As a marketing leader, you understand the value of your professional services firm’s brand better than anyone. Your brand, properly wielded, has the power to elevate your position in the marketplace and act as an evergreen driver of new business. Depending on your organization’s level of marketing sophistication, you may have had to work hard to earn brand buy-in from partners and executives. But you did it—and the fruits of your labor can now be seen in your modern, polished brand.

So what are you doing to protect your brand investment? To what extent are you ensuring it is used consistently and effectively across every touchpoint? The answer lies in brand guidelines.

Brand guidelines aren’t as sexy as the brand and identity work that precedes them. But they are absolutely critical if you want to preserve (or strategically evolve) your brand over the long haul.

Here’s what you need to know about brand guidelines, including what they are, why your legal or financial services firm should invest in them—and what they should include.

What are Brand Guidelines?

Brand guidelines are protocols that empower everyone who touches your brand—from expert designers to communications staff and analysts—to use it appropriately.

This set of practical rules and standards is necessary for your team to correctly apply your brand in a wide variety of situations, from marketing emails to presentation decks and beyond.

Think of it this way: The brand identity your agency created for your organization exists as a sort of platonic ideal. A well-designed brand will be crafted with execution in mind, but it doesn’t come out of the box with every use case tested and documented. In order to actually apply your brand, your team must understand how to translate that platonic ideal to a vast array of assets, channels and use cases.

And that’s exactly where brand guidelines come in.

They ensure that your entire team—no matter how large and complex—are all working from the same playbook.

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The Benefits of Investing in Brand Guidelines

Whether or not you recently refreshed your brand, brand guidelines are absolutely critical to consistent application. That’s true whether you produce all your marketing materials in-house or partner with a network of external agencies.

However, it’s important to note that brand guidelines do more than just “police” your current brand.

They also empower your team to strategically extend your brand as new use cases and channels arise—and document those solutions for future reference. After all, your brand is bound to change. With brand guidelines, you can navigate those changes thoughtfully and gracefully.

The value of brand guidelines is pretty obvious. Yet some professional services firms may still wince at the added expense. Yes, producing robust brand guidelines is an investment. But it’s one that rapidly pays for itself. Brand guidelines boost the ROI on your brand by ensuring you can actually execute your branding agency’s big-picture vision. Not only that, but they also cut operational costs by giving your internal team the resources necessary to quickly and efficiently create on-brand assets every time.

The Evolution of Brand Guidelines

Brand guidelines have been around for a long time. Tracing their history is a bit like tracing the history of media in general as it marched from analog to digital to the cloud. However, the technology wasn’t the only thing that changed. The way organizations have approached and used brand guidelines has changed along with it.

The Golden Age of Corporate Identity

In the golden “Mad Men” age of corporate identity, brand guidelines were documented in printed books. Some of the brand guideline books from that era—think NASA and the New York City subway system—have become coveted collectors’ items in their own right.

Interestingly, the guidelines themselves during that time were really not that restrictive. They mostly centered on the use of the logo and how it would be applied to infrastructure and branded assets. In a way, it makes sense that the brand guidelines of that time would have been less confining. Just consider the cost of producing and updating those massive printed resources!

Rigidity in the Heyday of Paper

Then, in the 1980s and early 1990s, there was a major shift. All of a sudden major corporations doubled down on their brand guidelines in an effort to make their brands much more rigidly consistent.

Paper was still big, and many organizations focused a great deal of their marketing and advertising efforts on print publications. Brand guidelines ballooned as brands sought to express themselves consistently across a flurry of assets and channels.

During this same time period, brand guidelines themselves moved from printed binders to digital PDFs.

The Rise of Digital and a Return to Flexibility

The rise of the digital-first era changed all that. As digital replaced print (with the pandemic being the final nail in the coffin), the pendulum swung back in the direction of freedom and creativity.

It’s easy to see why. In the world of digital, channels and technologies evolve rapidly. Brands that aren’t flexible enough to contend with new use cases will struggle to keep pace.

Brand guidelines are still critically important. But rather than being akin to legally binding documents, today’s brand guidelines are more like flexible guardrails. And, like most digitally shared documents, they’ve also moved to the cloud.

These days, you don’t have to start from scratch with a custom-built intranet. You can use programs like Bynder, Frontify, and Brandfolder, which offer pre-built templates and cloud storage to centralize both your guidelines and your branded assets themselves.

What Should Your Brand Guidelines Include?

However you decide to approach them, it’s critical to produce thoughtful and effective brand guidelines. Flexibility is a good thing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean fewer details. Rather, it means educating your stakeholders about when and how to extend your brand in new directions.

Your brand guidelines should include instructions about:

  • Your logo and how to apply it in various situations
  • Typography (keeping in mind that custom brand fonts may not “play nice” in certain software environments, such as Microsoft)
  • Numbers
  • Colors
  • Images, such as photography and illustrations (including both the content itself and instructions for manipulating images)
  • Charts, graphs and data visualizations
  • Icons and other graphic flourishes
  • Writing style guidelines

As you craft your guidelines, keep in mind the real-world context in which your team will produce your marketing materials and branded assets. If your rules don’t take into account your organization’s real-world challenges, you may set your team—and your brand—up for failure.

For example, if you want all your imagery to be manipulated in a distinctive style (a la McKinsey), you need to make sure your team has the budget, tools and expertise necessary to execute that vision.

Be sure to consider all aspects of your brand and marketing operations, including roles and responsibilities, review and approvals, training, budget, tools and technology, and so on.

Treat Your Brand Guidelines as a Living, Breathing Document

The initial work of creating brand guidelines represents a big lift. But it’s not a one-and-done project.

Your brand guidelines can and should change along with your legal or financial services firm. Treat it as a living document by updating it as your brand evolves or new use cases emerge. Do that, and you’re sure to protect and extend the life of your brand for years to come.

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