Brand guidelines: When should you start breaking the rules?

Most of us in the B2B space understand the need for brand guidelines. They help create a unified and distinctive identity for a business, a consistent tone of voice and point of view. They don’t just define and connect multiple visual elements, but make brands instantly recognisable. They define how memorable a brand is, and ultimately keep it focused.

Ideally, it should be possible for both agency and client teams to refer to guidelines and still find enough wiggle room for creativity and progress. That being said, guidelines sometimes seem to morph into stringent and undeviating rules which ultimately end up sucking the life force out of the very brands they’re supposed to protect.

Of course, certain things need to be pinned down to ensure consistency across campaigns, markets and ultimately, years of use. But if the guidelines become less of a guide and more a set of proscriptive rules, then things can quickly become too restrictive, which can ultimately cause more damage to the growth of the brand - and business.

Brand guidelines shouldn’t be used as a stick to beat and control creatives, but rather as a means to ensure certain core elements remain truly distinctive and consistent.

Standing apart

In her book Building Distinctive Brand Assets, research professor Jenni Romaniuk talks about the importance of creating recognisable differentiators – cues that instantly trigger the memory of a brand in its target audience. We see it in the B2C world all the time. When you walk down the sweet aisle in a supermarket and see a big block of purple, you know you’re in the Cadbury section. When you spot interlocking red and yellow circles on an ad at a bus stop, you know you’re looking at Mastercard - even though it dropped the name from its logo in 2019. These examples are really the gold standard of distinctive assets that most brands only wish for, but every brand should want to achieve it.

The principles are the same for B2B brands, guidelines shouldn’t be so controlled that they close the door to progress and opportunity in this space either.

SaaS giant Salesforce is a great example of a B2B brand that has been able to breathe and move organically without damaging its core distinctiveness. On the face of it, Salesforce is a CRM provider. But it has been allowed to develop into a people-centric community, with huge live events that producer even larger annual revenue for the business.  It has responded to modern corporate communication styles, which have evolved considerably over the pandemic. The brand structure and guidelines protect the core identity and tone of voice, but they allow the brand as a whole to behave in an agile and responsive fashion, which means it can maintain relevance in the eyes of existing clients and prospects – essential in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

Giving brands flexibility

The best brands develop over time and allow themselves to be influenced by all sorts of factors – technological developments, global and regional market trends, economic climate, people’s preferences and work-life balances. Where guidelines have a vice-like grip, it can be difficult to respond and meet fresh consumer demands – and stay ahead of the competition.

The need to respond to wider societal shifts is something that Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles understood in its recent marketing drive. It launched a campaign to re-establish a better work-life balance following the damaging impact the Covid-19 pandemic had on the mental health of the UK’s workforce. To achieve this, the manufacturer partnered with the charity Mental Health UK to provide free wellbeing support and guidance. The team at Volkswagen understood perfectly that B2B doesn’t need to mean being rational and factual - emotions have a huge part to play in effectiveness within B2B communications.

BT Business did something similar with its #seewhathappens campaign, which celebrated the power of relationships in the commercial sector.

Involve all parties

Whereas often it’s the guidelines themselves that are at fault, there are times when it’s more about the people who ‘own’ and enforce them.

For creative teams and agencies generally, it’s crucial to invite all relevant parties to the table from the outset. Nothing has the power to kill a great creative route faster than someone in the brand team being brought into the process late and by feeling detached and on the back foot, they can often respond with a knee-jerk ‘no’.

If there’s a lack of conversation around why things are being done differently, and which particular business challenges will be resolved by taking a more unexpected route, the internal brand team is much more likely to resist any flexibility.

Creative teams in the B2B space often talk about their disappointment at having to dilute strong ideas as the internal brand and marketing teams may get cold feet along the way. Therefore, we should never underestimate the need for thorough communication with all stakeholders at every stage of the process.

Ask tough questions

Established brands can get weighed down by legacy guidelines that have been left unchecked for years. It can lead to a loss in relevance, and in turn a drop in market share. It’s important, therefore, to always ask difficult, unsettling questions. What’s contributing to the decline? Is there a ‘that’s how it’s always been done’ culture that’s stifling growth? Is the brand a prisoner to its heritage? What needs to change to achieve better results? What’s the competition up to? Do our key differentiators make sense in today’s climate? Does the current brand even have any key differentiators?

To begin tackling this, brands should start by focusing on a genuine challenge, how they intend to solve it, and the value they’ll be adding by doing so. However most importantly, they need to establish a differentiator by asking what they want their brand to be known for. This requires thorough market analysis – and an understanding that historic loyalty isn’t necessarily enough.

Strong, agile brand guidelines ringfence the ‘feel’ and distinctiveness of a brand, but they also give it space to stay alive and relevant in order to set it apart from competitors. When marketing and brand teams work with their creative partners, more often than not confidence grows over time, too, and they feel increasingly empowered to bring in more flexibility going forwards to act in the best interests of the brand.

B2B is the future

There are exciting times ahead for brands in the B2B space. It’s no longer the ugly stepsister to B2C - which the recent inclusion of B2B at Cannes has shown. Positively, B2B decision makers are paying closer attention to how brand can help their business stand out from the crowd. Creative storytelling, quality content and a distinctive brand identity are hugely important tools for breaking through the noise to drive real business value. And sometimes you need to flex the ‘rules’ a bit to get there.

Want to learn more about breaking the mould?

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