Beyond the Logo — How to Create Your Brand Style Guide

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

 Beyond the Logo — How to Create Your Brand Style Guide

Getting your logo designed — it’s one of the exciting bits about founding a start-up. But for many companies, it’s also often the beginning and the end of thinking about brand design. And that’s a big mistake.

“An effective visual identity operates as an immediate, concise expression of a brand,” explains Dr Jamie Marsden of Leeds University, one of the UK’s leading specialists in brand communications and the value of visual identity to brand strategy. 

“The visual domain, as our dominant sense, can arouse emotions and instil a strong connection. Preeminent brands understand this and exploit the seductive power of the visual domain. Anyone who considers visual identity as merely an instrument of recognition and awareness is placing their brand at a significant disadvantage.”

The worst place to be positioned in the market is as an interchangeable commodity. One of the best ways to avoid this is by having a strong and consistent identity. This helps your customers to recognise your products and services — over those of your competitors — and to build a relationship with your business. Once that happens, you no longer just have a company and some products. You have a brand.

“A strong, striking brand with a good story is key to being able to penetrate a new market —whether local or international” says Larry Weil, Director, International Drinks Development Ltd, which specialises in helping drinks companies break into foreign markets. “Being able to build on a strong brand gives distributors, customers and consumers a reason to buy, particularly in a crowded market.”

To earn the right to be a brand, there are a lot of things you need to get right —your advertising, your PR, your customer experience. But in this post, we’re going to concentrate on the visual brand identity — and specifically, on creating or refreshing brand guidelines.

It’s not always easy to take what you do as a company and turn it into a pithy and compelling brand statement — as Erlich from the HBO series Silicon Valley found out.

 Understand what your brand stands for

Your brand guidelines contain all the information and rules an employee, designer, or channel partner needs to create on-brand communications — with the right colours, logo usage, logo placement, choice of fonts and so on. But they all start with a single idea.

That idea is your brand’s guiding principal. When your customers think about your brand, what do you want it to stand for in their minds? It’s important to get this right, because it will inform the design choices you make when you create your brand guidelines.

Take, for instance, Coca Cola. Its brand values are ‘enjoying life and being happy’. The colour red suits these values — it’s generally associated with excitement, attraction, and action. A 2008 study, for instance, found that men were more attracted to a woman when she wore red[1].

Red wouldn’t work for a more conservative brand, for instance the auditor Deloitte — it doesn’t want clients to think its audits will be exciting. It wants its brand to be associated with rigor, trustworthiness, and reliability. Knowing this determined the choices Deloitte’s designers made when they decided on a colour palette, typefaces, logo design, and everything else in the brand guidelines.

“In many ways a brand or logo is like an empty glass vessel, it takes on a meaning depending on what the company places in it, what they stand for, how they operate,” says Jerry, WLM’s Brand Doctor. “But on a starting point simplicity is key. A visual representation of your company should be aspirational (dress your best to create a great impression), but be honest in what you wish to convey. Pick one thing you do better than everyone else – your point of difference. Find the simplest way to get that across - one central idea. A logo is at its best when there is nothing left to remove. If you can show someone your identity and they remember it, and loosely recreate it with a pen on a napkin, while retaining what you are about, then you are really on to something. Of course, an interesting name also helps.”

Coca Cola is clear about its brand values and positioning — the perfect starting point for defining a visual brand identity.

What belongs in your brand guidelines?

Your main goal in creating brand guidelines is to provide clear, consistent guidance on how partners, agencies, and employees can create on-brand communications. You only need to include in your guidelines things that contribute to achieving to that goal. For instance, if yours is a small company that only sells online, then you don’t need to include a section on creating point-of-sales assets.

But what you definitely should do is build flexibility into your guidelines. Right now, you may have no plans to launch a mobile app or book six-metre wide billboards up and down the nation’s highways. But you might want to do these things in the future. The basic building blocks in your brand guidelines should be able to accommodate both, and everything in between.

We once worked with a company that had spent a lot of money on rebranding — including the creation of a range of beautiful and striking geometric product icons. Unfortunately, none of these icons displayed properly on mobile screens and the brand guidelines didn’t allow them to be cropped or adapted.

So what are the basic building blocks of a visual brand identity, the things that every company should have in its brand guidelines?

The Google Trends brand guidelines show in a clear, unambiguous, visual way exactly how to arrange the logo and the space around it on the page.

The building blocks of visual identity

1. The company logo — and guidance on how to use it.

Logos come in many forms. Iconic or pictorial marks, for instance, are stylised pictures that embody the brand — think Apple’s apple or Shell’s shell. Wordmarks are a stylised word; examples include Google, eBay, and CNN. Letterforms are a single stylised letter designed to immediately evoke the brand, for instance Facebook’s ‘f’ or McDonald’s ‘M’.

Generally, it’s a good idea to have at least two forms of your logo — to accommodate the needs of designers working in different media. Many brands, for instance, have a wordmark for use on large-format communications and a letterform for use with mobile designs.

Your logo should be instantly recognisable, consistent with the values and personality of your brand, and designed to last. If your brand endures for decades, you will need to refresh at some point. But even so, when it is first designed your logo shouldn’t look so contemporary that it’s already old-fashioned within just a few years.

As well as the logo itself, your brand guidelines should contain guidance on how to position the logo in various media. Typically, you might tell designers where the logo can be placed on a page, how much space to leave around the logo, and how the logo interacts with other brand elements such as your tagline.

Kaspersky Lab’s brand guidelines tell designers concisely and clearly which fonts to use, at which sizes, and in which media.

2. Typefaces for all occasions

 As well as defining your logo and telling the reader how to use it (and where to download it), your brand guidelines should also specify which fonts are allowed in brand communications.

The font you choose should be consistent with your brand’s personality and values. Sans serif fonts, for instance, convey a feeling of simplicity and modernity. Serif fonts, on the other hand, tend to evoke tradition, stability, and longevity while cursive fonts carry associations of refinement and luxury. Work with your designer to choose the right selection of typefaces for your brand.

Remember to specify which fonts digital designers should use for assets such as websites, apps, and emails. Tell designers whether or not your brand fonts are available as webfonts, allowing them to be used with websites. But ensure you  specify which web-safe fonts — for instance Arial or Helvetica — are on-brand. At the very least your designers will need them for emails, as most email clients don’t support webfonts.

With minimum descriptive copy, the HP brand guidelines gives the designer most of the information they need to use colour effectively in a way that’s on brand.

3. The colour palette

Specify which colours designers may use with your brand. Tell the reader which colours can be used as the dominant colours in a design and which only as highlights. If some colour combinations are not allowed, make that clear. Give the exact HEX, RGB, and CMYK values for all your brand colours — this makes it possible for designers to use your chosen shades correctly in print and on screen.

The original NASA brand guidelines give designers detailed instructions on which grid layouts to use for which purposes, and why.

4. All graphic design is based on grid layouts. 

Any page — whether it’s a magazine, poster, or webpage — is divided into columns and rows. The reader or viewer won’t see the grid, but the designer uses it to guide his or her composition. Using the grid, the designer maintains consistency, repetition, proportion, and alignment: the basic principles of design.

But different grid layouts have different personalities and uses. A five-column grid, for instance, allows for two text columns that each span two grid columns, and one text column that spans only one grid-column. This makes it ideal for annotated text, for instance in technical or design manuals.  

You should provide a range of grid layouts suitable for a variety of purposes. As well as specifying the number of columns, you should also tell the reader of your guidelines the permitted width for gutters (the spaces between text columns) and page borders. This gives your branded communications a visually unified feel and, working with the other building blocks, makes any brand communication instantly recognisable as coming from your company.

Walmart’s brand guidelines give the reader important tips on the composition and emotional content of on-brand imagery — supported by plenty of sample images.

5. How to choose and use images

A lot of brands come unstuck with this. Typically someone decides to use cheap stock photos, with the result that the only consistency is that everything looks really cheesy. Depending on your needs, you may want to specify the types of subject allowed, whether and how your products may be featured, what effects may and may not be used (lens flare, for instance, or specific filters), and so on. You may also wish to specify from which sources the reader is allowed to obtain photographs.

PayPal’s brand guidelines give the reader clear advice on how to write for the brand — clear, concise, no jargon, and always human.  

6. Tone of voice

This is another one we’ve seen go badly wrong, usually for one of two reasons. The first is that everyone thinks they can write. After all, they learnt how at school, didn’t they? True, but most people also take P.E at school, but we bet they don’t think they could run in the Olympics. And then there’s the sales imperative: someone has a target to meet and all of a sudden your brand communications sound like Flash Harry the used-car salesman.

To avoid this, include a brief section in your guidelines on how your brand talks to its customers. Things such as the tone and level of formality will vary depending on your target market (but even B2B brands should never sound stiff or stilted). Warn readers away from particular instances of bad practice — for instance use of the passive voice. And remember to furnish plenty of examples to ensure that readers know what you’re talking about in each case.

Make your guidelines work with your partners

What we’ve covered here are the fundamentals that should be in every brand guideline. You may also want to include  further sections that are particularly relevant to your business. For instance, if you operate entirely online then you might want to include an expanded section on items such as the placement and usage of call-to-action buttons, or the design of local- and partner-store carts and checkouts.

When you’re briefing your brand agency, be clear about what you want to achieve. Have senior board members work closely with the branding team to make sure that your agency understands your brand values, personality, and positioning.

It’s also important to remember that most people who read your brand guidelines will probably be designers. As a rule, designers have a visual imagination. They don’t want to read screeds of text. Keep the copy to a minimum and illustrate what is and isn’t allowed using visual examples.

The PR value of brand

Mark Dye is the Managing Director of WLM Digital. One thing he’s learned over the years is the value of a strong brand.

“A brand is basically emotional capital that you build up in the minds of your customers — it’s a measure of your customers’ recognition of and investment in your company. Having a strong brand is always a PR advantage. It’s far easier to promote a new product if consumers know and trust the company launching it. But brand really comes into its own during a crisis. It gives you a reservoir of trust and goodwill on which to draw when framing your response.”

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