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October 18, 2022

Break the Brand: The Case for Brand Playbooks

What aren’t brand playbooks

For starters, brand playbooks are not brand guidelines; we should get that established before we get too far into this. They aren’t the evergreen principles or the fundamental expression assets defined in the brand guidelines, and they aren’t the strategic guidance that informs all brand experiences. They aren’t meant to be referenced by all employees as traditional guidelines are intended. In fact, great care is taken to ensure the use of playbooks is limited to specific practitioners, often on confidential terms.

Brands need effective guidelines before creating playbooks. There can be guidelines without playbooks, but it’s impossible to have playbooks without brand guidelines. It’s the “only one sun, but many planets” approach.

OK, then, what are brand playbooks?

Brand playbooks allow brands to be united while creating distinction for multiple initiatives. Each initiative shares a common bond through its fundamental connection to the brand guidelines but provides an individualized approach, enabling them to achieve their unique objectives.

There can be playbooks for every facet of your brand expression, or they can be combined to create campaign playbooks involving multiple expression elements. More instructional than definitional, each play details the roles of each brand player and how to use expression assets correctly. Playbooks effectively run plays across multiple teams and disciplines for brands, removing variability and ensuring your strategy performs as intended. Playbooks also enable brand guidelines to stay flexible and encourage innovation, because they provide the structure and game plan when more precise operations are required.

An effective analogy can be found in automotive design. Audi has a defined design language and principles that effortlessly communicate the Audi experience, which we’ll refer to as the brand guidelines in this example. They’re how you know you’re looking at one of its cars from any angle, even without seeing a logo. Now, think about all the different models Audi produces, each for different audiences serving different purposes. The various “models” in our analogy are brand playbooks. It’s how Audi customizes its approach between performance sedans and economy SUVs while retaining one unified brand.

Or think of Google and its famously minimal brand guidelines philosophy, where building from white and using four colors, limited typographic choices, and illustration defines the brand expression. Now think about the multitudes of internal Google initiatives, brand partnerships and marketing campaigns across a nearly unlimited collection of technologies and products. It would be gridlock to ask for just one set of expression tools to define an endless number of marketing programs, and that’s where playbooks become integral to a brand’s success. Every Google marketing initiative is united through a shared connection to its brand guidelines but becomes uniquely impactful because of how it creates and applies brand playbooks.

Despite all the excellent use cases for them, brand playbooks should never aspire to replace brand guidelines. If your brand is creating rules in its playbooks that contradict guidance found in your brand guidelines, it’s time to replace or update your brand guidelines.

Are brand playbooks right for you?

Here are a few questions to ask when investigating if a brand playbook is right for your next project: Has something changed in your industry and you need a rapid response not included in your brand guidelines? Does it require ever-increasing effort to create your marketing, but the return on investment isn’t worth it? Are your practitioners and partner agencies creating wildly different and disjointed outputs? Are the product owners in your organization frustrated by strict brand rules that limit their ability to promote the unique attributes of their products? Or maybe you’re asking brand architecture to solve problems that brand expression enhancement could answer instead?

If any of these sounds familiar, brand playbooks can help dig your team out of “stuck and overwhelmed” and turn it into a well-oiled machine.

How to begin a strong brand playbook

The best brand playbooks have beginnings rooted in awareness of circumstance and audience.

Circumstance: Identify what duties you’re asking your brand to perform, as well as the circumstances and where they fall short. This gap is the entry point for your brand playbook.

Audience: From there, you focus on the people requesting and creating brand assets. You talk to them and discover how you can help them accomplish what they need to do better, more efficiently, with the highest level of fidelity. You craft your guidance to match their needs, ensuring everyone who creates in your brand’s voice is invested in its success and values their role in creating work they are proud of within the structure of a playbook.

And then you get started. It’s important to note that brand playbooks created in a tight-knit, focused group tend to have the best impact. That’s because brand playbooks are often created in response to market forces or sudden opportunities where a swift brand pivot is essential and time is a primary concern. We find it’s vital to work quickly, with small teams identifying unique approaches in collaboration with the brand decision-makers entrusted to approve work.

VSA Partners has worked with countless clients to create quick-turn, responsive brand playbooks that help them react to market changes, new product offerings and countless other circumstances that require a more precise approach than their brand guidelines currently offer. Got an idea? Let’s talk.

Headshot of Matt Ganser

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.