September 12, 2022

How to Create Brand Guidelines People Will Actually Use

Depending on whom you talk to, brand guidelines can be considered either indispensable or completely invisible. For some brands, guidelines are a lighthouse, transmitting a reliable signal and uniting brand creators through the fog of uncertainty. For others, guidelines are an unused and unseen formality, considered a restrictive tool that inhibits creativity.

But putting aside the emotions they evoke, what brand guidelines are is simple: a set of rules and standards that create a cohesive brand appearance across channels. From typography, imagery and tone of voice to countless other expression decisions, brand guidelines provide a single source of truth to communicate the brand strategy.

We consistently find a direct connection between high-achieving brands and thoughtfully constructed brand guidance. And brand guidance has only increased in importance over the past few decades. Considering the rapid acceleration of modern marketing channels, more is being asked of brands than ever before. Even once-sleepy B2B categories now force brands to compete in a world where coordinated performance across social media, digital, earned and paid media is no longer voluntary. And competing in this new reality forces brands to consider every aspect of their brand execution by transforming their brand guidance from invisible to indispensable.

How to get there? We rely on three principles when creating brand guidelines for our clients: intended audience knowledge, dynamic interfaces, and consistent brand training. Together, these considerations build brand guidelines that will not only be used, but will also be supremely useful toward creating cohesive brand experiences, building brand awareness and ultimately driving revenue and growth for our clients.

Know your audience The world of brand execution is rapidly evolving—and with it, there’s exponential growth in both the quantity of content required and the number of roles necessary to create it. For example, what was once simply referred to as “digital design” has blossomed to include multiple disciplines of creators, from animators to influencers to media buyers—each with a distinct responsibility for brand output.

Branding has expanded beyond the output of what traditional designers and writers can achieve, and brand guidelines must evolve to value the unique needs of these new creators.

Without brand guidelines, chaos ensues. But with too tight a grip, the innovation and flexibility required by these fast-paced digital platforms is stifled by a cage of brand requirements. Choosing the right level for your company begins with recognizing that different types of creators and users require different levels of exactitude—and building your brand guidelines to reflect their needs.

The best-designed brands will fail if the people executing the brand are unable to successfully deliver the intent of the brand guidelines. Indeed, it’s common for brands to have talented creatives at the ready without the infrastructure that would allow them to succeed. Whatever the talent level available, brands must be realistic in assessing the skill and commitment required to implement their brand systems, and it starts by identifying each brand’s unique priorities. A direct-to-consumer brand will prioritize brand guidance principles differently than a business-to-business brand, and the rules will vary for each group of practitioners.

When creating brand systems, we’re consistently thinking about the user experience of the people who will ultimately build the brands we’ve designed. The final assembly of brand guidance is for us a culmination of the insights and decisions that guided us from the very start of the project.

Consider how a pioneering DTC brand like Warby Parker continuously uses a brand expression on the cutting edge of trends by prioritizing design aesthetics. It’s a delicate balance for Warby Parker to stay culturally current while building brand equity. Striking that balance requires a collection of uniquely talented practitioners to create nuanced branded experiences. Brands in this scenario recognize the freedom their practitioners need and prioritize brand principles over prescriptive brand rules. Generally speaking, the more advanced and specialized the makeup of your creative team, the more appropriate these flexible brand principles become.

A different scenario is common for B2B brands, where brand consistency and systems thinking is prioritized. This approach also requires a collection of talented practitioners, but this group is skilled in different ways. They’re able to unite disconnected executions, creating consistent branded experiences. Doing this requires the brand to provide definition, structure and clearly defined rules. A positive byproduct of this structure means brands in this scenario can work with a broader selection of practitioners, because general skills are best suited to accomplish the brand’s goals. Accordingly, when creating guidelines for this scenario, brands must recognize that they are simultaneously speaking to multiple skill levels and craft their guidance to match that reality.

It’s simply not enough for us to just design a beautiful brand. Brand guidelines must match the executional realities of the practitioners who will execute the brand every day, and support them with both the appropriate amount of structure and flexibility.

Create a dynamic interface In a rapidly fading past life, brand guidelines were delivered via PDF. Today, the best brand guidelines are digital—and dynamic. The PDF guidelines of the past created significant challenges for the users, specifically the density and lack of clarity in the guidance found in PDF due to their extended length. Add in small text sizes and missing navigation functionality, and interfacing with PDF guidelines often felt like taking an AP test when you’ve only taken the regular class for the semester. Secondarily, once a PDF of the guidelines is created, it immediately becomes nearly impossible to update. The guidelines become a frozen monument to a moment in time, making ongoing brand updates all the more challenging to implement.

Digital solutions solve these problems. The fundamental relationship between curated guidance and website hierarchy forces a distillation of information that prioritizes clarity. And the dynamic nature means updates are easy and immediate. The ability to push updates to audiences while providing instantaneous access to assets allows brand guidelines to move at the speed of the digital world—evolving with the users, not holding them back.

The importance of brand training We believe every employee plays a role in the successful representation of a brand’s strategy. Even the employees you wouldn’t normally consider integral to delivering brand messaging are routinely in a position to communicate on behalf of the brand, and each of those moments needs to align with the brand strategy for a modern brand to thrive. From those unexpected brand ambassadors through traditional brand creatives, every person who interacts with the brand should receive initial brand training followed by update sessions at regular intervals. For corporations, training on the brand guidelines should be as commonplace as security training.

Building on a baseline of brand training, customized training can then be deployed for creators where more specialized knowledge is required to produce nuanced aspects of brand expression. And for advanced creators, brand playbooks are a useful tool to communicate how to implement modified campaign expressions for niche audiences. (We’ll cover more about brand playbooks in part two.)

A quick Google search will highlight many off-the-shelf brand training approaches, but in our view, brand training needs to be every bit as unique as the brands they represent. Both the subjects communicated and the method for delivering the guidance need to be appropriate for the expectations and personality of the individual brands.

Conclusion The brands that succeed in today’s fast-paced marketing ecosystem create thoughtfully considered digital brand guidelines that keep the audience in mind—and then train their creators with customized, flexible brand education.

VSA Partners is dedicated to creating better human experiences for our brand partners, and these human experiences don’t end outside the company’s walls. By building the framework for employees and creators to consistently carry out a cohesive brand experience, brand guidelines create a powerful force for brand cohesion and awareness. From the starting line to years after implementation, the brand guidelines we build are not just built to last—they’re built to scale.

Interested in working with us? Let’s start a conversation to discover how we can help you more clearly communicate your brand to your brand creators.

Matt Ganser

Creative Director, Design

Matt's expertise extends across brand expression, marketing activation and more. In his role, he has led branding initiatives for startups and established brands, including Mack Trucks, Intuitive Surgical, Google, CME Group and Morningstar. Matt has been recognized and featured in Communication Arts, Brand New, How, Print, Addys, Graphis, Upper and Lowercase Quarterly, Chicago Tribune, Inc., Adweek and Brandweek.