Brand guidelines ensure consistency across an organisation’s communications channels. But how rigidly should we adhere to them? At what point in the creative process should they become a reference point? Is there a danger that we draw upon the guidelines too early?

Just because a campaign or communication piece is on-brand doesn’t mean it’s right or that it will be successful. It will please your brand manager or the person policing the guidelines and it will make your communication recognisable, but is that enough? Does it engage and will it evoke a response? It’s important to remain true to your guidelines but it’s even more important to use them to their best effect.

It’s my contention that unless you are careful, branding guidelines can become a creative ball and chain. This thought piece is not to look upon brand guidelines in a negative light – they are absolutely integral to powerful and dependable communication for every organisation. There is no question that they add financial, educational and social value. The question here is when they should come into play.

Swamps, seeds and sponges

Sometimes brand guidance can swamp you with information, with all the do’s and don’ts and quite often plant seeds of direction, secretly and cunningly restricting a lateral ideas process. Brand guidelines often cover logo placement, colour palette, typography through to photography style, language and tone of voice. Some guideline documents run into 100s of pages and for charities and healthcare organisations it is often also a requirement to consider not only their own guidelines but that of the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB). That’s a lot to absorb in itself and before you know it your head (your creative sponge) is full.

Don't fill up your creative sponge with the minute detail of brand guidance at the ideas stage

Guidance not glue

With your head full of thoughts of guidance and direction it’s easy to allow yourself to stick to existing ideas, or tried and tested formulas that start you on the road well travelled, not allowing for fresh inspiration to be explored. Although many guideline documents have a small caveat, with something along the lines of ‘these guidelines should be used but should not inhibit creativity’ this is often a bit too late.

As often is the case, quite unaware it already has – it becomes a subconscious point of reference. Steve Jobs put this quite nicely:

“Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck in those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never get out of them.” Steve Jobs

Freedom first, standards second

Having worked with many organisations and their guidelines of varying shapes and sizes and having created quite a few of them ourselves, we always make sure that they don’t take the form of a straitjacket or blueprint before we start a project. In some cases, dare I say it, we deliberately ignore the branding from the outset. It works particularly well with awareness campaigns and fundraising material. It’s a practice that allows maximum creativity and pooling of ideas. It enables everyone to be involved from a less informed ‘rule-abiding’ view with a focus on the ‘what do we want to achieve?’, ‘who do we need to talk to?’ and ‘what would success be?’.

After a creative route or two are selected as possible contenders using this process we then start to consider how we can bring them on brand, and then reference the guidelines, thinking about colours, fonts, styling attributes, tone of voice and language.
Brand Guidelines, although integral to the execution of all communications across the different channels, should be a reference point that help create the piece and not influence the direction or result.

So if you want to engage your audience and not just oblige your brand manager my advice is not to pick up the guideline tomes as a first tool of reference. Arm yourself only with the information that enables you to understand the values, audience and message and set yourself free on a creative session. Allow yourself to consider, explore and create without boundaries and then, and only then, start to bring things back on brand. Your brand guidelines are your trusty assistant, your paginated friend, not your ball and chain.

First published on CharityComms: 5th September 2012