What Are Brand Guidelines and How to Create Them

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When you see a product from a big-name brand like Apple, Nike, or Coca Cola, it’s usually easy to tell which brand it is. Seeing those companies’ logos or even just their names likely brings up a lot of associations. That’s because these companies have strong branding. The way they achieve this is through the creation and consistent application of brand guidelines.

Brand guidelines aren’t just for large, established companies; they’re useful for organizations of all sizes and ages. That’s why, in this article, we explain what brand guidelines are and how to create them.


Definition: What Are Brand Guidelines?

Brand guidelines detail a company’s look, feel, and visual identity. They typically contain a mixture of specific rules and general guidance intended to be applied to a brand’s public-facing communications. For example, they’ll often include clear instructions about how a company’s logo, colors, and messaging should be represented. Brand guidelines can vary in length anywhere from only a page or two up to tens or even hundreds of pages.

The Purpose of Brand Guidelines

If there were just one word used to explain why brand guidelines matter, it would be “consistency.” Brand guidelines ensure that a brand’s communications all look and feel similar to people who receive or view them, and that’s important because brand consistency builds brand recognition and brand loyalty. Brands with strong brand guidelines also tend to come across as very professional.

Brand guidelines are a great reference, not only for internal use, but also for creative agencies with whom a company works. They tell partners, staff, contractors and vendors how to represent a brand to the public across all channels and marketing materials. They influence the design of pretty much everything: swag, signage, packaging, websites, apps, social media profiles, e-newsletters, advertisements, brochures, icons, and even email signatures.

Brand Guidelines Design Recipe

So now that we’ve explained at a high level what are brand guidelines, let’s take a deeper dive into their specific elements.

  • Logos and Logo Usage – Logos are the best-known part of a brand guideline, but there’s more to them than you might think. Many brands have different versions of their logo for different placements (large sign or billboard vs letterhead vs an icon on a digital app). Some might be square or horizontal or circular. Some might include the company’s name or tagline while others don’t. And then there are details like what spacing to pad around the logo and any preferred alignments.
  • Colors — At a minimum, primary and often also secondary color palettes detail acceptable colors for fonts and logos and what goes behind each. Look for color specifics like names, hex codes, RGB numbers, CMYK details, and Pantone names. Secondary color palettes are especially useful in designing accents and highlights to complement and enhance primary color choices.
  • Patterns — A brand’s patterns can be handy when it comes to creating backgrounds or fills for all kinds of design elements. Think of applications like digital and print wallpapers, website backgrounds, and swag.
  • Typography — This is how you know what primary and secondary fonts are ok. Preferred sizing and spacing may be detailed along with when it’s ok to use all caps or drop shadows.
  • Icons and Images — Learn what types of images and icons are preferred and if there are any specific ones to avoid.
  • Tone and Personality — A few guiding words describe a brand and its approach. Some examples are fun, playful, serious, friendly, scientific, high tech, professional, humorous, traditional, and unconventional. The brand guidelines themselves should reflect the tone the brand wants to project.
  • Mission Statement and Core Values — They provide insight about the design decisions outlined in the guide. They can help the user make their own design decisions for what’s not specifically outlined.
  • Brand Positioning — Knowing where the brand fits in the market can inform design decisions. For example, most designers would make very different design choices for a luxury brand vs the cheapest brand.
  • Taglines — Approved taglines along with guidance on when to include them and when to omit them are useful in preparing many kinds of visual assets. They’re also an important way to convey brand messaging. (Learn more about brand messaging here).
  • Print vs. Online — The most comprehensive brand guidelines address different mediums, especially including print applications and online or digital applications.
  • Templates — Brand guidelines often end up containing pre-made templates for use in future documents, graphs, and charts. They’ll save their users time because the design work has been done in advance; just fill in the content.
  • What Not To Do — All of the above bullet points tell a designer what to do, but sometimes saying what not to do is just as helpful. Visual examples of what’s not ok can potentially save hours of back and forth during the design process.

When putting together or updating your own brand guidelines, don’t forget to think about accessibility and ADA compliance. What looks great to you might not work well for someone who is color blind or who has low vision.

Brand guidelines can range from stringent to relaxed. Neither approach is right or wrong, but one might suit your brand more. The advantage of stricter brand guidelines is more and better consistency, but guidelines that are too tight can stifle creativity.

Brand Guides vs. Style Guides

Brand guidelines (sometimes called brand guides) are distinctly not the same as style guides. Yes, both are important, but they are complementary and accomplish different things. Brand guidelines are all about design whereas style guides are focused on editorial rules. Style guides tell you things like whether to use the Oxford comma or to default to American or British English spellings.

When to Update Brand Guidelines

Let’s say you already have brand guidelines. How do you know when to update them? Well, there are a lot of reasons to update your brand guidelines. Some include getting a new logo, rolling out a new tagline, making changes to your brand values, or adjusting to changes in your market. Truthfully, those kinds of updates can be a lot of work, but fortunately, most of the time you’re making minor updates to stay relevant and engaging to your customers.

Think of your brand guidelines as a living document. Everything that’s alive is changing all the time — sometimes more than others. You’ll need to update them periodically, but especially whenever your brand starts to look dated. Be on the lookout for changes in trends of what fonts and colors are popular.

How to Ensure a Successful Rollout

As with most things, good communication is the key to success. When it comes to how to develop brand guidelines or how to update them, the approach is simple: communicate well internally and among key stakeholders throughout a clearly defined process. Get approvals and buy-ins before you launch.

When rolling out updated brand guidelines, don’t just say what’s new or different. Also give the why behind the changes. And whether new or updated, make sure you share and review your brand guidelines and assets internally with employees as well as externally with partners and agencies.

If appropriate, publish your brand guidelines publicly on your website. If not, make them readily accessible to partners to reference at their convenience. Include downloadable logos and easy-to-use templates. If you make it straightforward for your designer stakeholders to access key assets, they’ll be more likely to use and comply with your updated guidelines.

Sharing new or updated brand guidelines via meetings and brand workshops helps everyone get up to speed. Having a designated point of contact for brand questions makes it easier to approve and implement new designs. If you have the resources to make them, pre-recorded videos about what to do and not to do can facilitate the implementation of your new brand guidelines.

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Make it Happen, We Can Help

At first, the thought of creating or even just updating your brand guidelines may seem overwhelming. Doing so well does take expertise and time, but it’s worth it because you’ll save you hours of redesigns and communication going forward. And fortunately, you don’t have to go it alone.

To learn more about brand guidelines and how Cobalt helps companies with all aspects of branding and positioning, visit the Cobalt services page or contact the Cobalt team.

As a strategic communications agency serving science- and R&D-driven organizations, we specialize in highly technical markets where complex ideas and information must be conveyed with clarity. Our team includes writers, designers, strategists and content architects, all working together to help you reach — and engage — your internal and external audiences.

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