Take a moment to imagine that we’re co-workers in a large, conservative law firm. We don’t collaborate often, but we still see each other almost every day. Now, let’s say this weekend you fly to Vegas for a friend’s birthday. While you’re there, you visit a rooftop club, where (unbeknownst to you) I also happen to be. We pass on the stairs. And we recognize each other. Of course we do. Even though we’re dressed differently than we are during the workweek. Even though we’re talking to our friends about different things than we discuss in the office. Even though we’re seeing each other in a completely different context, we still essentially look and sound the same.
Context is a crucial consideration with branding, too. Ideally, every brand should be recognizable regardless of context, yet brands should also be able to adjust their characteristics based on whatever that context is. Here’s how flexibility factors into branding and marketing.
One thing that unites the big brands that everyone puts on a pedestal (e.g., Apple, Nike, LEGO, Coca-Cola and BMW) is that they are extremely well defined. In fact, each one has a brand tone, personality and overall aesthetic that’s so sharp, you could remove its name or logo from an ad and likely still know who created it. Being that unforgettable is powerful. It’s a position of confidence rather than a simpering attempt to be all things to all people.
In terms of attracting new customers, establishing brand relevancy is becoming more crucial than creating brand differentiation. Yet once these customers find your brand, it needs to evoke characteristics that draw them in. Is the brand relatable? Is it a reflection of an organization that these new leads want to work with or even befriend? A clearly articulated brand can answer these questions. And when the answer is yes, it can help establish lasting connections.
Clarity and inflexibility are not the same thing. Brand guidelines that are too strict or narrow can be a disadvantage because they don’t allow for communications to be tailored to specific audiences. Think about our theoretical meeting again. Would you or I want to show up at the office in the same clothes we wore to the rooftop club? Not if we wanted to be taken seriously and work most effectively, we wouldn’t. To be relevant to different audience segments, a company needs brand guidelines that allow for adjustments, too. This is not a matter of making radical shifts. It’s just about dialing various attributes up or down along a brand continuum.
Also consider that to stay relevant to customers, brands need to stay interesting to them. If marketing campaigns and content are handcuffed by stringent brand guidelines, they’ll quickly become stale. Again, this doesn’t mean that branding should shift wildly from one campaign to the next, but providing a little room to move allows captivating ideas to flourish.
Creating well defined, yet flexible, brand guidelines has more than external benefits. These types of guidelines can help marketing departments like yours function in a united way. Rules that are too wide-open lead team members to do whatever they want, resulting in communications that are inconsistent. Rules that are too strict risk encouraging rebellion by team members who want their projects to be appear fresher or more interesting than the guidelines allow.
Of course, even perfectly balanced guidelines don’t prevent these scenarios if they aren’t properly communicated throughout an organization – and to its agency partners. Training sessions are vital, with follow-up sessions held as needed. For example, consider conducting a series of trainings with the first devoted to the overall brand standards and additional sessions each focused on medium-specific applications. Training should also communicate:
- Where to find brand assets
- Who to contact with questions
- The process for reviewing work to ensure it’s “on brand”
(And here’s a hint: If your company brand reviewer or review team is rigid rather than collaborative, people will conveniently omit brand from their review cycles.)
As with many things in life, creating inspiring brand guidelines is all about striking the right balance, allowing a brand to be recognized in any media or application, yet dressed up (or down) depending on the audience. If you’re reading this because you’re in the process of creating a brand from scratch, refreshing a brand or trying to wrangle loose guidelines into formal documentation, obviously Ervin & Smith would love to support you in finding that balance. And if you want to start doing some research of your own, consider this parting gift: the Santa brand book, guidelines that (purposely) take themselves way too seriously. Enjoy and let us know if you have other great examples to share below.