Editor’s note: Updated January 2020
Consistent branding across every channel is easy to understand but difficult to execute. Demand Metric performed a survey of businesses that found fewer than 10 percent of businesses believe they are very consistent in their brand presentation. However, nearly 90 percent of those polled said consistency is important.
A style guide is meant to bridge the gap between the importance of brand consistency and challenges in successful branding. To this end, an effective style guide will:
- Provide logos and regulations for how they’re used.
- Offer guidance into logo and color use across different channels.
- Establish standards for typography and image usage.
- Identify editorial standards, including compliance to a broad manual style and brand-specific exceptions.
- Set a baseline for voice, tone and messaging.
Creating branding guidelines is a matter of combining these tactical issues with the underlying values behind those strategies. Brand style should be a reflection of what a business stands for, ensuring that the tone and visual feel of corporate assets are indicative of the company’s core identity and priorities.
What is a style guide?
A style guide will provide all of the necessary details for consistent branding in one central document. This should serve as a hub for your marketing department, agency partners and relevant internal stakeholders to get clear insights into what is expected for every published and distributed piece of work. Because of this, it should cover, among other items:
- Typography standards.
- Variation between print and digital outlets.
- Social media messaging.
- Tonal uniformity.
- Color combinations in branded materials.
Do you have clear rules as to which versions of your logo can be used in different locations? Do your designers know how much freedom they have to modify the logo while still representing your brand accurately?
These are questions that should be answered in a brand guideline. For some brands, it’s a matter of formally identifying the acceptable logo variants that are available and defining how each should be used. Other common considerations include:
- Rules for spacing around the logo.
- Guidelines for manipulating the colors of the logo.
- Regulations governing use of alternative logos.
- Standards for sizing and orientation of the logo.
These types of details may be deep in the weeds. But having a logo and using it across all materials isn’t enough. Designers will often find themselves in situations in which the logo won’t naturally fit with the space given by a third-party publication, does stand out in a social media post or ends up in odd contrast with a background image. These types of issues require individual judgement calls, which may lead to inconsistencies.
A good style guide will set core parameters that are non-negotiable so designers can make decisions that align with brand preferences.
Company fonts, colors and related design elements also factor prominently in logo usage. You need to give graphics teams enough flexibility to ensure everything looks polished without providing so much freedom that you lack brand cohesion.
In many cases, style guides will focus extensively on visual elements, potentially neglecting the written word. While companies may have gotten by with such tactics in the past when they were publishing less content themselves, the rise of content marketing has made editorial style guides essential.
Brands have an opportunity to take control of their own narrative by publishing content across web, print, mobile and social channels. Consistency in style and voice is critical. Here are a few issues to consider when creating a foundation for editorial success:
- Choose a style manual: The AP stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, APA guidelines and MLA style framework all represent slightly different priorities. For example, the AP is a news-focused organization that aims to create guidelines to ensure content is readable by the widest audience possible. The MLA style manual, on the other hand, tends to focus on humanities-related industries and adjusts its rules accordingly. Research popular style guides and set a baseline for style based on what fits your business and industry.
- Identify exceptions: Pin down the terminology and language frequently used in your industry. In most cases, you’ll want to engage your readers using the same language and jargon they employ. To that end, define areas where your brand wants to deviate from a standard manual of style to fit your readership.
- Provide examples for style and voice: The tone you use is just as important as the specific language. Describing style and voice is important, but you should also provide examples so writers can fully understanding what you are saying and replicate the feel you are going for in your content.
A thorough brand style guide will cover these major editorial issues alongside standards for logos, colors and other design elements. When creating a guide, consider your audience and the types of documents you expect to create. Ultimately, you want the guide to serve as a foundational brief that can inform content creation so all stakeholders understand what is needed before setting off on a project.
Why create robust style guides
Building a detailed brand style guide that establishes your vision is critical. The Demand Metric survey mentioned earlier found that the average revenue increase associated with effective brand consistency is 23 percent.
Covering the full range of branding issues that go into a style guide can be a complex and time-consuming process, but it can make it easier to onboard new people toyour team, work with partners and define your brand priorities.
Style guides in action: 3 guides that stand out
If you’re looking for inspiration for your style guide, you can find many examples online from leading brands.
1. Aligning brand identity with design vision: The State of Minnesota
The style guide for state government agencies in Minnesota begins with a clear vision statement that is then reinforced in the rules and guidelines throughout the rest of the guide. Here’s how it begins:
“By working together to strengthen our shared identity as the State of Minnesota, we have the opportunity to consistently engage with citizens and communities, increase public awareness of the services we provide, and build recognition and trust with all Minnesotans,” the style guide explains.
In short, the state wants to make it easier for constituents to access services through clearer brand recognition. To this end, the state’s logo guidance advises designers to use the general state logo on all materials authored by multiple agencies. The agencies are credited within the document, but the branding with logos highlights the shared identity of the state government. Furthermore, each agency logo uses the same format as the state logo when applicable.
2. Building on icons: NASA
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is famous for its design excellence, and part of that recognition stems from its use of a few iconic touches, such as vertical title text that evokes images of shuttles prior to launch.
Your brand may not have imagery quite as iconic as NASA’s, but the brand’s ability to pin down elements of its core identity and incorporate them into its vision is applicable regardless of what makes your business stand out. For your brand, the attribute could be something about customer relationships, a defining product or similar icon. Finding ways to subtly incorporate that identity into design can fuel brand consistency.
3. Handling editorial exceptions: Furman University
In its style guide, Furman begins by highlighting that it generally will lean on the AP Stylebook, but then goes on to provide an alphabetized list of exceptions that are specific to its identity as an institution of higher education. By being thorough with these terms, the university gives stakeholders clarity on style in a central location.
Using a style guide as a launching point for branding success
Most businesses spend heavily on brand assets. Logos, custom fonts, carefully chosen color combinations and a defined editorial style can all further a company’s brand appeal. However, these efforts fall apart quickly when consistency isn’t maintained across various channels. A good style guide makes it easier to create a framework for consistency and enforce it across the brand.
A style guide is more than just a formality. Instead, it’s a brand-defining handbook that can empower internal teams and partners to create consistent, powerful messaging across a variety of channels.