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.

Writing Advertising? Shorter is Always Sweeter.

Illustration:  Bruce Crilly

In the history of advertising, some of the most lauded taglines have also been the shortest.  Why is this?  (And while we’re at it, why does the leggy blonde always seem to go out with that short guy?)

Why do we not seem to gravitate to long, multi-syllabic complex thoughtforms?  At first glance, it would seem to be useful if we could pack more bullet points into our advertising signoff, so people would remember lots of stuff about our product or service.  But for American consumers, it just doesn’t work.  Maybe it’s because we’re American.  We like it punchy.  We like it now.  We like Ricky Bobby and light beer, dammit.

Okay, that’s cynical, and not so helpful.  Let’s get serious.  For the most part, shorter taglines work for a number of reasons. Primarily, its because they’re easy to remember.  And if you’re in the business of stimulating demand (that’s what advertising is supposed to do, bee-tee-dubs,) then a short, pithy line is simply more memorable, more recall-able than, say, an advertising haiku. So there’s a form-follows-function overtone there.

Second, there’s an actual meter to consider, a rhythm, a tempo, a little bounce that shorter lines provide over their more verbose counterparts.  With a short line, the consumer can file a meme away into a corner of her mind that only your brand (in the best cases,) can occupy.

Finally, it’s about time.  The modern consumer is busier than ever, and is literally overwhelmed with messages, media, and now devices that carry and deliver information, including advertising messages.  Whether it’s social media applications, or websites, or traditional media, or a sporting event, or the floor at the local grocery store, there simply isn’t time in the consumer’s day to focus on all that content – especially your bloody marketing message.  Now, more than ever, being short and to the point is not just a welcome deviation from the discord in the din, but also a way to stand apart from it.  Brevity is indeed the essence of wit.

Although this might seem confining, remember that you can say an awful lot with a few small words.  Case in point:  ‘Be all you can be.’ for the US Army.  This line lasted more than 20 years and defined perhaps the most successful articulation of any military marketing message. Five words, of two or three letters each.  And yet, the meaning is monumental.  Partly because it’s personalized to the individual reading it via “you,” and “all” is just broad enough to cover virtually every aspect of that individual’s life.  Brilliant.

Some of the most notable short advertising taglines:

Just do it.
Think Small. (This was actually a headline but it rocked so hard, it has to be included.)
We try harder.
Got Milk?
Be all you can be.
A diamond is forever.
Think different.
It’s not TV.  It’s HBO.
Intel Inside.
Because You’re Worth It.
Great taste. Less filling.
I want my MTV!

Putting it into practice:

Let’s not forget, there have been immortal taglines that are not short.  (The Ultimate Driving Machine/When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight/Melts in your mouth, not in your hands, etc.) So when you set out to craft advertising for your business, keep your audience front and center, and let that dictate what you write.  What are they doing?  What do they need?  How can you help them?

Keep it simple.  Better yet, keep it short.  Pack as much into the idea that you can, without leaving too much to the imagination, (although leaving to interpretation is okay.)  Generally, basic language works best – small words, single syllables if you can help it, and a clear, declarative tone.  And NEVER make your slogan – strapline, tagline, whatever you want to call it – a question, okay?   (A really good one only happened, like, once.)

Now,  get your eraser out and start writing.