Brand guidelines: all about the look & feel of your brand

Brand guidelines have one core goal: to make your brand recognizable. You want to create a unique identity that allows your brand to be memorable and to stand out from competitors.
December 29, 2021
Brandon Copple
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Since the beginning of time, in the early ‘80s, humans have been drawn to compelling stories. Not only can they be meaningful and inspirational, but they connect us to something larger than ourselves. Like good stories, brands also have to look for ways to emotionally engage with customers. 

Brand guidelines, often contained in a company’s style guide (or brand book), serve as a storytelling toolkit for your brand. By codifying how you use elements like language, color, typography, and imagery, brand guidelines help ensure brand consistency in the way you communicate ideas and messages—so that the brand story comes across consistently and effectively. Think of them as a reference kit, or an owner's manual, or a how-to guide for your brand. 

Here’s another way to think about it: Imagine you’re making a movie, but your brand is the lead character instead of Batman. Think about how you would cast the character, how you would describe the character to an actor hired to portray them, and how you'd want your character to be perceived by your audience. What do they care about? What are they determined to accomplish? How often do they get their hair cut? 



Why do we need brand guidelines? 

Brand guidelines have one core goal: to make your brand recognizable. You want to create a unique identity that allows your brand to be memorable and to stand out from competitors.

Brand guidelines should reflect your mission and core values, be easy to understand, and be actionable for everyone in the company—from the product-development folks to sales people to marketers to designers. A marketer writing copy for an advertisement, for example, should be able to look at the brand guidelines to assess whether what they wrote is “on brand.”

The output should be a brand that is instantly identifiable by customers. In practice, that means that if someone is scrolling on social media (e.g. Instagram or YouTube) and they come across your brand’s new video podcast or an ad from your new marketing campaign, they should know it’s for your brand before they read the caption.

What’s included in brand guidelines?

Although building a brand image takes time, simple guidelines can help make your brand identity distinct from the competition. 

ChristianChan - shutterstock.com

Brand story

Usually a simple and short summary, this encapsulates your brand’s origin story, reason for being, and core values. It’s sometimes referred to as the “heart” of your brand. It should spark an emotion or a feeling, so that you can create a connection with customers, rather than just a transaction. A good brand story should answer the following questions:

  • Purpose: Why do you exist?
  • Vision: What does your future look like?
  • Mission: What are you here to do?
  • Values: What ideas and principles guide your behavior?

Visual identity

This is the aspect of your brand that people see. It incorporates several elements, including:

  • Logo: A logo is a visual way to express your brand’s personality and message in a single graphic element. This is the first thing customers see, and how they’ll visually identify your brand. A logo may have multiple versions—for example, a wordmark and a picturemark. Make sure both stand out from competitors, so that your brand is easily identifiable. 
  • Color palette: This is the set of brand colors used in your design elements. Color palettes should be small and well defined, so that customers create a clear association between those colors and your brand. 
  • Typography: This is the set of font styles, sizes, and spacing your brand uses.  Laying out your typography removes the guesswork for designers, and supports everything from your logo to your website and blog.
  • Imagery: This is how your brand uses imagery—which includes photographs, illustrations, symbols, and other artwork. Robust brand guidelines will create parameters around the kinds of photography that can be used—for example, does it include people, or is it more atmospheric? Guidelines will also define illustration style: Is it abstract or realistic; angular or curvy? 

Verbal identity

This is how your brand communicates in writing, from how you describe your products to how you speak about your company—down to specific words you do and don’t use.

  • Voice and tone:  This is your brand’s tone of voice—are you serious or funny? If your brand were a character, this would be how it speaks. 
  • Word choice: These are specific guidelines about words to use or avoid. 

How to create brand guidelines

Clarity and practicality are essential to creating the best brand guidelines. Make sure your guidelines do the following:

  • Work across mediums: Make sure your brand guide is flexible enough to cover multiple mediums, including print or web formats.
  • Be specific: Remember to share specific details in your brand book—the more specific, the better. 
  •  Include do’s and don’ts: Specific guidance about what to do and not do will help make your guidelines actionable for every member of your team.
  • Provide checklists: A simple checklist can help minimize errors or incorrect brand usages.
  • Provide examples: Bring concepts to life with examples of how the guidelines should be implemented in important marketing materials (i.e., letterhead, business cards).
Brandon Copple
Head of Content at Descript. Former Editor at Groupon, Chicago Sun-Times, and a bunch of other places. Dad. Book reader. Friend to many Matts.
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Brand guidelines: all about the look & feel of your brand

Microphone, camera, and computer monitor

Since the beginning of time, in the early ‘80s, humans have been drawn to compelling stories. Not only can they be meaningful and inspirational, but they connect us to something larger than ourselves. Like good stories, brands also have to look for ways to emotionally engage with customers. 

Brand guidelines, often contained in a company’s style guide (or brand book), serve as a storytelling toolkit for your brand. By codifying how you use elements like language, color, typography, and imagery, brand guidelines help ensure brand consistency in the way you communicate ideas and messages—so that the brand story comes across consistently and effectively. Think of them as a reference kit, or an owner's manual, or a how-to guide for your brand. 

Here’s another way to think about it: Imagine you’re making a movie, but your brand is the lead character instead of Batman. Think about how you would cast the character, how you would describe the character to an actor hired to portray them, and how you'd want your character to be perceived by your audience. What do they care about? What are they determined to accomplish? How often do they get their hair cut? 



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Why do we need brand guidelines? 

Brand guidelines have one core goal: to make your brand recognizable. You want to create a unique identity that allows your brand to be memorable and to stand out from competitors.

Brand guidelines should reflect your mission and core values, be easy to understand, and be actionable for everyone in the company—from the product-development folks to sales people to marketers to designers. A marketer writing copy for an advertisement, for example, should be able to look at the brand guidelines to assess whether what they wrote is “on brand.”

The output should be a brand that is instantly identifiable by customers. In practice, that means that if someone is scrolling on social media (e.g. Instagram or YouTube) and they come across your brand’s new video podcast or an ad from your new marketing campaign, they should know it’s for your brand before they read the caption.

What’s included in brand guidelines?

Although building a brand image takes time, simple guidelines can help make your brand identity distinct from the competition. 

ChristianChan - shutterstock.com

Brand story

Usually a simple and short summary, this encapsulates your brand’s origin story, reason for being, and core values. It’s sometimes referred to as the “heart” of your brand. It should spark an emotion or a feeling, so that you can create a connection with customers, rather than just a transaction. A good brand story should answer the following questions:

  • Purpose: Why do you exist?
  • Vision: What does your future look like?
  • Mission: What are you here to do?
  • Values: What ideas and principles guide your behavior?

Visual identity

This is the aspect of your brand that people see. It incorporates several elements, including:

  • Logo: A logo is a visual way to express your brand’s personality and message in a single graphic element. This is the first thing customers see, and how they’ll visually identify your brand. A logo may have multiple versions—for example, a wordmark and a picturemark. Make sure both stand out from competitors, so that your brand is easily identifiable. 
  • Color palette: This is the set of brand colors used in your design elements. Color palettes should be small and well defined, so that customers create a clear association between those colors and your brand. 
  • Typography: This is the set of font styles, sizes, and spacing your brand uses.  Laying out your typography removes the guesswork for designers, and supports everything from your logo to your website and blog.
  • Imagery: This is how your brand uses imagery—which includes photographs, illustrations, symbols, and other artwork. Robust brand guidelines will create parameters around the kinds of photography that can be used—for example, does it include people, or is it more atmospheric? Guidelines will also define illustration style: Is it abstract or realistic; angular or curvy? 

Verbal identity

This is how your brand communicates in writing, from how you describe your products to how you speak about your company—down to specific words you do and don’t use.

  • Voice and tone:  This is your brand’s tone of voice—are you serious or funny? If your brand were a character, this would be how it speaks. 
  • Word choice: These are specific guidelines about words to use or avoid. 

How to create brand guidelines

Clarity and practicality are essential to creating the best brand guidelines. Make sure your guidelines do the following:

  • Work across mediums: Make sure your brand guide is flexible enough to cover multiple mediums, including print or web formats.
  • Be specific: Remember to share specific details in your brand book—the more specific, the better. 
  •  Include do’s and don’ts: Specific guidance about what to do and not do will help make your guidelines actionable for every member of your team.
  • Provide checklists: A simple checklist can help minimize errors or incorrect brand usages.
  • Provide examples: Bring concepts to life with examples of how the guidelines should be implemented in important marketing materials (i.e., letterhead, business cards).

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