Brand books often hold the keys to a brand’s strategy, direction and future, but Ed Bolton, director of Frog, suggests it could be an outdated guide that needs to be revived. He proposes to rework its contents and embrace fluidity in pursuit of creativity.
When was the last time you opened your brand book? Are you sitting on the server gathering virtual dust? A brand book can be full of inspiring, strategic and creative ideas, laying the foundation for the brand to reach the world. But in most cases, they are only seen when someone goes to page 34 to get the RGB color values. They end up sloppy, outdated and too heavy. Does anyone care about their logo exclusion zone? Or that the left margin is 2x the height of X?
In the past, brand guidelines, brand bibles, brand books, whatever you want to call them, were essential documents for global brands. They would use multiple creative agencies, with different specialties, located all over the world and all with different skill levels. Brand books were a key tool to maintain consistency and global control.
Frog on why burning the script and taking a less formulaic approach might work / Yaoqi via Unsplash
Over time, the books grew, as if agencies had to prove their worth by the number of pages rather than the quality of what was on those pages. Some of the best ones tell the brand story in a rich and inspiring way, but more often than not they are glorified PowerPoint presentations. The world has moved on: the art of creative expression for brands has taken a big step forward, but the way it is documented has not.
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While it’s important to lay a solid strategic and creative foundation – logos shouldn’t be altered, a custom typeface can go a long way, and a core color can become an iconic asset – you don’t need a heavy brand book to control that. You need to establish the basics and get great creatives running. (According to legend, the best brand book of all time went to Nike, which simply said on one page: “Don’t f*ck with the swoosh.”)
So, it’s time to burn your brand book and do this instead:
1. Lead with experience
One of the most important strategic elements in driving creative expression is your brand personality. How do you want to face your audience? First, use your individual style to establish fixed elements (such as logo, main color, font, image style, layout system, and tone of voice) without being too prescriptive. From there, map out your customer experience and change your flexible elements (such as photography, illustration, graphics, and messaging) to engage their emotional needs through the brand experience.
Starbucks Creative Expression it’s a wonderful design system that keeps the core of the brand intact while allowing creativity to change with the seasons. In his words, it is a “fresh new design system that maintains the core elements of our brand while keeping our customers’ experience at the center of creative expression, [bringing] purpose and cohesion to every interaction customers have.”
2. Take risks
We live in a world where everything is branded, from pet food subscriptions and pasta delivery services to cases of beer and parking tickets, with a proliferation of soft creative expressions fueled by the rise of technology companies in the last decade. This means lots of white space, bright color palettes, geometric sans-serif fonts, and quirky animated icons backed by basic brand guidelines that explain how to achieve consistency. As a result, everything is, well, a bit boring.
Thanks to the advent of the metaverse and the rise of decentralization, pioneering brands are embracing an element of weirdness and fun in their brand identities. But you can’t do this when your inner ‘brand police’ won’t allow it. Instead, think of your creative expression as a living brand that needs to be fueled with new and exciting stimuli.
So, give the rules a day off, play with your flex items, take risks and get weird. Consistency is important, but your audience cares more about how your products and services delight and engage them, and that means getting off track from time to time.
3. Invest in creativity
The level of creativity coming out of schools and universities around the world today is staggeringly high. The democratization of tools fueled by the internet and social platforms means that graphic design is much more accessible than ever. London and New York are losing their crown as branded centers of excellence and amazing agencies are popping up all over the world, from Amsterdam to Stockholm to Bangkok. This, coupled with the availability of remote collaboration, means that accessing amazing creativity, no matter where you are in the world, is much easier.
Of course, brand books are there to standardize your brand implementation, but don’t let this lead to a standardization of your creative expression. DAMs (digital asset management systems) are useful tools for defining templates that anyone can use for their low-level communications. Get them set up and running consistently, then source great creatives and give them a proper onboarding to your brand. They will reward you with brilliant executions.
So pull out the best parts, then burn your brand book and embrace creativity!