The Future of Brand Guidelines

A more human centered approach is required to replace the traditional rulebook

When was the last time you read a manual of any sort (excluding anyone that has been to IKEA lately)?  Did you read the instructions when you unboxed your latest generation phone (the one with a gazillion features)? Did you even look at the manual for the last car you bought (the second most expensive purchase for most of us)?

Now think what you did last time you wanted to understand how to do anything. Chances are you googled it and that search led you to click on a combination of how to articles and videos. Anything that felt like tl;dr or tl;dw  (too long didn’t read or watch) would likely be dismissed within the first 5 seconds.

If this is how we consume content in our busy daily lives, why would we behave differently in our even busier work lives? Yet, companies big and small still invest tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars writing and updating their 400-page static pdf set of brand guidelines. Isn’t it time to stop the madness and create something meaningful and useful at the same time?

Brand owners that continue to operate in this outdated fashion and still lament that [insert name of business unit, department or region] has gone ‘rogue’ and don’t take the time to read the brand standards need to wake up from their state of cognitive dissonance.


Where did it all go wrong?

The way brand guidelines have been designed and written has remained pretty much unchanged for the last twenty years. The advent of technology such as online brand centers, DAMs, or Brand Asset Management systems, has helped solve part of the issue of making content and assets easier to find and use. However, most organizations are still thinking of their guidelines in the same way, taking their pdf and laying it out in the same flat style.

Who should we hold responsible for this lack of evolution?

First in the dock, we the “expert” brand agencies that write, design and hand-off ‘guidelines’ in the traditional antiquated way, need to shoulder a large portion of the blame. Clients pay agencies for guidance and expertise. This means brand consultants have a duty to ensure that what they are producing can be usable after the hand-off. Nowadays, internal client teams, replete with ex global agency talent need to shoulder their fair share of responsibility.


Time for a revised perspective

It’s also inside client-side internal brand and design teams and a few like-minded creative experience firms where you’ll find a groundswell of people devoted to reimagining the approach to brand guidelines.

While we could dedicate an entire book to this topic, through our own work and conversations with over a hundred brand leaders on this topic, we’ve identified three core principles that everyone can follow. Unfortunately, many of the best-in-class examples we’d like to show live behind password protected brand centers or relate to examples that we can’t share publicly.

Luckily for all of us a few leading brands have created public facing versions of their guidelines, thus allowing us to share this new way of thinking with real-world examples for everyone to see.


Three principles for humanizing guidelines:

#1: Focus, focus, focus

The biggest issue with so many brand guidelines is they become too long and unwieldy. Not only is the language often too jargon, lofty and over-embellished, it has continued to expand in an uncontrolled way, like weeds. Less can be meaningfully more in this scenario – you want them to be both digestible and compelling.

The brand voice section for a global logistics brand had grown to over 35 pages before someone decided that it was time for the madness to stop. With a bit of work (and aided by principle #2, they were able to reduce it to a succinct five pages. In another example, a recent engagement to reimagine the brand guidelines for a global energy company, one of the stated goals was to “eliminate puffery”.

Keeping the weeds pruned requires teams to be consistently auditing and managing their content. Much like a garden that has been unkept for a while, if the weeds have taken over, then a more significant lift and overhaul may be required.

Zendesk keeps it simple by identifying the key ‘jobs to be done’ to allow users to get where they need to quickly and efficiently.


#2: Show vs. Say

The beauty about having web-enabled guidelines is that we have so many more ways to express content compared to print or a static pdf. It’s important to strike a balance between finding ways to organize large batches of information in easy-to-find, digestible methods, while not losing too much of the detail that some experts find important.

This is where there is an enormous opportunity to use visuals, videos, gifs and interactive elements to tell get the core information across in an engaging, digestible way. For example, using a video explainer can cut pages and pages of content.

Uber’s brand center takes you through the nine core design elements in a sequential manner where you feel as though you are learning chapter by chapter using a highly visual and interactive approach. They achieve this by using a blend of in-page sliders, carousels, motion and animation, tabs and hover text to embed learning and education into the content.


#3: Explain the “why”

Think back to when you were a teenager, or even younger. Can you remember what it felt like that time when you asked your parents why you couldn’t do something, and the curt answer back was “because I said so”?  Didn’t feel great, did it?

As humans, we’re naturally fueled by a sense of justice. We are naturally curious creatures. Not only does this mean we want to know how things work, we especially want to understand the why behind everything. This is exacerbated when the why is perceived as subjective. Put simply, people will be more likely to follow the brand rules if they understand the reason behind decisions, and that those decisions actually help them.

This applies both at the element level (orange is our primary color because it communicates that we’re bright, optimistic, yada, yada…) and at the macro level (helping everyone understand their role in living the brand).

IBM outlines its design philosophy in a breezy educational and entertaining video, using hard logic while also delivering on emotion. It’s difficult to imagine even the most engineering-minded individual offering a strong rationale for disagreeing with the importance of being on-brand.


The future of guidelines is a necessary topic for innovation, but it is only one component that needs to be addressed under the broader topic of rethinking the approach to brand stewardship as an interconnected ecosystem forcing us to revisit our approach to people, tools and processes.

How influential will IBM’s philosophy be if new employees aren’t exposed to it during onboarding, when arguably is the most important time to introduce brand and the meaning behind it for the company, as well as the tools to engage with brand? How will Uber’s design system be applied consistently if they aren’t able to scale it globally and train designers from Argentina to Vietnam and the other 83 countries in which it operates in?

The broader challenge over guidelines and brand management may seem overwhelming. The goal is to tackle one element at a time and celebrate the small wins. Starting with something you can control and own is a great way to start. You could do worse than keeping the following mantra in mind.

“Give me more guidelines; and make them longer and denser,”

said no one ever…

We are passionate about brand governance, systems of brand management, and the importance of consistent brand in the financial and cultural success of business. Agree or disagree with what we have above? Tell us! We love to engage in conversation and continue to push our own thinking.