Don’t Build Bad Brand Guidelines

When you’re trying to build a business or pull one together out of previously autonomous entities, it’s very attractive to try to lock everything down and formalise the ‘right’ way of doing things. The alternative is anarchy, especially if there’s a high turnover of staff, and institutional knowledge is weak as a result. Documentation and...

When you’re trying to build a business or pull one together out of previously autonomous entities, it’s very attractive to try to lock everything down and formalise the ‘right’ way of doing things.

The alternative is anarchy, especially if there’s a high turnover of staff, and institutional knowledge is weak as a result. Documentation and standards are important, unsexy work.

The problem with master plans though is the time and effort that has to go into enforcing them.

The more you specify that things have to be just so, the more rigid your process becomes. You’ll need to spend more resources on training and teaching your standards. You’ll also need to be able to police your standards against misuse, which takes time and can quickly become a big cost centre.

In most cases, the ambition for control exceeds organisations’ ability to enforce standards.

I’ve had conversations with jaded sales and purchasing staff who laugh at the very idea of someone using their full branding guidelines. There’s no approval process, the documents are out-of-date, and they don’t see any value in the directives in the first place.

Even in-house designers sometimes shrug their shoulders and say that yes, the rules are idiotic, but so long as nobody asks for approval, they can get away with applying common sense.

Good branding guidelines and business plans tend to follow this ‘common sense’ principle too.

The key difference is that it’s a deliberate act supported by the company’s strategy instead of mild acts of sabotage by creative, problem-solving staff.

Instead of fussing about how email signatures should be formatted (as though anyone can control that in a decent sized organisation) or specifying 20 steps for compliance, proper guidelines keep the compulsory stuff simple, and the complex stuff optional so that they can focus on primary strategic values.

Bad plans loose sight the big picture very quickly – obsessed with control, they are inherently reactionary, fighting yesterday’s battle.

The end users and the front-line staff who deal with them, are rarely considered as anything other than irritations to be tidied up.

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Janto McMullin

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