Untangling brand guidelines and the value of implementation
In a roundtable discussion held with 12 creative directors, MDs and founders of brand agencies, Transform magazine and brand implementation experts from Endpoint discussed the challenges facing brand design, implementation and education
Brand guidelines are the thing branding experts most want to see the death of, and the thing they still can’t get rid of. When implementing a new brand or rebrand, the typical approach sees the brand agency design a digital or physical set of brand guidelines for the rebranded organisation. These are then intended for use across the brand, as support for the in-house team.
In practice, it’s not so simple as all that.
For wayfinding and signage specialist Endpoint, this was not music to a brand implementation expert’s ears. At the first of three roundtable discussions on brand implementation and the process of crafting the physical brand touchpoints, CEOs, MDs and creative directors of brand agencies joined together to debate these topics. Attendees joined the discussion from SomeOne, the Clearing, Pollitt & Partners, Futurebrand, Lambie-Nairn, Fitch, Start, MerchantCantos, Frank, Bright & Abel, HMKM, Purpose, Ragged Edge and the Allotment.
“Most clients, in my experience, their day job is to manage their brands. It’s much more rare for them to introduce a new brand or a rebrand program. An implementation of a new brand is something that organisations don’t go through that often, do they?” said one attendee. For that reason, agencies are called in, to provide the support, expertise and guidance to see an organisation through a change process. Yet, delegates discussed the need for the agency-client relationship to conclude with something like a set of brand guidelines, so clients can then carry on in their day-to-day management of the brand.
But, the reason the brand guidelines fall short is that they are being used to form brand implementation strategies, when implementation should be planned from the beginning of a brand development project. Starting the discussion about implementation early on in the process helps ensure a good result for brand experience. “It’s all about engagement. If [the relevant stakeholders] are part of the journey and if they’re part of developing it, they’re going to understand it a lot more,” one attendee said. Ensuring that this actually takes place though, requires education on both the part of the agency and the client.
And when it doesn’t happen? Things may go drastically wrong.
Attendees shared stories of client disasters; VR experiences for corporate leaders that didn’t pan out, retail experiences gone live across multiple sites that failed, simple things like colours that printed out wrong or typefaces that translated poorly to different media. Any one issue with the ultimate look or feel of the brand can let the whole system down because of the time and investment put into the brand development, but also the potential reputational issues at stake. One attendee says educating people within the organisation about their role in terms of delivering on the brand implementation or built environment is crucial.
“When it goes right,” though, one delegate adds, “I think we probably all agree, the best plans are built from the inside out and the bottom up. When we absolutely work really collegiately with clients and everybody feels like there’s this real ownership of the brand, then they’ve got the vision and they understand what it is we are actually trying to build. Then, they are able to manage that more effectively.”
Carrying that out effectively requires the client and the agency to start talking about the brand’s objectives early on in the project. Then, the resulting brand must be implemented within the organisation, typically by a single brand guardian or small team of brand professionals. That team or individual can swiftly become that most dreaded of things: the brand police.
“One of the things that really gets on my goat is brand police. What you’re saying is there’s somebody there with a stick to hit you with when you get it wrong,” says one creative director. The biggest problem with someone acting as the brand police is that the brand is not communicated effectively within the organisation, nor may it be flexible enough for the entire organisation to use effectively, thus causing one person to bear the baton and badge. It all comes back to guidelines. Are the guidelines held sacred by only one person or team? Do they get shared more widely? If so, are they easy enough to use by non-communications or marketing teams? Do they leave room for the brand to flex and grow?
Often, because brand implementation is not always part of the beginning of the process the answer to any of those questions is no.
The victim of error in any of these areas is ultimately, experience. The brand experience – whether physical or digital – will fail to be consistent and will not be implemented effectively. One delegate shared a story of BBC’s iPlayer. The BBC has a strictly regimented brand, implemented in mostly monochrome across on-air and digital assets, making for a seamless interplay between the organisations two main touchpoints. Yet, because the guidelines did not allow for it, iPlayer was crafted without brand guidance, making it a white-on-black outlier in a world of black-on-white.
Because of iPlayer’s massive consumer success, it worked and introduced a new element to the brand, but it very well could have failed, and the brand guidelines with it.
Yet, for brand creatives, the question of brand guidelines goes one deeper: to PDF or not to PDF? Some advocate beautiful, comprehensive brand books that include everything from textures to typefaces. Some vouch for easily accessible PDFs and others for interactive digital documents. What most agree, though, is that they are, to some extent, still required. But, crucially, they need to be both fit for purpose and interesting. “You’ve got to find ways to connect with people in a much more engaging, relevant, inspirational way,” one attendee says. “How else do you communicate this vision or create some principles for them?”
Another adds, “It’s a more effective security guard. Everyone buys these security guards to guard their investments, but the security guard is asleep most of the time. It’s about trying to get them up and out there, to do something.” The controversial point was debated ardently with supporters on both sides of the debate about the efficacy and usefulness of brand guidelines.
However, it seemed to belie a deeper issue at the root of the discussion. “There is a big challenge that has always been here, which is getting clients to understand the value of what we do. We need clients to care more and then these crises, these inconsistencies, this brand awfulness probably won’t happen. But they need to be inspired and they need to understand the value. I think part of the problem is they don’t understand the value of the brand, so they don’t care. They don’t care enough so they don’t bother so they let things go. Actually it does matter, because it matters to your customers,” says one person.
For all the progress brand has made in getting onto the corporate agenda, for all the education those involved in brand implementation have done, for all the creativity brand designers have shared, it seems there’s still work to be done. What is more clear, now, however, is that it’s not only up to the brand strategist or the designer or the implementation specialist or the marketer to do it. It’s up to everyone and it has to be planned at the beginning, developed carefully and implemented effectively.
Transform magazine co-hosted this roundtable with wayfinding and brand implementation firm Endpoint.