The Whats, Whys, and Hows of Brand Identity Guides

A number of clients have been working on various branding related issues lately, so I’m so pleased to be able to share this guest post from my colleague Sharon Bending at Rx Creative Lab on the keys to putting together effective brand identity guidelines:

A set of brand identity guidelines (also referred to as brand standards) is a part of every rebrand. It documents the whats and whys of a brand’s look and feel, including color and font specs, overall guidance on tone and message, and layout rules. These guidelines are important to maintain consistency, making a stronger impact with your materials.

Who writes the guide and who has input?

The brand identity guide is generally written by the designer who created the identity, because they can best articulate the thinking behind the design. The guide also spells out why adhering to it enhances the organization’s brand.

Is there one document for all purposes or different guides for different purposes (such as poster sessions, website, publications, eblasts)?

There is usually one master brand identity guide that covers the main areas. Specific websites, journals and publications would generally have their own set of guidelines.

What do you do when people either disagree with or don’t understand your guide?

Being written by an outside source has the benefit of eliciting a sort of respect that these are the rules put in place by an expert, and they are there for a reason. A good guide will help people understand the benefits of sticking to the guidelines.

What if my organization was last branded many years ago and we don’t have any standards in place?

At the very least, have your designer create a one-sheet brand guide to include at a minimum the color specs (CMYK, PMS, RGB, and hexadecimal) and the fonts used. Having one place to document this information is helpful to refer to when working with other vendors.

If you’re ready to take on more than a one sheet but are not interested in rebranding, perhaps the time is right for a communications audit. A communications audit is an objective review of all of your materials to see how well they reinforce your organization’s invaluable identity and branding assets. The audit may find branding inconsistencies that could be addressed in a basic style guide. During audits we sometimes find the branding is all over the place, and the report we create helps generate buy-in for a brand redesign or refresh.

Sharon Bending is the President and Creative Director of Rx Creative Lab, specializing in focused, holistic communications for medical associations. View their work at

It’s Not About the Notices

Membership retention isn’t about renewal invoices: how many you send, when, in what format.

Or at least, it isn’t ONLY about the invoices.

When someone decides to join your association, she’s responding to a promise made – your brand promise.

Your association has promised her a certain experience with your communications, your staff, and your events. You’ve promised to make her professional life better in tangible ways.  You’ve promised to connect her with other professionals who share her goals and passion, who can help her become a better professional, and who she, in turn, can help in the same endeavor. You promised to make her investment of time and money in your organization worth her while. Are you delivering?

Do you know what your brand promise is? Because it doesn’t matter what you think it is. What matters is what your audiences think it is, and how they translate their experiences with your organization.

Are you living up to it? Because if you’re not, it won’t matter how awesome your renewal pitch is, or when you send it, or how many times, or in what format. People will leave. Sure, not all of them – there are some members who will renew virtually no matter what. But everyone else – and believe me, that’s the majority of your members – is at risk.

Got churn? Declining membership? Before you freak out about “should we send 4 or 5 notices?” or “should we start sending them 3 or 4 months in advance?” ask yourself: “are we keeping our promise to our members?”

Yeah, it’s a bigger question and may be a harder problem to solve, but unlike sending an additional notice, it will actually cure the disease rather than slapping on a band-aid.

Your Association’s Chanel Suit

Chanel suits are fashion iconography. A Chanel suit is the prototypical dream clothing acquisition: stylish, simple, elegant, and timeless. Assuming you can afford one, it will form the foundation of your entire wardrobe. It’s a classic.

The same should be true of your association’s brand. It is the foundation of your marketing and communications wardrobe. Everything you do, say, or produce as an organization should relate back to your brand, to a common vision of what your association is.

To get to that level of consistency, you must have a clear, memorable statement of what you stand for, and everyone, from your CEO to your mail clerk, needs to live it.

Oh, and if that vision has to do with being the “market leader” or “providing exceptional value” or “world-class” anything (or sounds like it could’ve been the result of the late, lamented Automatic Mission Statement Generator), toss out the cliched business-speak, and start over, from the place of using simple words to explain what really matters to your association.

What Is Your Brand?

It’s not your logo or your colors or your font. Those things are your brand IMAGE, but they aren’t your brand.

Your brand is an idea…a feeling…an experience.

To quote David Ogilvy: brand is “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised.”

Think about that: intangible – attributes – reputation.

What you think your brand is doesn’t matter. What matters is what your audience thinks it is.

And all of us good little marketers nod our heads in agreement with the above. Yet we consistently talk about brand and act in ways that indicate that what we really believe is that brand is something *we* determine and *we* control and that *we* can change from anything to anything at will.

And that’s just wrong.

You can’t control your brand directly.

What you can do is act consistently in a way that supports the thoughts, images, and most importantly, emotions and experiences you want to be.

What can you do today to find out what your audience really thinks of you? What’s one action you can take to help move that perception into closer alignment with what you’d like it to be?

“I don’t care about your personal brand.”

I’ve been sitting on this quote from Aaron Brazell (@technosailor) since BlogPotomac back in June.

A few thoughts about branding:

NACHRI is currently going through a major branding initiative – consultants, fonts, colors, phrases, brand book, the whole nine yards. But, as Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff remind us:

Marketers tell us they define and manage brands. Some spend millions, or hundreds of millions, of dollars on advertising. They carefully extend brand names, putting Scope on a tube of toothpaste to see what happens. We bought this brand, they say. We spent on it. We own it.


Your brand is whatever the customers say it is.

Groundswell, p. 78

Which of course leaves me with a lot of questions about branding consultants, the number one being: Are they even providing a useful service? If they’re helping an organization IDENTIFY what their constituents think about the organization, great. If they’re helping an organization figure out what they can do to help their constituents think better of them, great. If they’re trying to tell you what your brand should be, um, not great. I came into the process here too late to be able to tell which one our consultants did, but I sure hope it’s option 1 or 2.

But the larger point is that I think “brand” is too constructed a concept for people. A company has a brand. A person has a reputation. And it’s the sum total of who you are. Ever seen those Facebook pages that show NO personality? Guaranteed that’s someone who’s decided anything other than 100% professional information is bad for his “brand.” You know what else is bad for your “brand”? Coming across as a cardboard cut-out.

Furthermore, in an era where we’re all trying to become stars in the social media firmament, personal brand starts to eclipse corporate brand. Not to name names, but there’s a car company that rhymes with Mord that has a socmed star on staff. What happens if/when he leaves? Whose “brand” suffers? I’m just guessing, but probably Mord’s.

I’m not sure what the answer is, so I suggest you read Maddie on it here, here, or here, and then tell me what you think.