusing to readers. You say you want an informal, conversational tone? Use one in your guidelines to give a roadmap for future pieces.

7) Bonus Item: Table of Contents

Guidelines can get pretty long. If there’s no table of contents and clear demarcation of page numbers, usability will be severely impacted. The only thing worse than a bad set of brand guidelines is a good set that no one uses because it’s too much of a pain.

8) Bonus Item 2: General Notes

We like to start guidelines with a brief note as to what the guidelines want to accomplish, what will be found inside them, when the guidelines were developed, along with a version number, and what the procedures are for changing or amending them. That gets everyone on the same page as soon as possible.

When it comes to brand guidelines, there’s a lot to consider. Simplify the process by giving bfw a call. You’ll be partnering with branding experts whose expertise stretches across verticals.

Still thinking about next steps? Whether you want inspiration from outside or hope to do something no one’s done before, it can be helpful to see examples. Check out this compilation of corporate brand guidelines: https://www.brandbase.xyz

 

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