Looking at all of the biggest companies in the world, there’s one thing that stands out: they have a distinct brand identity. From Apple to Budweiser, Vans to Campbell’s soup, the way they look and speak and make customers feel is by design.
What these companies have done is something any company can do: they’ve created and stuck to a brand style guide. The style guide is a roadmap for the company to follow, like their own unique fingerprint in the industry. Sometimes when a company isn’t getting across what they want, they’ll do what’s called a “rebrand” as a means to clarify their positions, their mission, vision, and values. All of these things are psychological mile markers that signify to existing and new customers what the company is all about.
When you’re a new business, it’s ok to try out some designs and marketing messages to see what works, but once you’ve established the company identity, it’s essential to create a living, evolving document that codifies how the company presents itself to the world.
The style guide is designed to maintain consistency across all platforms and methods of communication. The point of the document is simple: to give your team guidelines for creating new assets. It’s a litmus test they can check their work against and ask, “Is this in line with our brand guidelines?”
A Brand Identity Is The Company’s Personality
How a company markets its products or services is how the world sees the brand. Is it buttoned up, or is it fun? Is it boring or informational? Customers, both existing and potential, will examine everything from the logo to the lingo. Consistency is important because if there’s a disconnect, it causes people to second guess the company.
For instance, we’ve all seen a relatively straight-laced company try to adopt a more fun personality, often by releasing a new, colorful logo. However, in doing so, they often eschew the very thing we liked about them in the first place: dependability and history. Whether we can identify the disconnect or not, consumers are incredibly adept at recognizing when a company is trying to be something they’re not. And they don’t like it.
How Do I Create A Brand Identity?
So what are the steps to creating a cohesive brand identity that matches the work your business produces? Let’s start with the four key elements that make up a brand. They are:
- Mission & Vision
- Target audience
- Brand personality
- Core values
All of these in combination establish the brand identity. They’re like a flag planted to let the world know who you are and what you stand for.
Mission & Vision
Do you currently have a mission statement? Have you written down what your company stands for? Where do you want the brand to go?
While it’s tempting to think that the answers are obvious to your entire team or that there are more valuable ways to spend your time, it’s worth slowing down to consider these questions. Your responses don’t need to be long, but they ought to be thoughtful. Your mission can be as down-to-earth or as visionary as feels right to you.
WeWork’s mission statement, for instance, is to “create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living.” Notice they said the goal is to create a “world.” Not a “space” or an “environment.” They’re out to fundamentally change the way people think about work, and it’s reflected in the initiatives they’ve invested in.
Compare that to Home Depot’s mission statement, which reads, “The Home Depot is in the home improvement business and our goal is to provide the highest level of service, the broadest selection of products and the most competitive prices.” Pretty straightforward.
To get to the heart of your mission and vision, spend some time thinking about who you want to help, how you want to help them, and what effect that will work may have. Don’t forget to make it a little aspirational, too.
Who are your customers? Why do they need you? How do your products or services help them?
To answer these questions, start by performing overall market research and test out speaking to a few key audiences. Then, collect all the data you can on your earliest customers. Get to know them as best you can. Send surveys or speak to them in person. And as you grow, pay attention to the marketing initiatives that work (and those that don’t).
The goal is to get to a point that you can create a persona for each customer type you target, full of demographics and pain points.
List 3-5 adjectives that describe your brand. Are you serious or fun, quirky or buttoned up? Are you stylish or old school? Get input from everyone and whittle the answers down to a few keywords.
Ask people what kind of animal the company would be. Warby Parker, the glasses wholesaler, famously chose their signature blue color based on the feet of the blue-footed booby. Describing this rare bird, founder Neil Blumenthal said, “They’re sort of wearing a black-and white tuxedo, much like a penguin,” and that their feet add “a little bit of flair, a little bit of quirk.” That’s a great way of describing the Warby Parker personality on the whole, is it not?
Much like the mission statement, nail down the guiding principles of your brand. Establish who you are and what you stand for. These should be as specific as you can make them. Values like “service” and “creativity” may sound nice on paper, but they’re broad enough to apply to a huge number of companies. The specific mix of 3-5 values you identify should encapsulate what your company stands for, without also applying to every other business.
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Start Building a Style Guide
Now that you’ve done the hard part of soul searching and identifying the foundational aspects of your brand, it’s time to start thinking about how to communicate these ideas visually and verbally. A style guide is what will help your team take these ideas and communicate them to the world. If you have content writers, designers, and marketers on staff, now is the time to bring them into the conversation and ask for their collaboration.
Branding building takes a few swings. Few companies get everything right on the first go. So make sure your team knows that and is ready to test and iterate. Here are the six elements of a style guide to discuss together.
Start by describing who you are as a company. Give a simple summary that cuts to the heart and soul of your company. Try your best to summarize all of the brand pieces above into a few succinct sentences or paragraphs.
When it comes to visually representing your brand, the logo is where most companies decide to start. In developing a logo (or rebranding), experiment with everything—the style, the colors, the layout. Once you’ve landed on a logo that feels like an accurate visual representation of your brand, set guidelines that prevent mistakes like making the logo too big, pixelating it, altering, or re-aligning. You want your logo looking its best wherever it’s shown.
Include all authorized versions of the logo in the style guide as a reference. Some other things to include in this section might be:
- The minimum size along with correct proportions
- White space usage requirements (if any)
- Rules for using each version (i.e. Only use the icon logo for social media.)
Next up, lock down your color palette. You want a consistent look and feel and by choosing three or four primary colors. Your designers will be able to reference this when creating anything from website pages and advertisements to printed materials.
Show swatches of the brand colors, including the info needed to reproduce those colors accurately.
- Exact Color Matching: PANTONE name and number
- Print Color: CMYK
- Digital Color: RGB and HEX codes
Fonts matter. They need to be clean and legible, without veering into the boring or played out. You may have a little more fun on the logo. But when it comes to your everyday font choices, cleaner is usually better.
When breaking down the typography in your style guide, explain why you chose that typeface, how it matters to the brand. Give the people just coming on board context as to why you picked it. Experienced designers will likely have a lot of opinions on this topic, so lean on them as a resource.
Other things you need to make crystal clear:
- Usage Rules: Denote which fonts should be used for heading text versus body text in documents.
- Sizing: Clearly outline how large or small each font should be.
- Weight: Most fonts come in a variety of weights and styles. Specify which one(s) your team should use.
Some companies like to use photography, while others prefer illustrations. Even within those categories, there’s a wide range of options. Illustrations can be lifelike or cartoony. Deciding on the kinds of visuals you choose to share depends on a few factors including, what you’re selling, what your customers expect of you, and your access to design talent. If your customers expect your business to be serious and professional, photography may land better than illustrations.
Don’t forget: keep any assets your design team creates in a central location so that they can be accessed and repurposed within the business.
Voice & Tone
The language you use should be reflective of the brand and should speak to the emotions you’re trying to inspire. If you want customers to have fun and feel comfortable with your brand, the voice should be casual and light. Embrace pop culture references and contractions, and keep your sentences short and clear. Whatever you decide, all writing should reflect the same voice across the board, from blogs and email campaigns to Tweets.
Always have a breakdown of the “why” you’re coming at the language the way you are. The way you write content is reflective of your company’s personality and how people “hear” the brand as they read your website or what’s on the back of your product.
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Putting It All Together
Let’s compile all of these elements into a sample table of contents for your style guide:
- Brand Foundations
- Mission & Vision
- Target Audience
- Color Palette
- Voice & Tone
Notice that the foundations of your brand make up the introduction to this document. Starting with these basic brand elements helps anyone reading this document understand the “why” behind all of the choices that follow.
Remember: this is an evolving document. The more stuff you make, the more content you create, the more feedback people provide, you’ll find reasons to make changes. Set aside some time every 6-12 months to check in. But don’t treat this like a working document that can be changed on a whim. The guiding principles of your brand deserve careful consideration before implementing changes.
Finally, make sure it’s accessible to anyone who needs it. A style guide will do little good if your team doesn’t know about it or can’t find it. Keep it front and center for your team and refer them back to it regularly.
Whatever your company does, keep the style guide true to your values. Before you know it, you might see people in your company align around your brand in a deeper, more meaningful way. And that will be good for business.
To learn more about growing your business and establishing your company brand, check out the ScaleFactor blog.