Formats Unpacked: Brand Guidlines

How a format is used to ensure a brand's look and feel remains consistent

Hi all,

Before we jump into today’s unpacking I wanted to remind you all that Proper Fancy returns next Thursday. Proper Fancy is a Storythings team show and tell that is open to everyone. Join us for an hour of talking about things that have tickeled our fancy.

OK. When we started Formats Unpacked we made a promise to ourselves to cover a broad range of formats. There are lots of great TV formats and podcast formats to write about. But to make it interesting we wanted to include joke formats and song formats and quiz formats and newsletter formats and pre-flight safety video formats. So I was deligheted when someone got in touch to ask if they could unpack Brand Guidelines.

That someone was Luc Benyon. Luc is returning to Formats Unpacked having previously written about Boiler Room. Luc is a brilliant creative marketing strategist. He creates marketing ecosystems with content at their heart. He lives in the Scottish Highlands. If you need someone Luc shaped go find him on Twitter.

Over to Luc…

What’s it called?

Brand Guidelines

What’s the format?

Call them Corporate Identity Documents, Brand Books, Style Guides… The way we create a reference point for using brand assets has many different names, and has evolved over the years. 

At its heart is the need to anchor a brand in a sea of change - to provide a reference point in a world where brands can take on a life of their own.

Traditionally a PDF document, guidelines will include things like fonts, colours, logo usage, and tone of voice guidelines. They’re used by internal teams who can’t remember the Hex Code that they use daily, handed out to new starters, (who will invariably scan through them before never looking at them again), and shared with external partners to guide them in creating assets (again, they will likely go ignored).

As digital brand expression has expanded, they’ve typically included icon sets, UX elements, as well as incorporating more abstract elements, such as brand purpose, mission statements and values. 

The difficulty with Guidelines has been that they’re a static document that is used for quite dynamic tasks. So enforcing their use can be a struggle, as any brand team will tell you.

The job of maintaining a brand has become more difficult as brands themselves have become more fluid. Responsive brands that adapt to their environment, or constantly evolve, provide a particular sticking point, as does the increased importance of motion/animation. And the proliferation of the ‘brand collabs’ has added complications too.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

Design Geeks love to pour over well crafted Brand Guidelines. They offer a window into the bones of a brand, showing us the framework that enables some of our most beloved brands to maintain their excellence. Guidelines are the connection between the act of ‘branding’, and the ongoing expression of that brand. They’re the one document that aims to bring both consistency and coherency to something that’s constantly in flux. That’s a lot of pressure.

When a design studio undertakes a rebrand, or a brand refresh, the handover of the guidelines is a pivotal moment. It’s the equivalent of handing over your car keys to someone: even though you know they’re insured and they have a license, you’re still terrified of getting a scratch.

In reality there’s no way brand guidelines can account for all the possible ways a marketer could use the brand, especially when these days so much collateral is created for social media, on a daily basis.

Perhaps that’s why we fetishize classic examples of brand guidelines. The simplicity and clarity of a well-crafted document is something to behold. And all too rare in our post-modern world.

Favourite Brand Guidelines

I particularly love the British Rail Guidelines, most recently given a new lease of life in the publication of Corporate Identity Manual (If people are willing to pay for a copy, you know if must be good).

These guidelines are very traditional, as you’d expect with a 1965 publication date. But they show how this simple identity is given life across media such as tickets, brochures, and locomotive livery. 

The ‘double arrow’ logo itself is an absolute joy, and seeing how designers were guided around the identity with simple, clear instructions is very satisfying. The same could be said for other legacy transport guidelines such as the spectacular wordy NASA and Karl Gerstner’s 1978 Swissair band.

Similar formats?

The complexity of modern day brands has led to an uprising of Brand Guideline platforms, that are far more dynamic than a static PDF. These products (such as Frontify or Bynder) plug into your operating system (or design tools like Canva or Pitch), providing direct access to logos, fonts and colours.

This has spawned a whole category of technology, known as Digital Asset Management (DAM) platforms. 

There’s also been a healthy degree of parody, in particular copywriter Vikki Ross’s send up of bland brands in The Bland Book. Another copywriter, Christopher Doyle, turned the brand book concept on himself in a hilarious combination of parody and self-promotion, the Christopher Doyle Identity Guidelines.

Thanks to Luc.

If you have a favourite format you’d like to unpack, be like Luc and get in touch.

We’re looking for a full-time podcast producer to join the Storythings team on an initial six-month basis. If you’re passionate about audio and know what good audio storytelling sounds like, we’d love to hear from you.

If you need help developing content formats we have a brilliant Fromats Unpacked workshop to help you. Just hit the button below if you’d like to know more.

See you all next time,Hugh

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