Why brand identity guidelines are even more important in the digital age – and that includes for SMEs

March 2016

Back last autumn I had an annual planning meeting with one of my longest standing clients, with her marketing manager also in attendance – someone I’d helped recruit earlier the same year. The client’s business is very successful, an SME, largely B2C, with garden and wildlife related products sold through an ecommerce offer and via a brochure with orders taken over the phone.

I’d gone to the meeting with a list of things I wanted to discuss, with a key one being a concern that the proposed design of a new website, the current brochure and a raft of other marketing communications such as flyers and e-newsletters, were all starting to look and sound like they belonged to different brands. And I could see why this was happening, because three different agencies were involved in the work and largely being allowed to do their own thing – let alone being encouraged to have dialogue between each other.

My plan, so I thought, was an obvious one: the first stage was to revisit the now somewhat out-of-date visual identity guidelines (that nobody seemed to be using anyway), and with those in place get the three agencies talking to each other for the good of their shared client. But I hit an obstacle with my stage one, because the marketing manager was very firmly of the view that visual identity guidelines “were not needed and were an old-fashioned thing” and more for “very large companies”. Really?

Quite where she got this idea from I’ve yet to discover, but not only was the statement not true, the very reverse is the case for this one simple reason: in an age where the options for different channels and media are greater than ever, there’s a corresponding risk in scale that a brand can end up presenting different and inconsistent faces to the world – and almost regardless of business size. And, ultimately, brand identity is about how the brand wants to be seen and heard, and this based on sound brand strategy around market positioning, values and personality etc.

Thankfully my client was more on board than her marketing manager with the proposal, and we’re now close to agreeing a new set of brand identity guidelines which include all the usual elements such as logo, logo usage, typefaces, typography, colour palette and use of imagery, plus how these elements manifest themselves across different channels and media. In addition and importantly, the guidelines also cover ‘tone of voice’ – the language of the brand which, for some brands, can now be an even more important element of identity than visual.

With that job done, the next stage is to get the three different agencies – one of which has prepared the guidelines document – to talk to each other. So even with guidelines in place, getting a common understanding of them normally only comes with dialogue. At the very least such dialogue will need to be encouraged by the client, but for clients I represent and when I deal direct with their agencies (I don’t with this one) I absolutely insist on it as a condition of engagement.

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