In most organizations, the number of marketers and communicators far outpace the size and resources of their colleagues on the brand team. At the same time, those businesses recognize that brand is essential to the direction and alignment of their organization, and that everyone plays a role in contributing to the success of the brand. And beyond the walls of an enterprise, agencies and business partners also “touch” the brand and influence how it’s experienced. Internal brand leaders and their functions—the “keepers of the flame”—increasingly face a decentralized, distributed and often disjointed world that they need to manage. A systems approach to brand management has become the answer to the need for guidance and consistency while serving the realities of scale, adaptability and distributed brand decision-making.
Brand guidelines haven’t changed much over the past 50 years. Typically, they consist of assets and standards—a comprehensive set of do’s and don’ts that govern the use of the company's proprietary visual and verbal assets. Certainly, many brand guides have made the leap to digital brand centers, asset management systems or even public websites, but it’s rare when they actually account for how people learn and work today.
It’s time for a change in how we approach branding systems — one that centers branding as an intuitive, adaptable framework rather than a static set of rules. The following three target areas optimize the relationship between the brand management system and the people who use it, ultimately creating a modernized brand management approach ready for a fast-paced market.
An effective brand system takes more than providing access to a robust set of guidelines. Your entire organization needs to develop and reinforce better brand practitioner skills—and the critical thinking needed to interpret rules and adapt assets.
How much effort should go into upskilling employees? The biggest factor is the desired level of expertise and fluency. Malcolm Gladwell famously said it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, which translates to about nine years (around four hours a day, five days a week). No business needs an entire organization of brand experts, but all employees need to learn the skills to perform well enough for their own purposes—think 10 to 20 hours of training each year. This is the right commitment to brand training for acquiring the needed amount of brand fluency.
In a large organization, brand practitioners and marketers can number in the hundreds. Brand users and “brand dependents” can number in the thousands, with connections and needs shared between them often going unseen. This makes consistency an enormous challenge. For disciplined brand governance, businesses should be investing in tools, not just guidelines and assets.
An automated, systems-based tool provides constraints. Think of these tools as a means of “rigid flexibility.” With preprogrammed choices like color, typography, format and hierarchy, virtually anyone can build the right asset and do so efficiently. This ensures fewer mistakes and is less expensive than human intervention.
Most of our own work in this area resides in building digital design systems. These are fundamentally code and pattern libraries that greatly reduce the amount of effort to build and deploy, and that increase the consistency and efficiency of teams.
Two notable examples worth learning from:
TimesTalks – A quote about the system from Mirek Nisenbaum: “A bespoke digital tool allows The New York Times’ design team to easily implement an established graphic language, explore the entire range of color and type and maintain consistency from event to event. This beats a static graphic guideline.”
Walker Expanded – This was a brilliant “hack” by the museum back in the day, and a great example of automation. The typeface has all the right choices of words, patterns and colors embedded. It’s hard to mess it up. And still rewarding to use.
The primary implication of automation and systemization of brand expression is less “guideline” training and more “tool” training. For groups like a social media team, who work at accelerated speed and responsiveness, an automated tool embedded in the creative process is a powerful enabler of disciplined brand management.
Big, distributed and automated brand systems still have to account for the human factor. Like all the major digital and societal shifts underway in how people consume, navigate and share information, brand guidance needs to fit new expectations and habits among users to be effective.
A few tips that help to ensure users see themselves as part of the brand system:
However a brand system is designed, distributed and managed, it's crucial to treat it as a living organism. The more rigid a brand is for its users, the more static and "expected" the experience becomes for its broader stakeholder audiences. Build it with logic and structure, certainly. But also envision how it will evolve and be interpreted over time and through different media and moments. With skilled practitioners, digital access and automation, and human-centered guidance, you can build a system that is truly future-proofed.
Curt Schreiber is the heart of VSA design. He currently guides VSA’s creative philosophy, and is responsible for establishing the office’s design standards and offerings. Throughout his 30-year tenure with the company, Curt has been essential in the agency’s transition from a boutique design firm to a brand-led customer experience agency. Curt has decades of experience working with internationally-recognized global brands, and his client list includes VSA’s most prominent clientele. He also serves as an influential thought leader within the creative industry. Most recently, Curt was named one of Chicago’s most influential designers and included in AIGA’s This is Chicago. Curt’s work has been recognized by more than 100 international design and communications organizations, publications and competitions including the AIGA, Cannes Lions, Cooper Hewitt, Communication Arts, Graphis and the Society of Typographic Arts. His work is also included in the permanent collection of the U.S. Library of Congress.