In his 1841 essay Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds… To be great is to be misunderstood.” A brilliant thinker, Emerson recognized that nonconformity was essential to the world’s most influential minds—from Galileo to Steve Jobs.

But a brand manager Emerson was not. In branding today’s professional services firm, consistency is king. Being understood is power.

And brand style guidelines are the keys to the kingdom.

What Are Brand Style Guidelines?

Brand style guidelines are a set of instructions, often with visual examples, to help anyone who creates new branded materials for a business or organization. The guidelines identify the key elements of the brand and explain how to use them. And when an organization embraces them, brand guidelines ensure that even a diverse range of materials are consistent, distinctive, and recognizable. In short, they create a strong, coherent brand.

A brand style guide is never really finished. Like the brands they serve, they often evolve in the face of changing circumstances and new thinking. Think of them as living documents that may acquire new wisdom over time and occasionally slough off moldy, outmoded ideas.

In the real world, brand style guidelines are called many things. Here are a few common alternate names you may encounter in the wild:

  • Brand guidelines
  • Brand identity guidelines
  • Brand style guide
  • Brand guide
  • Corporate brand guidelines
  • Corporate identity guidelines
  • Brand book

Some organizations make a distinction between, say, brand style guidelines and a brand book. But there are no generally agreed-upon definitions for any of these terms—and people often use them interchangeably. 

Components of a Brand Style Guide

The contents of a brand style guide can vary considerably. Large enterprise style guides can span multiple volumes and hundreds of pages, while those at other firms may run just a couple of pages. Some organizations want to control every aspect of their brand and provide little room to stray from the approved path. Others want to free their brands to explore new creative directions and evolve over time while adhering to a few fundamental rules.

Most brand guidelines, of course, fall somewhere between these extremes. There is no right or wrong approach, nor is there an optimal length. It really depends on how narrowly you want to prescribe your guidance, how much time you want to spend creating and enforcing the guidelines, who your guidelines’ intended audiences are, and what brand elements you consider truly important.

Below, I’ve organized the components into three categories, though style guides don’t necessarily follow this arrangement. Visual elements include anything that contributes to a firm’s brand identity. External messaging covers advice on the language an organization should use when speaking to the outside world. And internal messaging includes the principles and messages organizations use to rally their teams toward a common set of goals.

Visual Elements

  • Logo usage
  • Tagline usage
  • Color palette
  • Typography/fonts
  • Iconography
  • Graphic devices or elements
  • Layout/grid system
  • Photography/illustration
  • Video
  • Data visualization style
  • Collateral design/templates
  • Business unit brand architecture
  • Co-branding usage
  • Social media
  • Website brand guidelines

External Messaging

  • Personality
  • Differentiators
  • Positioning
  • Elevator pitch
  • Tone/voice
  • Brand essence
  • Brand story
  • Written style

Internal Messaging

  • Purpose
  • Mission
  • Vision
  • Values
  • Value proposition

These lists, of course, are not comprehensive. Nor do most style guides include all or even most of these. For instance, many organizations do not include internal messaging, as only graphic designers and writers are their intended audience. Many do not include external messaging, either, as their style guides are targeted at designers only. 

5 Reasons Your Firm Needs a Brand Style Guide

Reason 1: They protect your investment

If you are going to invest (or already have invested) in revitalizing your brand, you don’t want that time and money to go to waste. Brand style guidelines provide the mechanism and peace of mind to ensure your brand will look and sound as good three years from now as it does today. Few things are as upsetting as an exciting new brand identity that starts to unravel as soon as it’s launched.

Reason 2: They help you show and tell a consistent story

In a sense, your brand is a story. Each element—from logo to colors to the style of your photography—is a character that contributes to that story. Each does its part to separate you from competitors, build a visual framework that’s all your own and convey an unspoken message that inspires trust and confidence in your audience. 

Reason 3: They keep you disciplined

Designers love to try new things. Practice leaders can be eager to take their line of business in fresh new directions. And far-flung offices can be sorely tempted to take their branding into their own hands. But novelty is rarely a good thing when it comes to building a powerful brand—one that people will instantly recognize and admire. That takes a lot of discipline. And brand style guidelines are the iron-fisted rule book that keep everybody in line, in step and focused on the prize ahead.

Reason 4: They unify your organization

In many organizations, brand style guidelines are a place where culture, purpose and marketing intersect. A brand guide that addresses everyone in the organization (not just designers) can be a compass that points everyone in the same direction and explains not only how to deliver their firm’s brand, but why it’s important. Brand style guidelines can also be a tool to unite loosely affiliated arms of an organization—including offices that were added through acquisition or departments run by independent-minded partners. By getting everyone in the organization to adopt a unified set of guidelines, you create tighter bonds and give the mavericks in your firm less room to go their own way.

Reason 5: They give you guardrails… and flexibility

For the reasons explained above, you should insist that your brand guide be strictly adhered to. After all, consistency is the glue that holds your brand identity together. But what you leave out of your guidelines is as important as what you decide to include. Where you don’t provide rigid guidance, you give your creative team permission to explore and take the brand into new territory. This freedom can help some brands adapt to changing circumstances and explore new avenues. On the other hand, too much flexibility can create new inconsistencies and undermine a brand’s integrity. How much flexibility is right for your brand is a decision you should consider carefully early in the process.

If you are rebranding your firm, or if you have refreshed your firm’s brand in the recent past, you need brand style guidelines. They are an essential tool for managing and maintaining your brand. They not only protect your brand identity from the decay of neglect, but they also give your marketing direction, consistency, and focus. 

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