Brand Guidelines: Sometimes Ya Gotta Cross ‘Em

We’ve all heard a lot about brand guidelines, and how vital they are to the marketing success of your company.  And in most cases, this is quite true.  A strong brand structure can provide an incredible level of connective tissue between your company’s product or service and the consumers you have and, most importantly, those you hope to reach.

And while a lot of care and thought goes into brand development and brand representation, in some cases, we can overdo it.

Before we get into that, let’s make sure we’re clear on what brand guidelines are.  Many companies entrust their brands to experts to develop guidelines as to how the brand behaves, what it says, what it does, (in some cases what the company produces,) and very importantly, how that brand is represented visually and verbally across the landscape of media in which it may appear.

These guidelines, especially the visual and verbal ones, can get very specific and very detailed regarding how the brand (and the logo, or taglines or images) is reproduced and presented for public consumption.  If you’ve never seen a brand guideline handbook, it’s a cross between a diary of a madman and the exactitude of an aerospace engineer’s drawing book.  In some cases, they can be hundreds of pages long, and stipulate everything from specific color swatches to negative space to how NOT to reproduce the various design elements.

Ultimately, it’s a usage document, in that it instructs anyone responsible for pushing the brand out into the world exactly how the brand should be represented.  (This is true even if the brand is a person!)  All in the name of the venerable core objective:  consistency of perception.

However, this control issue can sometimes become, well, a control issue.  In many instances in my work with brands that my firm hasn’t created, we’ve been saddled with guidelines that have actually gotten in the way of – even obstructed – clear and consistent communications.

In one instance, we were working with a company who (inexplicably) had an extremely long, multi-word URL.  When creating a Facebook application for this brand (targeted to suburban soccer moms, by the way,) we suggested using capital letters to help guide the reader along.  Imagine this url:  We suggested for clarity.  Our client came back and said “our brand guidelines instruct us to NOT use capital letters in the URL.”  When we reminded them that it was simply easier to read with the caps, (especially online in about 10pt type,) they pushed back.  Hard.  The brand guidelines were scripture, and were not to be messed with.

In another instance, we were working with an important media company whose brand is very well recognized in the consumer marketplace.  In designing a microsite that demanded a rich color background, (ironically, for consistency with the print campaign,) we opted to knock out (make white) their logo, just as we had done in print.  Knocking out was acceptable according to their brand guidelines, but not in digital applications.  So it was okay to trust printers to knock out the logo using ink, but not okay to use never-bleed pixels for the same brand representation.  Strange.

The reason I highlight these examples is because they were actually attempts to arrive at either clear(er) or more consistent communications between the brands and their intended audiences.  We were (we always are) striving to make it easier for the consumer to interact with the company, not the other way around.  But the brand guidelines were so stringent, these simplified communications were overlooked for standards that could not possibly have recognized these interactive objectives.

Don’t get me wrong – there ARE guidelines that are un-crossable. Stretching or tilting the logo is a no-no. Swapping out colors is a no-no-no.  Going off script is a no-no-no-no.  Inserting a new tagline is a triple-dog-quadruple-no-no. We’re clear that some lines shouldn’t be crossed.

Because it is important to have a voice.  It is important to have the brand represented consistently across all touch points.  But when adhering to your brand guidelines, we also have to consider: would it HURT the brand if you drop-capped a URL?  Would it HURT the brand if you didn’t honor the standards to the letter?  If crossing the line a little means engaging the consumer a little more, then maybe it’s time to consider a little tiny brand rebellion.

6 thoughts on “Brand Guidelines: Sometimes Ya Gotta Cross ‘Em

  1. markkolier December 9, 2011 / 2:33 pm

    Timely post Nader and what really resonated most with me is our responsibility as marketers to make things ‘easier for the consumer to interact with the company, not the other way around.’ How a brand manager could lose that perspective amazes me.


    • Nader Ashway December 9, 2011 / 11:37 pm

      Thanks for the comment Mark. I think we tend to get myopic in this business, albeit for well-intentioned reasons. Every practitioner is trying to do their best, but in many cases, they’re siloed or are working on important marketing aspects at different times.

      This makes a great case for integrated meetings across the whole spectrum of the company/agency: when the brand, advertising, media, digital, PR, mobile, operations, account folks all get together and discuss the business top-to-bottom. A Jobs-ian approach to be sure, but since when can’t we learn a lesson or two from that guy?


  2. Phil Johnson December 9, 2011 / 7:50 pm

    This is sacrilege! If it’s in the brand guidelines, it can’t be violated, unless you want a visit from the brand police and don’t mind going to brand jail. Thanks for some common sense advice.


    • Nader Ashway December 9, 2011 / 11:38 pm

      Ha! Thanks, Phil.
      It seems that some people believe that decree – even to a fault. Audience first! The rest can be argued about later.


    • Nader Ashway December 26, 2011 / 9:12 pm

      Well thanks very much John. Not just for reading, but for taking time out on Christmas day to enjoy marketingthingy! I look forward to continuing a dialogue, as I’ve signed up for the “positive thought of the week” at your site.



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