By Mitchell Jordan

I challenge you to think of a complex project that doesn’t start with a blueprint. An interior designer would never furnish a house without first consulting the master floorplan, and a novelist can’t delve into character development without at least mapping out a rough table of contents. The same logic applies when designing brand communications: no business leader should consider launching a television spot—or even uploading a new social media avatar—before establishing formal brand guidelines.

What exactly are brand guidelines, anyways?

Brand guidelines summarize the most important aspects of a brand and explain how (and how not) to communicate a brand’s essence. Not to be confused with simplified style guidelines, brand guidelines simultaneously govern visual elements (from logos and fonts to color palettes and photography) and lay out rules for structuring communications according to a brand’s philosophy, tone, and voice. When working with a remote team or collaborating with external partners, a set of clear, comprehensive brand guidelines anchors the creative process and helps forge a readily recognizable brand identity across multiple channels and different campaigns.

Prioritizing brand guidelines may seem like a no-brainer, but brands often bypass this step and jump right into creative executions. In the case of busy startups, a backlog of time-sensitive projects and a scrappy approach to budgeting can take precedence over the nebulous task of hammering out brand guidelines. In other instances, asset creation may fall to a single individual who already knows the brand inside and out and doesn’t see the need to formulate official guidelines.

While extensive brand guidelines may seem excessive or redundant for small, emerging brands, it’s important to keep your long-term growth plans in mind. As the scope of your communications broadens and the size of your team expands, brand guidelines save time and money by streamlining the creative process. Even more importantly, they ensure thematic harmony across all of your assets. Without any formal guidelines in place at the outset, the creative process can spiral into an organizational headache and a financial drain, and you risk producing disjointed creative that dilutes the power of your brand messages. Clarity and consistency are key when it comes to being taken seriously by clients and consumers, so adhering to brand guidelines is vital for establishing integrity in the long run.

Best practices for brand guidelines

There’s no universal template for crafting brand guidelines—they’re highly variable depending on a brand’s specific needs and the scope of its communications. But there are a few key considerations that every brand should focus on when developing its guidelines to ensure the final product is on-strategy, effective in the long-term, and simple to work with.

Start with strategy

As we say again and again at Dotted Line, always start with strategy. Since every brand approaches strategy from a slightly different angle, your brand guidelines may look totally different from examples you’ve seen before. For instance, incorporating highly technical photography standards into brand guidelines makes perfect sense for an interior design firm, but would feel out of place for a small IT startup. Furthermore, a brand’s strategy evolves over time as new opportunities emerge, so brand guidelines should be crafted with scalability in mind, ready to extend to a new application should the need arise. Whether pivoting from image-based social content to video or extending your new-age brand voice in traditional markets, accounting for upcoming strategic shifts ensures that brand guidelines bend—rather than break—as your business changes.

Play the long game

When committing to a set of standards that will steer your future creative projects, it’s natural to wonder how often you should refresh your guidelines and tempting to leave ample room to accommodate tweaks over time. But while brand guidelines need to be scalable, they should generally maintain a degree of rigidity and stability. After all, the whole point of a brand is to offer its consumers a sense of consistency and security over time. Exercising patience and continuously reinforcing foundational brand elements are key to achieving widespread and long-lasting awareness among consumers. When it comes to modifying your brand guidelines, augment them sparingly and thoughtfully as your brand grows, and resist the urge to make hasty changes every time a trendy new color palette or writing style crops up.

Focus on your team’s different needs

Even the most stunning, thorough brand guidelines can be rendered pointless if your team lacks the know-how or motivation to leverage them effectively. As a creative, I love it when clients hand over a hefty volume of brand guidelines for me to sink my teeth into, but most brands don’t have the need—or budget—for such expansive guidelines. And while your marketing department and creative partners require a certain degree of specificity, be realistic—your colleagues in IT don’t need ten pages of brand voice exploration to update the company-wide email signature. Consider developing smaller appendices to your brand guidelines tailored to different departments’ usages. Ease of use should be a primary consideration when rolling out your brand guidelines, so be sure to present assets to your team with accessibility in mind.

It’s short-sighted to think of brand guidelines as a tool that only large, unwieldy brands working with an array of partners need—they’re a must-have for any growing brand, regardless of size or industry. And while implementing any brand guidelines is a step in the right direction, the more comprehensive they are, the better. Between strategic alignment, long-term planning, and team-specific considerations, it’s no surprise that developing brand guidelines can be a daunting undertaking, and the process can often require in-depth theoretical knowledge or technical expertise depending on your brand’s needs. We’re here to ask the probing questions and formulate the best approach to create brand guidelines that work for your brand. Click here to reach out.

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