Like a user’s guide, a cookbook, and a map all wrapped up into one, brand guidelines break down the various parts, pieces, and ingredients of your brand—and provide direction for putting them into action.

Regardless of whether you’ve just rebranded or have a tried and tested brand system, brand guidelines are an essential tool for the consistent execution of any brand.

In this article, we’ll explore everything you need to know about brand guidelines: what they are, the types of information they include, and a few of our favorite brand guidelines examples.

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What Are Brand Guidelines?

Brand guidelines are the formally defined parameters of the strategic, visual, and verbal elements of your brand. They codify the successful execution of your brand across channels and touchpoints and provide examples of how your brand should come to life in the real world.

Also known as a style guide, brand guide, or brand book, brand guidelines are essentially the standards that govern your company’s look and feel. They’re like a friendly rulebook or reference point, ensuring everyone responsible for bringing the brand to life is on the same page.

A strong brand style guide ensures that a billboard designed by James from creative, a brochure shared by Maria in sales, and a website manned by a multi-person marketing team all feel like cohesive representations of the same brand.

Why Are Brand Guidelines Important?

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When it comes to the world’s most successful brands, branding guidelines aren’t just important—they’re indispensable. A centralized accounting of brand standards is the only way a multinational brand can protect the value of its brand equity. But, these instructional manuals are just as important for small business, as well. Let’s take a closer look at three key reasons why a brand book is so critical.

Consistency is Key to Brand Success

If any idea is central to the value and power of branding, it is consistency. As HubSpot notes in their extensive post on style guides, the most effective brands are consistently executed, whenever and wherever they are experienced by audiences—from their websites to their social feeds to their Super Bowl commercials.

Consistency, after all, is at the heart of brand awareness. Every time someone visits your website, sees your brand in a display ad, or receives marketing materials from your company, brand recognition is reinforced. When these impressions are inconsistent because of an inconsistently executed brand, it creates confusion and undermines brand awareness.

Consistent brands are also familiar brands. And familiarity is the foundation of customer trust. We all trust things that are familiar after all. The more a customer has a familiar, recognizable experience with your brand, the more they learn they can rely on your brand to deliver. The final upshot of customer trust, of course, is the all-important brand loyalty.

Neither brand awareness nor customer trust is possible if your brand is not consistently executed. And the only way to ensure consistency is with a cohesive set of brand guidelines that all of your stakeholders agree on.

Clarity is the Foundation of Brand Integrity

So, what do we mean by stakeholders? Well, all members of your team, from your employees to your agency partners, are stewards of your brand. And a cohesive branding guide can help ensure all these players are on the same page—quite literally.

First, putting a solid set of brand standards in place helps internal and external stakeholders sidestep confusion that may arise when they’re working with your brand for the first time. By definitively outlining the laws for how to bring your brand to life, brand guidelines connect everyone around a common way of doing things.

A crystal-clear style guide also combats misinterpretations or opinion-based debates around brand design and brand messaging. As an objective, final-word arbiter of every last nuance of your brand, a clearly articulated brand guidelines document can be a much-needed unifying force among the many brand ambassadors within your organization.

Efficiency Makes Everything Easier

There are many ways an effectively executed brand can positively impact your business’s bottom line. But one of the most overlooked impacts of a strong set of brand identity guidelines is its ability to increase efficiencies and save your team time.

Brand guidelines ultimately serve as a kind of “checklist” for designers, writers, and other creators, who—without a handy branding manual—may get caught up in guesswork about what’s permissible. Or, worse, waste countless valuable hours crafting something that can’t even be brought to market.

A tool to vet and weed out incorrect ideation (that which would somehow undermine your brand equity by causing confusion in customers’ minds), brand guidelines empower teams to make quicker, smarter decisions when it comes to selecting from multiple creative concepts.

Quicker, more informed decisions speed up the process and preclude unnecessary—and ultimately avoidable—revisions across your organization.

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How to Create Brand Guidelines

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There’s no definitive way to create a set of brand guidelines. They can be as simple as a couple of pages or as thorough as an encyclopedia.

The ultimate measure of success of any set of brand guidelines is utility—that is, Does it have the information your team needs to consistently execute your brand, and is it presented in a way that is easy to understand and leaves no room for misinterpretation?

However comprehensive your guidelines may be, however, the road to creating them is similar. Let’s take a look at 3 important steps to creating brand guidelines.

1. Choose Your Format: Static or Interactive

The first thing to know about brand guidelines is that they can be either static or interactive.

Static brand guidelines are usually created in a program like Adobe InDesign and can be physically printed or produced as a digital PDF. They typically cost less, are easy to navigate, and feel more tangible as a hard copy—something that many creators may prefer.

Interactive brand guidelines are web-based. What they lack in tangibility and price, they make up for with dynamic features—like the ability to keep them up-to-date at all times (thus avoiding version-control issues) and incorporate actual examples of videos and motion graphics. Interactive guidelines also allow you to directly download helpful templates, and they are more secure.

2. Define Your Brand’s Core Elements

Every brand is comprised of a handful of core elements, from strategic messaging to visual and verbal identity. Defining each of these elements in a clear, consistent manner is the primary purpose of your brand guidelines. Let’s take a look at a handful of core elements that most brand guidelines should cover.

Brand Framework
A brand framework, or brand platform, is the strategic dashboard of your brand. Primarily informed by your brand positioning, this platform defines for the world what your brand stands for and provides strategic scaffolding for your visual and verbal identity. Your brand framework includes components like:

Logo
As the visual cornerstone of your brand, your logo deserves top billing in your brand guidelines. After all, this mark is like your stamp, your seal, and your signature all in one. And with such high visibility, it’s critical to ensure your logo is consistently executed in a way that doesn’t undermine its integrity. Some key considerations for your logo guidelines include:

  • Primary and alternate/reverse logo
  • Clearspace
  • Placement
  • Tagline lockup

Color
Coca-Cola is an eye-catching red. IBM is an unmistakable blue. BP stands out in the space with its bright green. Color is one of the most memorable aspects of your brand—one that primes buyers to immediately recall your message, even if they can’t make out the shape of your logo or don’t remember your company’s name. To keep colors instantly identifiable, your brand guidelines should address:

  • Primary colors
  • Secondary and tertiary colors
  • Values: PMS, CMYK, RGB, HEX

Typography
While the majority of your audiences couldn’t put a name to it, typography is as important to your brand’s recognition as color and logo. The brands we’ve come to trust use typography that’s instantly recognizable as their own. Beyond just your primary fonts, there are other important considerations around typeface that need to be defined in your brand guidelines, including:

  • Primary, secondary, and system fonts
  • Headline and paragraph styles
  • Type hierarchy

Graphic Elements
From a singular, optimally placed line to a robust, custom-created system of shapes, graphic elements can range in complexity. To make these important visual cues of your brand identity easier to understand and use, consider including the following topics in your brand guidelines:

  • Graphic motif
  • Icons and illustrations
  • Patterns

Photography
If a photo is worth a thousand words, your brand photography speaks volumes. And your brand guidelines are here to make sure it strikes the right tone. Breaking down the different types of imagery in your arsenal and describing when to use them is especially important, since pictures can be so subjective. Key points to consider include:

  • Overall image style
  • Image treatment
  • Lifestyle and product photography
  • Headshots

Voice
Brand guidelines aren’t all about the visual—verbal identity is also a significant factor that needs to be featured in your brand book.Your brand voice should be instantly recognizable to anyone who hears it, regardless of channel or touchpoint. When it comes to brand voice, make sure to hit on both of the following:

  • Tone
  • Style

3. Incorporate “Dos & Don’ts” and Real-World Applications

Your brand guidelines need to be practical. Functional. Actionable.

What they should not be is an exercise in theory or hypotheticals. Ultimately, your style guide needs to tell people “yes or no” when they are making decisions about the collateral they are working on.

To make your brand guidelines as useful as possible, include examples of “dos & don’ts,” showcasing instances of correct usage contrasted with incorrect usage, throughout your guidelines document.

Also important to include are applications of your brand in the real world so readers have tangible examples of effective execution. Think: renderings of websites, social media posts, billboards, display ads, merchandise, and more.

“Dos & Don’ts” and real-world examples can and should be incorporated throughout your brand book, but sections where they are particularly helpful include:

  • Logo
  • Color
  • Typography
  • Graphic Elements
  • Photography
  • Voice

4. Continuously Update and Expand Your Guidelines

Just like your brand itself, your brand guidelines should be a living, breathing entity. As your brand evolves to address changing customer needs and a dynamic competitive landscape, so should your guidelines.

As a general rule, anytime your brand undergoes a refresh or a rebrand, you should update your brand guidelines, as well.

If new elements are added to your brand to accommodate new channels or touchpoints, your brand guidelines should be updated to reflect those additions and outline precise parameters around their proper execution.

Brand Guidelines Examples

By now, hopefully you’ve gotten a sense of how important brand guidelines are to any business looking to grow as well as the type of topics these documents ought to include.

Now, let’s take a look at how a few of the world’s top brands have developed their own brand books to see how they can serve as instruction—and inspiration—for your own.

Klarna

A Swedish fintech company, Klarna’s style guide evokes the same sleek, high design as the Scandinavian region where the brand was born. But while they were designed to feel simple and streamlined, this style guide is anything but minimalist.

Featuring detailed examples of how to apply its unique brand system across touchpoints—ranging from billboards and textile banners to Instagram ads, app notifications, and real-life environments—Klarna’s brand guidelines are a prime example of the power of real-world examples.

The verbal section of its brand book even includes a decision tree to help users determine when to use “Smoooth”—a satiric misspelling that captures the essence of Klarna.

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KIA

Where Klarna’s brand guidelines are slick and “smoooth,” KIA’s are dense and robust, outlining comprehensive usage guidelines for the global auto manufacturer’s brand experience.

With more than 120 technical pages that cover everything from car decals to wall clocks to the exact angle measurements of the logo’s diagonal strokes, this style guide is nothing if not a masterpiece of precision.

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Spotify

If KIA’s style guide is more tome than vignette, Spotify’s is a reminder that there’s beauty in brevity, too. At just over 20 pages, Spotify’s guidelines are primarily designed to instruct its partners on logo usage—a critical consideration for global brands with considerable equity who find themselves in frequent co-branded environments.

With its audience firmly in mind, the Spotify brand book chooses functionality over form, focusing on what’s most important to those using the document: partner logo lockups with the Spotify brand. Along the way, the document proves that brand guidelines don’t need to win a design award to get the job done.

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The Takeaway

When it comes to branding, consistency is key—to brand awareness, customer trust, and ultimately, brand loyalty. But your brand is only as consistent as those tasked with executing it. That’s where brand guidelines come in.

The cornerstone of consistency and cohesiveness, brand guidelines are an indispensable roadmap outlining the guardrails of your brand’s execution. From your strategic messaging to your visual and verbal identity, from your website and social feeds to your display ads and billboards, few things are more important than ensuring everyone working to further your brand is on the same page.

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Everything you need to know about rebranding your business-and avoiding costly mistakes.

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A prolific blogger, speaker, and columnist, Brian has two decades of experience in design and branding. He’s written for publications including Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc. Magazine, Fast Company, HuffPost, and Brand Quarterly.