We’ve written about branding over the years, everything from strategy and concepts to tactics and execution.
This time I’d like to focus on what happens when your strategy is said and done.
You can now create great content, right? Well, not exactly.
You need a brand style guide that communicates your strategy in a guidebook.
Without this guide, you can end up with off-brand content. Think: wrong colors on a web page, incorrect logo placement, and wrong messaging in a social media post.
Even the most established brands often have creative guidelines that don’t work for their business and are not being properly utilized by their team members, vendors, and agencies.
Here’s a look at how to create a brand style guide that helps your company maintain quality and consistency in branded content.
What is a Brand Style Guide?
A brand style guide is the last step in a branding process and documents your brand identity in a way that allows content creators to present a cohesive brand. Typically style guides are often considered design-only guidelines. But you’ll want a document that provides rules for how your brand looks and speaks.
Why You Need One Now
A brand style guide tells everyone in your organization (and agency) exactly what your brand looks, sounds, and feels like. It helps your marketing team, doctors, and C-level executives to present a consistent brand to your consumers and the wider market.
This is especially important if you’re producing a large content volume, working with many content creators, or collaborating with an agency.
A brand style guide provides
- Quality control
- Better brand recognition
Brand Identity Versus Brand Style
Before we go into what’s inside a style guide, we need to delineate the difference between brand identity and brand style.
To do this, I chatted with friend and colleague, Brett Maurer. Brett is a classically trained creative director with vast experience building identity, brand guidelines, and advertising systems for several top-tier consumer brands.
Today, Brett leads design for our clients at Healthcare Success. He studied design at the Rhode Island School of Design and has over 20 years of experience in agency and in-house settings. He has created, supported, and guided brands such as Align Technologies, Time Warner, Merck, Aston Martin, Dodge, Schering-Plough, Amylin Pharmaceuticals, Align Technologies, and Cornerstone OnDemand.
“I think there is a lot of confusion between what makes an identity and what makes a brand,” says Brett, “more often than not, the two are conflated or used interchangeably, but they are really quite different.”
You see your identity. You feel your brand.
Brand identity encompasses all the building blocks, or DNA, required to realize your brand. It includes the basic visual elements that identify and distinguish the brand for consumers, including
- Logo / Logos
- Color Palette
- Business Name
- Proper Application / Uses
“This is just a starting point for brands, but many stop here,” explains Brett, “utilizing these elements together in a cohesive, consistent, and meaning-building way elevates your corporate identity to a living brand.”
Once you’ve done the hard work of establishing that brand identity, you can then develop your brand style—a living thing that flexes to accommodate and communicate across any platform, medium, or discipline.
A brand style allows businesses to anticipate the unknown and adapt appropriately to new applications and environments.
“A brand style guide can—and should—evolve to accommodate new needs and changing messaging. If your brand style is too limiting or strict, it can’t accommodate the needs and limitations across multiple platforms or locations—especially as your business scales and grows into its full potential.”
Brand style guides should provide a consistent, unified look, feel, and messaging—no matter where your audience interacts with your brand.
The goal is to establish a proprietary space for users—one that is recognized immediately as relative to your company. It should answer questions, like
- Does your company utilize imagery, illustrations, or only type and color?
- Is your messaging witty and playful, or direct and no-nonsense?
- Does this change depending on the application, and if so, how does the shift relate back to your overall style?
What’s Inside a Brand Style Guide
When building brand guidelines, you want a document articulating your brand’s heart and verbal and visual identity.
This helps people in your organization fully understand how your brand looks, speaks, and feels. Here’s a rundown of everything to include
- Core Principles
This section should speak to your mission, vision, and values. It should answer questions, like
- Why does your brand exist?
- Where does your brand see itself in 5-10 years?
- How will your brand achieve its vision for the future?
- What principles guide your brand?
- Brand Essence
- Value proposition
- Messaging pillars (e.g., key differentiators)
- Visual Vocabulary
- Imagery type
- A combination of the above
- Composition and layout
- Symbols and iconography
- Voice and tone
- Data visualization
- Imagery type
How To Create a Brand Style Guide in 6 Steps
1. Do the Brand Work / Establish Your Brand
Every successful brand has established its strategy. If you haven’t developed your brand strategy, you’re likely already familiar with the challenges this type of shortcut can bring.
Take the time and develop the following:
- Brand Foundation and Positioning
- Brand messaging
- Visual identity
- Typography system
- Color Palette
2. Determine Your Format
A brand style guide needs to be accessible and easy to navigate. Team members, including graphic designers and content writers, will regularly refer to it for content creation dos and don’ts.
Here are three format options to consider:
- Static Print: Remember print? A printed style guide can be useful for an in-office team and those who appreciate the nostalgia of printed artwork. After all, it is a final work of art representing all your hard work of finally developing your brand.
- Static Web: A simple PDF of the guide is a status web or digital option that works for many companies. This type is accessible anywhere by anyone.
- Interactive Web: An interactive web style guide is a dynamic one that is also easy to navigate.
3. Include a Table of Contents
Going back to the idea that a brand style guide should be easy to navigate, a table of contents is necessary for this type of book. Your team members should be able to quickly scan what’s inside and visit the section that’s relevant to them.
The table of contents should include all the areas you’ve established for your brand identity and style. You can reference the What’s Inside section above for some examples.
4. Create the Style Guide
It’s time to combine all your hard work into a beautifully designed brand style guide.
Here are a few dos and don’ts:
- DO provide examples
- DO be specific
- DO be consistent
- DO be flexible and adapt to trends
- DO update and refresh as needed
- DO get buy-in from stakeholders
- DO make it available and easy to access
- DON’T make the guidelines universal
- DON’T ignore your brand story
- DON’T rush the process
5. Remember, It’s Living – Just Like Your Brand!
Add to it as needed to keep your brand relevant across new spaces, channels, and environments.