Brand Style Guide

Everything you need to know about creating a brand style guide

7 min read
Derek Miller

A brand style guide is a living document that outlines stylistic requirements for maintaining one cohesive brand identity across various mediums such as digital, print and broadcast. If a business plan is what guides the strategic direction of business operations, a style guide is what guides the strategic direction of a brand’s image.

So, if a brand’s style guide is so important, why don’t you hear more people emphasizing it? Simply put, developing a style guide for your brand can take time, resources and foresight. It’s hard for most managers to make that investment during the early stages of a company. However, building a brand style guide while you’re still growing is the perfect time.

This will allow you to put the foundation in place for growing your brand image in a consistent and scalable manner.

Don’t worry if you’re an older company that doesn’t have a brand style guide; it’s never too late to create one. Although it might be harder the longer you wait, a style guide for your brand will provide long-term value and reduce a lot of the headaches that come from too much marketing autonomy and creative freedom.

Why you need a brand style guide

Humans are creatures of habit. Just as dogs became conditioned to salivate at the ring of a bell during Pavlov’s conditioning experiment, so too can humans be conditioned based on consistent repetition. This consistency in brand messaging is how we all think of the same brand, McDonald’s, when we hear the phrase “I’m lovin’ it.” It’s how we can tell the clothing brand, Nike, by a small swoosh symbol.

There is incredible value in creating a brand style guide for consistency across marketing channels.

Imagine how difficult it would be to remember a brand if it had different logos, slogans or messaging every time you came across it.

Unfortunately, many brands struggle with consistency.

Example: Big branding mistake

Even large brands like Coca-Cola have had issues maintaining their brand style guide. In fact, Coca-Cola has an example of one of the worst brand consistency mistakes in marketing history. In 1975, Pepsi introduced a nationwide taste test that found most people preferred the taste of Pepsi to Coke. As a result, Coca-Cola decided to recreate their formula to find a taste that would beat the original recipe and Pepsi in blind taste tests. They actually did just that. Their new formula, marketed as “New Coke” beat Pepsi and the original Coke in objective tastings by more than 20,000 people.

In 1985, Coke rebranded its product as “New Coke” and halted production of the previous formula. The public outrage was immediate. It didn’t matter if the product tasted better, people were accustomed to a specific brand, and this “New Coke” was not it. The years of trust and tradition were broken, and the dismal sales reflected that. It only took three months for Coca-Cola to revert back to the “Classic Coke” brand that so many people had come to love.

Companies need a brand style guide to help maintain control over their marketing message and brand image. Here are some parameters and expectations, which will help eliminate ambiguity.

What to do before you create a brand style guide

Creating a good style guide first requires understanding a brand’s current and future identity. Take time to brainstorm your brand’s identity, focusing on a few specific questions.

What are the foundational components of your brand?

Technically speaking, every brand should have some identifying characteristics. These are the elements that help someone recognize your brand. These elements could include creating a logo, deciding on a color palette, typography, tagline or jingle. These individual pieces come together to make the foundation of your brand’s outward image and are vital ingredients in your style guide.

What is your brand’s story?

Storytelling is becoming an increasingly popular branding tool because of its ability to captivate audiences and build emotional rapport. With many brands facing intense local and global competition, establishing a bond with customers can add substantial value to your offering. Think strategically about your brand’s story and make sure to outline the important components of that story in your style guide.

Who are your customers?

While most of the guide will be focused on the stylistic requirements of your brand and its reason for existence, there is also value in defining your customers in your style guide. Emphasizing the characteristics of your target audience can help content creators craft their message to reach those people.

For instance, if your customers are interested in country music but not classic rock, the style of your imagery and tone of your content would be drastically different.

Try to define the following customer segmentations in your style guide:

  • Geographic: Their location.
  • Demographic: Their general characteristics; age, gender, race, marital status, etc.
  • Psychographic: Their lifestyle, values, personality or interests.

Now let’s look at ...

What should go in a brand style guide

There are no hard and fast rules for a brand style guide, and many brands have customized style guides for different departments and marketing channels. Generally speaking, you should touch on a few key areas.

Visual elements

Most style guides are built to provide clarity on the visual elements of the brand. Imagery is one of the most important components of marketing, and it’s the easiest way for consumers to recall a brand. Therefore, the most important visual components of your brand’s image must be clearly outlined in the style guide. Do not leave room for ambiguity when it comes to your logo, color palette, typography, icons, or any other defining visual asset.

Copy elements

After you’ve defined your brand’s visual requirements, the next most important section is defining the copy parameters in your brand style guide. Just as you would use the same colors and logo in all your marketing collateral, so too should you use similar copy elements to create a consistent identity. Whether you’re publishing copy on your website, social media channels, in pamphlets or in an email, there shouldn’t be conflicting styles or messages. When defining copy requirements, think about tone, brand voice and grammar.

Messaging requirements

While it might be easy to define color requirements or copy style, it can be much more difficult to outline messaging requirements. How do define your brand’s story or put requirements on your target audience? The answer is you can’t necessarily define messaging requirements – in fact, doing so could stunt the creative freedom that helps build your brand.

Rather, you should use your style guide to provide insight that can give context to your creatives as to how to create a message that resonates with your target audience and matches your brand’s image.

Think about including elements that help define your customers, topics that have historically worked well and general direction about your brand’s unique story.

As you work on creating a brand style guide, try to answer questions that might arise from someone creating content for your brand.

Whether that content will be published on social media, posted on your blog, sent in an email, read in a magazine or heard through the radio, your brand style guide should provide a blueprint for creating content that is recognizable across any medium.

Get started on your brand’s style guide

There are an endless number of marketing channels for brands to reach customers. Between web, text messaging, television, radio and print, brands have no shortage of communication mediums. However, without a clear plan or strategy in place, branding efforts can be in vain. That is why a style guide is such an important branding tool. Don’t waste another dollar on advertising or content creation without having a clear blueprint for your brand’s style.