Building a compelling, profitable brand starts and ends with a great brand style guide.
This essential business document centralizes everything you need to create a brand that’s memorable, scalable, and consistent.
It’s this level of structure that empowers businesses to tell impactful brand stories and, as a result, distinguish themselves from other industry players.
From logos and other design elements to fonts and editorial style, producing comprehensive brand guidelines will mean a cohesive image and more brand consistency in the long run.
What Is a Brand Style Guide?
In its most basic form, a brand style guide is a playbook used to define your brand for both employees and consumers alike. It clarifies exactly how you’ll present your brand in any public-facing manner.
Your brand encompasses every content asset, physical or digital, used to publicly define what your organization stands for. Therefore, a brand style guide can include everything from your mission statement to detailed design specifications for logos, colors, and typography.
That said, the brand style guide definition of “playbook” isn’t synonymous with “rulebook.” Playbooks are malleable enough to adapt to changing circumstances or new obstacles. They’re not overly rigid rulebooks that never evolve.
For example, the copywriting guidelines for your website may vary from the prose used in your Instagram feed. Despite those differences, both of them should still capture the essence of your brand.
Attempting to do this without a brand style guide can get very complicated very quickly.
Why Brand Guidelines Are Important
The importance of brand standards boils down to two key concepts: consistency and repetition.
The best brand style guide examples clearly and concisely standardize an organization’s visual and copywriting language. This ensures that every department, individual contributor, and external stakeholder is using the same tools to present your brand to the world. It’s only through a consistent, cross-functional approach that a business’ unique personality can shine.
Brand style guides also make the process of injecting that voice and tone easily repeatable. Otherwise, simple tasks like designing a business card or writing a new blog post become nightmares full of inconsistent colors, word choices, and so on. It’s a fate that's easily avoidable with the creation of a brand style guide.
How to Create a Style Guide for Your Brand in 7 Steps
Step 1: Collect Inspiration through Brand Style Guide Samples
Before you start creating a style guide for your brand, it’s important to first collect inspiration and insight from other companies.
The good news is that outstanding brand style guide samples are easily obtainable for free online. While there are plenty of worthy candidates out there, here are some of the best brand style guide templates to get you started:
- Jamie Oliver
- New York City Transit Authority
- I Love New York
- Urban Outfitters
If you click through all of those brand style guide examples, you’ll notice that some documents are exhaustive, like NASA’s, while others are minimalist and compact, like those from NJORD and Netflix.
Additionally, some templates will be more appropriate for your business than others, and that’s okay. All you’re looking for at this stage is some inspiration, not a source for note-for-note plagiarism.
At the end of the day, your brand style guide is a foundation that helps give your organization a unique voice. Be the first version of a new, original brand instead of the next version of an established one.
Step 2: Define Your Target Audience or Buyer Persona
Once your research phase is done, use that intel to define your target audience. This is an absolutely crucial yet often overlooked step.
The logic is simple: If you don’t know what kind of audience you’re communicating to, how can you hope to effectively transmit your brand’s message?
Most companies already have the bulk of the information they need to develop a clear audience or buyer persona at their fingertips. Leveraging customer data, website and social media analytics, and competitive analyses will help you uncover the following:
- Common consumer pain points (i.e. the problems they face)
- Related customer goals (i.e. the positive solutions to those problems)
- Product or service benefits (i.e. how your brand helps them reach those goals)
With these vital details, you can start building your audience personas. However, know that a persona is more than simply a list of characteristics. Instead, it should be a realistic imagining of a specific segment of your audience.
The best brand style guides worship at the altar of thorough, actionable buyer personas. Without this information, your organization won’t be able to accurately cater its branding to the right people.
Step 3: Start by Writing out Your Brand Story
After your audience personas are clear, it’s time to start creating your brand style guide by fleshing out your brand story.
What is a brand story? It’s a narrative about your business that, unlike traditional forms of advertising or marketing, exists to elicit an emotional response from your audience.
It’s not about showing or telling what a product or service does. It’s not about selling. It’s not about begging consumers for attention. It’s about making them care, usually about your mission.
A perfect example of brand storytelling done well is Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign. Beginning with 2006’s viral video “Evolution,” the company told a story about much more than soap. It started an international conversation about unrealistic beauty standards and, in the process, relayed an empowering message to its target audience: the average woman.
In making those women the heroes of this narrative, Dove’s brand story ended up being far more fulfilling than if it was strictly a “buy now” missive.
Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign content, regardless of format or platform, is underpinned by this universal story. More than 15 years later, the result is that, over and above sales figures, Dove’s brand is a recognizable, trusted commodity. An effective brand story facilities consistency and repetition, not the other way around.
Step 4: Outline These Other Essential Brand Style Guide Elements
So, besides the big-picture brand story, what else should be included in a brand style guide?
The truth is that there’s no right or wrong answer. The only real “rule” is that anything you include in your style guide must be a functional part of your branding toolbox.
Here are some of the most common components of a brand style guide:
- Mission statement. This is typically a more formal rundown of an organization’s goals, vision, and values. Most are a natural elaboration on a brand story.
- Logo. It’s the one image that the majority of consumers will associate with your brand, making it of the utmost importance for brand standardization.
- Color palette. The brand’s colors must be uniform across all platforms and content iterations. They also need to mesh well with your logo.
- Fonts and typography. The typeface you use says a lot about your brand’s personality. It must also work in concert with your brand’s overall visual language.
- Editorial style guide. This is where you define your brand’s written voice and tone. Most organizations also choose an existing style guide (AP, Chicago, etc.) to abide by.
- Design style guide. These specifics go beyond just color and typography, dealing with visual formatting for web or print, including margins, page arrangements, and more.
Your brand style guide can include all of these options or just some of them. You may want to make sections more or less specific, depending on your needs.
The most important part of structuring your brand style guide is that it’s clear, concise in its messaging (to the point, but not necessarily short), and actionable. Anyone in the organization should be able to read it and know all the ingredients that make up your brand’s public persona.
Step 5: Decide what content and platforms fall under your brand style guide
Any outline you make is just a generic brand style guide template until you decide what falls under its jurisdiction.
What content and platforms will be governed by this style guide? Which external contributors and/or agencies will need this information? Are there any scenarios where the brand style guide becomes irrelevant?
Answers to these bigger questions will inform your brand style guide website, design, editorial, and overall voice specifications. You don’t necessarily need all the details to be set in stone right away, but even ballpark ideas are still helpful.
There are also smaller, more particular questions that can help you arrive at these broader points. Here are a few of the ones you should be asking:
- How much of your branding campaign is on digital platforms versus physical media?
- Of those digital platforms (social media, YouTube, Google, etc.), which do you use the most?
- What specific aspects of your product or service relate back to your brand? (For example, logos and colors as part of an IT user experience or on physical packaging)
- What marketing and sales could benefit from added brand visibility?
By delving into what your organization already does well (or not) from a branding standpoint, you’ll get a much clearer picture of which business areas will be enhanced by your style guide.
Step 6: Build Your Brand Style Guide by Asking Deeper Questions
At this point, all your brand style guide preparation and planning should be complete. The only thing left to do is write the document.
Again, there are many different ways you can structure the ideas and layout of the guide itself. No matter how you do this, it must be clear and simple to navigate, with information that’s easy to digest.
That said, it can be a daunting task to write such a hefty document without at least a rough example of how to do it. Below is a bare-bones brand style guide template, breaking down the document section by section, using some questions to get you started:
- What is your brand name?
- What do you create/provide?
- How does your brand make the lives of consumers better?
- What problem does it solve?
- How exactly do consumers benefit from being users?
- What is your brand’s overall mission?
- How would you describe your brand’s vision?
- How would you describe your brand’s values?
- How would you describe your brand’s goals?
- What does your logo look like?
- Why is it designed in that particular way?
- How does your brand’s logo connect with your mission, values, etc.?
- How should your logo be used? (This includes file formats, page placement, copyright specifications, and more)
- How shouldn’t your logo be used?
- What are your brand’s colors?
- What are the CMYK and HEX codes for those colors?
- When should secondary colors in the palette be used?
- What are your brand’s fonts?
- How do they connect back to your brand story?
- Which font is your main typeface?
- Which font is your secondary typeface?
Editorial Style Guide
- What is your brand’s voice?
- How does the tone vary, if at all, between content types or platforms?
- What incorrect voice or tone choices should be avoided?
- What external style guide is the basis for grammar and syntax decisions?
Design Style Guide
- What specific design guidelines apply just to your website?
- What guidelines reflect how the brand is displayed in digital consumer content?
- What guidelines reflect how the brand is displayed in physical media? (This includes print documents, trade shows displays, billboards or other physical ads, and so on)
Remember: this isn’t an exhaustive brand style guide roadmap. Some sections may not be relevant to your organization. Other areas not mentioned may be vital to your operations. Write, rewrite, and make it your own!
Step 7: Leave Room for Future Brand Style Guide Evolutions
Whether you’re creating the first or 51st version of your brand style guide, realize that it’s a document that will go through continual changes.
Because of this, even when it’s done and ready to publish as a PDF, slide deck, or webpage, take note of everything you learn after the fact—what’s working and what isn’t—and inject it into the next version.
Your brand must grow and evolve in tandem with your business, so make sure your key internal stakeholders revisit the document at least once a year. Keep editable backups of previous iterations of the style guide to facilitate the rewriting process.
Above all else, once the initial guidelines have been established, designate a communal space, such as a Trello board or a Slack channel, where everyone can have their say.
A brand style guide is an essential tool for both starting entrepreneurs and seasoned business professionals alike. By centralizing these vital storytelling and technical details, you'll be far better equipped to shape an impactful brand identity that will blossom over time.
This article was written by Compose.ly writer Timothy Schreyer.