The Role of a Brand Style Guide

As a small businessowner, I suspect many of you saw this headline and asked, “What is a Brand Style Guide, and why bother when I have more immediate needs that might generate income?”

“Stop!”

I can see you are about to close this page . . . and I want a shot at keeping you reading.  I’ll start by answering those two questions.

A Brand Style Guide is a written statement that defines and describes the way in which you present your business to the world.  Typically, both the message and key elements of the visual treatment are encompassed.  

Many large companies have invested millions of dollars perfecting the brand image and the message that gets presented.  Therefore, no one should be surprised that THEIR style guides are VERY detailed and address a wide variety of circumstances.  For example, MacDonald’s is quite protective of their golden arches (see https://news.mcdonalds.com/press/multimedia-library/logos).  For 50 more examples, check out https://www.canva.com/learn/50-meticulous-style-guides-every-startup-see-launching/.   That said, many smaller businesses want the benefits of having a standardized message but do not see a need for a document that does more than address key elements of branding and style.

For our blog, we fall into that latter category.  We recognize that we could benefit from articulating a few basic rules but don’t require a more elaborate guide.  Perhaps in time, that other approach might be warranted . . . but not yet.  Since we suspect many of you fall into this category, we’ll be devoting this blog entry to the creation of a small manual – our own!  (Feel free to download and review a copy . . . and use ours as a template/starting point for your own.)

We began by identifying the issues we wanted to cover:

  • Our mission and differentiating qualities (i.e., the synopsis of “Our Story”).
  • Our brand voice.
  • Our guidelines for use of our logo – attempting to make that icon our unique brand signature.
  • Our color palette.
  • The fonts used with our logo.
  • The types of photos and images selected.

Mission/Differentiating Qualities

When Carole and I decided to start our blog on marketing/communication strategies, we were determined to pass along useful how-to information and instruction that might enable a small business owner to have a highly evolved and very professional brand . . . while doing all of the required work inhouse.  Having been practitioners in this field for decades, we knew the difficulties that could be encountered in going DIY . . . as well as the very high cost of hiring third parties to perform these tasks.  For example . . . just a few years ago, a company affiliated with my employer paid $25,000 to have a style guide prepared for a new start up.  Frankly, the product delivered did not justify the cost. 

So . . . think about the characteristics that set you apart.   Those features are the heart and soul of your business plan and provide the critical backdrop needed to create your Brand Style Guide.

Page 4 of our Style Guide

Brand Voice

Are you traditional or avant garde?  Friendly and very personal . . . or somewhat distant and formal?  When you are expressing yourself, are you picturing an audience of fellow professionals . . . or the general pubic?  The way in which you answer questions such as these determines the voice that will be identified with your brand.

Carole and I naturally write with different styles.  And yet, we did set some basic parameters that will, we hope, create a single voice unique to our blog.  Specifically, we determined that we would keep our use of jargon to minimum OR (when necessary) be sure to define and explain the meaning of terms.  Similarly, we are choosing to be as anecdotal as possible, which gives our readers a chance to get to know us a bit better . . . while hopefully creating an overall friendly tone and helping others to benefit from our experiences.

Within those fairly broad parameters, we figure we will just allow ourselves to use our natural styles of writing rather than attempt to sound like each other.  We think this degree of variety/similarity works well for our purpose . . . and hope you agree.

In general, words like the following speak with our voice:  simple; straightforward; practical; experienced; convenient; direct; professional; DIY; “do it yourself”;  useful; “how to”; and self-reliant.

Use of Logo

Every logo creator hopes and intends for the graphic to become an immediately identifiable symbol.  Toward that end, consistent and frequent use of the exact image is necessary.  Our basic logo for this blog is pictured to the left.  The primary variation to be used both in print and online/onscreen is the three-color version shown at the top.  When only a single color is available (either due to the medium used or cost-saving economics) the black and gray version is permissible.  A single-color, black alternative has also been created for those select occasions when the method used to reproduce the image will not handle gray successfully.  (Example – some photocopying of forms.)

While we believe our logo is sufficiently scalable to become signage atop a building or an imprint on a golf ball . . . and all sizes in between, you need to always be sure the logo you are using has sufficient resolution (i.e., image data or tightly placed Dots Per Inch – DPI) and is being passed along in a file type suitable to the task.

Technical Note . . .

For onscreen use such as web pages, you typically want a resolution of 72 dpi in a file type such as a .jpg, .png, or .gif with an RGB (red-green-blue) color mode.  While each of these file types can be successful, only the latter two support a transparent background (jpg’s add white in null spaces rather than allowing no color).

For print purposes (including most print advertisements), you typically want a resolution of 300 dpi rendered in a CMYK (cyan-magenta-yellow-black) color mode.  While high resolution .jpg and .png files can also be used for print, other options become available, including more easily scalable .eps (Encapsulated PostScript) or pdf (Portable Document Format) files. If you are printing in one-color black (including the black/gray variation), you will want to use a grayscale color mode.  (The logo can be reversed to feature white when used on a dark background.)

Too technical?  Perhaps.  However, the key to keeping your logo looking good at all times is to make sure the right kind of file has been used . . . and we wanted to acquaint you with some of the basic considerations that will be explored further in future blog entries – including preparation of a logo download page that can provide any third party the kind of source material needed to handle your logo correctly.

Interestingly, style guide pages on logos typically spend more time and space enumerating “Don’ts” rather than spelling out the “Dos.”  For Example:

  • DO NOT add, move, remove, replace, or reposition any portion of the logo!!  (With one of our past corporate logos in particular that was very horizonal, vendors were constantly trying to break the whole into pieces that got restacked vertically.)
  • DO NOT change any colors or fonts.
  • DO NOT stretch or distort the logo.  Remember, you can never change just the horizontal or just the vertical dimension without changing both.  Doing so creates distortion.  (Note: That’s the reason quick resizing in graphic programs always uses diagonal motions.)
  • DO NOT remove elements of the logo. (Example:  We like our hammer; don’t fill in the color!)
  • DO NOT place the logo on a busy or distracting background.
  • DO NOT apply a logo or logotype color variation to a background with insufficient contrast.
  • DO NOT create your own variations.

Every logo is custom designed;  no other combinations are permitted.  In those cases in which a logo has been trademarked, failure to use the exact versions registered can weaken or negate a legal position.

Note:  We wanted to mention that our final logo also incorporates a clear box around the icon.  We take this step to avoid any image material getting cut off during file handling, especially the rounded bottoms of letters or those with descenders.

Color Palette

As previously noted, different uses of a logo require a different “color mode” – a very tricky subject involving lots or esoteric technical information.  Bottom line:  use CMYK (or grayscale) for print and RGB for web use.  Most graphic arts programs will give you the ability to switch back and forth between these modes.  However, you will note that print and onscreen versions of the same color can vary somewhat, which is the reason these programs include elaborate methods of color correction.  Rule of thumb – a CMYK color viewed on your computer will seldom reproduce in exactly the same way when printed.  Getting these two to match is as much an art (tempered by experience) as a science.  Nevertheless, use of the right color modes will almost always produce a result that is at least acceptable.

For example . . .

  • The lighter blue in our logo’s B, A, D = RGB 69-96-128; CMYK 81-60-31-10.
  • The darker blue in R, N, and BUILDING = RGB 39-59-84; CMYK 89-74-45-38.
  • The hammer is white (RGB 255-255-255; CMYK 0-0-0-0), and “for small business” is pure black (RGB 0-0-0; CMYK 0-0-0-100).
  • For those somewhat rare applications requiring a grayscale color mode, the lighter gray is L88, the darker gray is L35, the black is L0, and white is L255.

Once you become familiar with expressing colors as formulas, you will be able to communicate successfully with vendors such as commercial printers, graphic artists, and other professionals.  Until then, we wanted you to be aware that these color systems exist (as well as a variety of others such as Pantone/PMS, HEX, LAB, etc.) so you’ll be able to act appropriately upon being told 0-0-0-0, and you’ll understand that 51-51-51 is not a code for an “Area” in Roswell, New Mexico.

Fonts

Our logo incorporates two fonts:  Titullian Web Black for the words BRAND and BUILDING and Candelon Regular applied to “for small business.”

For the text of our blog, we’ve chosen to use Georgia. 

If you are looking to reproduce these fonts or want a resource for finding others, we suggest you check out https://fonts.google.com/.  Other alternatives exist, but we’ve found this one to be good and useful.

Photos/Other Iconography

For our blog, you’ve probably noticed that we elected to highlight our logo as the primary imagery on the page – hopefully calling added attention to that item.  Since we needed some other photo just to properly balance the page, we selected neutral content that would recede into the background and not compete.

Nevertheless, we do anticipate periodically using a photo or other graphic element to enhance the point being made and to add some visual interest.  When making such choices, the following will be some of our considerations:

  • Use of people; generally speaking, faces make an image more interesting. 
  • Demographic diversity.
  • Positive energy (Are the people smiling and happy?  Excited?).
  • Contemporary (not necessarily young but avoiding elements, such as old cars or computers, that date a picture).
  • Simplicity (not too many elements and generally tending to closer focal points).
  • Compatible colors.
  • Narrative relevance; humor when possible.

By-lines/Tag Lines

Many companies successfully incorporated a tag line into their brand identity. Ever hear the phrase “Breakfast of Champions” or perhaps “Betcha can’t eat just one”?

(See https://www.thebalancecareers.com/best-advertising-taglines-ever-39208.)

When building your brand, consider your options, remembering that a good tag line reflects a differentiating quality, reminds us about a key benefit, and imparts a positive feeling.  If you do have or develop a tag line, be sure to specify any rules for usage in relation to your logo.  (Very often, tag lines become part of the graphic.)

While we have not adopted a fixed position or graphic treatment for our tag line, we have chosen the language:  “A Blog for Entrepreneurs Looking to Create and Develop their Corporate Identity.”

Boilerplate

A short description of your product or service will often be needed when sending out press releases, producing sales literature, creating marketing ads, and even filling out forms.  To ensure a consistent, properly branded message, you should develop one or more variations of such a description.   For us, one short paragraph seemed adequate to get started:

“Produced by two experienced communication professionals, Brand Building for Small Business is a blog that aims to provide practical, do-it-yourself advice about creating a brand identity from the bottom up . . . and using that vehicle to help generate income streams.  Expect simple, straightforward tips that can be executed by a single person or a small group on a very tight budget.”

Your Brand

Probably the single most important rule for a Brand Style Guide is to use the rules regularly, to incorporate the elements into your decision-making process, and to not allow yourself too many exceptions . . . though some necessities will certainly turn up.

Companies that spend thousands of dollars getting a guide prepared for them have a built-in incentive to dictate their use . . . while your motivation as a small business for creating and sticking to your guide is less immediate – more of an act of faith.

However, your efforts can pay off.  Successful brands are those with elements that resonate with the audience . . . those that are based in reality and communicate a truthful message in both spoken and unspoken ways.  So, be honest with yourself in making your underlying branding decisions, and you’ll stand a very good chance at building a great brand identity.

BTW . . . Changing a brand is another story for the future.  Whether small refinements are being introduced or a more basic overhaul is underway, this task is a daunting one and is another good reason for being careful in determining your initial brand building efforts.

Once again, feel free to download a complete copy of our Brand Style Guide for use as a starting point in developing your own.  Save some time that can be devoted to other sales strategies!

What’s in a Name?

Picking a name is the easiest task you face when starting a new business and developing your brand, right?

Wrong!!

While you might expect this step to be a “no brainer,” the path to success is fraught with countless obstacles standing in your way – a lack of creativity being the least of your worries.

During our years in the corporate world, Carole and I had numerous opportunities to name companies and products . . . and over time were asked to use a variety of strategies from the hire of a highly paid consultant to a company-wide naming contest.  When you have 500 employees allowed to make multiple submissions, you quickly get a pool of 2,500 alternatives to choose among. So, you’d assume that at least one of those entrants would be a winner.  Sadly, such was not our experience.

Ultimately, we have learned to keep the task as simple as possible AND to avoid the confusion caused by tooooo many opinions.  Since we recently went through such an exercise in naming our blog, I will offer this very fresh example to illustrate some of the hard-earned lessons (AND SHORTCUTS) we have learned.

Aside:  BTW, do you like the name?  (We’d love to hear from you.)

Three Criteria that Must Be Met

  1. Be memorable and preferably short.  (Some people, including me, believe the best names reflect the content or value of the product or service in a self-explanatory way.)
  2. Be available.  (Sound too basic to list?   After playing this game a few times, you’ll be shocked at the number of names already taken – especially the good ones!)  When another party has already planted their intellectual-properties stake in the ground by starting the registration process, might as well give up and turn your attention elsewhere.
  3. Has an accompanying Internet domain name/address that’s easy to use and even easier to remember.

While a number of other matters certainly need to be considered in picking a name (reproducibility, color, flexibility in size, etc., etc., etc. – including the visual potential of the words chosen in developing a logo and other supporting materials), these items will more appropriately be discussed in Parts 2 and 3 of Branding Basics, which address logo design and the creation of a style sheet.

Brainstorming (Developing an Initial Pool of Names)

With these three criteria providing a VERY basic framework for the process, Carole and I gave ourselves the assignment of each coming up with five suggested names.  To get started on my end . . . I wrote down EVERY name imaginable – good/bad/indifferent – ranging from such selections as “Spread the Word” to “Communicate – A Practical Guide.”  When developing this first list, you need to force yourself to be uninhibited and must be willing to be “Dumb” because that’s all part of the process.  However, you and your team usually get a few good laughs in return.

Next, I narrowed my list down to the required five and sent them off to Carole.  She did likewise, and we voted on our favorites.  One name that didn’t make the cut was “Brand Building . . . to Help Sell DIY.”  While neither of us selected that option, Carole said, “What about just Brand Building?”

Liking the short version and both of us being suckers for alliteration, we decided to take that option through the next steps.

Domain Name/Internet Address

Sooooo . . . we had a candidate, but would we be able to secure a name that would help us transact business?  

To check, go to a site like www.godaddy.com.  Upon searching the availability of our name, we learned that www.brandbuilding.com was not available . . . but we also saw that the name could be purchased for $19,000! 

To us, that meant we were on the right track – the name was popular enough to command a steep price (a good sign).  However, unwilling (or psychologically incapable) of investing that much money, we began considering different variations and ultimately landed on “Brand Building for Small Business.”  Since we had already determined that we’d use WordPress to host our blog, we did spend the very reasonable amount of money to secure that platform.

Is our chosen name perfect?  Being a little longer than the ideal, probably not.  However, we believe the strengths outweigh the weaknesses.  In our experience, many perfectly acceptable product and/or company names can’t be used because a reasonable accompanying Internet name/address is not available.  We think our choice passes a number of key tests. 

However, one avenue that can always be considered is a unique but generic name that has no obvious ties to your product or service  . . . but sounds neat and is memorable.  EX:  Apple or Google.  The benefits of this approach are minimal competition for domains (potentially), very small likelihood of copyright issues arising, and a name that will “fit” whatever your company grows up to be.

Intellectual Property Rights

For a quick preliminary test of intellectual property rights, go to the web site of the U.S. Patents and Trademark Office:  https://www.uspto.gov/.  This official government app allows you to enter a name and see all of the possible similar variations that are (or have been) in use.

USPTO

In our case, we found no exact matches but a few that had some similarity.  In such cases, you have to determine whether the address owner operates within the same industry and whether our use of the name could cause any confusion within the marketplace. (For a more exact and reliable explanation of the legal ramifications, consult your attorney.)

In the end, we felt we were seeing a fairly common use of Brand Building as a conceptual term . . . but not necessarily a name for a competing product.  Therefore, we decided to move forward.  However, be aware that names and other intellectual properties have significant value, so challenges can occur – Carole and I have experienced them ourselves in the corporate world – on both the giving and receiving end.

Next Up

Having gone through these exercises, we have our name and a key building block for our brand.

What comes next?

Time to build (and perhaps trademark) a logo (See: Design your Own Logo).

BTW—some form of testing of your chosen name is always a good idea.  Such a process can be as simple as informally asking the opinions of friends and colleagues . . . or can be a formal study involving a demographically correct group of participants.  In the end, a good name will ultimately resonate with the experience of the audience – making the name easier to remember.