Marketing teams in corporations all over the globe have struggled for years with the double-edged sword known as brand guidelines. To be sure they are initially developed for the best of reasons, to protect the brand. But should they protect the brand identity at all costs, even to the detriment of sales? Some guidelines can be so restrictive that they don’t allow good marketers to address all the divergent needs of and constituencies within their target audiences in ways that have the best possible chance of motivating them to act. In short, is the message you want your market to get actually being hindered by such rigid parameters?
Of course, there are lots of examples of how companies have suffered by not adopting consistent brand guidelines.
For example, a former client of mine is the second largest commercial real estate firm in the U.S. With no formalized brand guidelines in place at the time, they abdicated the management of outgoing sales materials to all the various sales offices (200+ globally). As a result, no two advertising or sales campaigns looked the same, the logo wasn’t used consistently, and there was no uniform brand identity.
Fortunately, the head of the client’s commercial/industrial division realized the problem and called us in to remedy the situation. The first thing we told him was that, while the brand had to be protected to be consistent across all markets, the design of the materials had to be nimble enough to accommodate salespeople who had the most relevant perspective on how individual properties should be presented. Sometimes, featuring a large photograph of the exterior of an architecturally beautiful building, situated in a compelling environment was the best way to present it for sale or lease.
Other times the opposite was true; the exterior was not the key selling point, but, instead, showing interiors or the geographic location of the building was the better direction to take. What we ultimately created for them were templates that were consistent as far as logo, corporate colors, typefaces, etc. but gave the individual salespeople the freedom to feature whatever they felt were the most positive aspects of each property. We also helped establish relationships between the HQ and national printers capable of handling frequent orders from all over the country and, for that matter, the world. This was necessary because previously some sales offices were printing on stock of such poor quality or inappropriate paper style that even the best visuals were compromised. This ensured production consistency as well.
Then there are companies that get so carried away with protecting the brand that they impose guidelines that actually hurt impact and sales. Sometimes this happens because the decision-makers may have expertise in areas other than marketing or advertising and thus may not have the skill-set required to factor in what is most appropriate to inspire target audiences to act. Other times, it’s the result of over-zealous designers, either in-house or vendors, who fall so in love with their creative vision that they design the company “into a corner.”
Another former client of mine, a global giant who is a very smart company and makes really terrific products that are vitally important to our everyday lives, had guidelines that were restrictive and counter-productive to their end goals of positioning them as world leaders and authority figures. For example, their corporate standards required that all ads have headlines in the form of questions.
Suppose an ad bears the headline:
IS THERE ANYTHING BETTER THAN OUR PRODUCT?
It could invite answers from the targets like “I don’t know, is there?” or “Yes, I think so.,” thereby losing the impact of the headline altogether. It makes the ad proposition look vague and can even make the advertiser look unsure or unconfident about their own products or services.
The real problem is that some companies think backwards when they establish brand guidelines. They design their standards first and then expect the world to appreciate them and accept them. It’s better to first consider how they want the world to perceive them, what will motivate their audiences and how that will translate to improving sales revenues.
I propose following a few general steps when initiating new or changing existing brand guidelines:
Figure out who your target market is and what will move them
What do they want from a company like you? What is it about your identity that would make them appreciate things like how pre-eminent you are, how far you are “ahead of the curve”, how solid you are, how great your products and services are and how they are the right choice for their needs, etc.?
Use that information to develop brand imaging that will convey those mandates
If your target market cares about quality, make sure your image is all about that. If they want better customer service, make your imagery “friendlier.” You get the point.
Try to consider all variations that may occur within the various markets you serve
If you only market to a single industry, consider the various types of customers within that one industry and how they may vary in terms of need. If you market to numerous industries, consider how one set of guidelines can offer enough flexibility to satisfy what are often drastically different requirements. For example, how does a company devise brand imaging and guidelines that will be equally effective in the medical marketplace and also in the oil and gas industry? The answer here can often be: find the best common denominator. Maybe in this case, the best strategy is to go hi-tech in your approach. A lot of industries want to buy products and services from a company that looks technologically advanced and visionary.
Don’t be afraid to revamp your branding guidelines as needed
Just as I have recommended being flexible in what you create, be nimble enough to realize, as you proceed in your marketing and sales adventures, to adjust as needed. Nothing works forever, so be always vigilant and change what you need to before it’s too late.
You will note in my four recommendations above, none of the headlines were in the form of questions. I’d like to believe that, after doing this for 30+ years, I’m somewhat of an expert. But if I told you what I firmly believe in the form of a question, I would be diminishing the perception of me as an authority.