The Thing About Brand Guidelines

With our highly competitive marketing landscape, and the ease with which anyone with a PC can create marketing collateral, it has become more important than ever before that your company has a strong brand identity.
More and more though, I see companies rushing into a brand guidelines exercise without carefully considering everything they need to consider. So what should you be looking out for when you create your brand identity?

Play it out before you cast it in stone

I’ve always been a firm believer in the idea that you play artwork out on at least 1 or 2 projects before casting anything in stone, and yet I’ve seen multiple examples in the past few months where a guideline has obviously been put together before this has been done.

What this results in is comments like: that looks messy. Well yes, because your play out had exactly four words on an A4 page – and it’s very easy to make four words on an A4 page look neat. It’s much more difficult to make something look neat with reams and reams of copywriting.

The glaring problem is that you have no idea of the amount of content any client has until you start playing it out. Likewise, you don’t know about available imagery either.

Now, from an outsider’s point of view, I can see how you wouldn’t think this would make a significant difference, but from hard-earned experience I can tell you it does.

Every industry has different key areas they have to focus on. Likewise, many industries have especially content-heavy collateral they have to create – from user guides to instructions, or even a range of over 2,000 plumbing fixtures and products, it is the client’s products and services that have to take centre stage.

Unless you’ve worked with the content, and taken the time to get to know the client’s products and services are, you won’t know what the key elements are, you won’t know what the focus areas are going to be and you certainly will not know what shape and form the majority of your collateral is going to take.

And if you don’t have that knowledge or information on hand, then how will you create a brand guideline that effectively covers those key collateral pieces?

Digital and print are not the same

Here’s the scariest thing: many (if not most) agencies still fall firmly on one or other side of the digital/print divide. This means that you cannot safely assume that what your agency is putting together for you will work on all media.

You’ll most commonly find errors in colour specifications and usage

Most print designers specify pantone colours for print – and if you’ve ever tried to save a pantone colour to an RGB file, you’ll know that the colour doesn’t show up, because there is no RGB equivalent for a pantone-specific colour.

Likewise, most print designers omit hex codes (the colour classification system for digital) from the brand guidelines they compile… largely because they don’t even think to include them.

Even if you are in luck, and find a brand guideline that does include all the web and digital specifications, very often you get an irate customer screaming that the colour doesn’t look right, because screen resolution and quality play the most significant role in determining how a colour appears when it’s open on your machine.

To test this, open the same website or image on every machine in your individual office and then walk from one to the other and see how completely different it looks on all the machines.

This differentiation happens for so many reasons – the light intensity setting the user uses, how they have their RGB breakdown configured, their contrast settings and more.

The differences themselves can be hugely dramatic – what should be black can come out green or grey for example; what appears blood red to one person can be pink to the next. Throw in the fact that 7 to 8% of all men are colour-blind to some degree, and you are opening a veritable hornet’s nest of problems.

Sadly, the most commonly used colours, yellow and red, are also the most difficult to work with and the most likely to go wrong on a screen display.

Second only to font disasters, of course

When it comes to brand guidelines, is there any more important decision than the font you choose?

The font speaks volumes about who you are and how you present yourself, and of all your collateral elements, it is the one that users will most often engage with – or is it?

Not all the fonts that you can choose from are supported digitally – in fact, a very small percentage are actually supported digitally.

Yes, you can use Google Fonts for your website, if the reader’s browser supports it, but I’ve seen even up to date browsers that just do not register the Google Font, if you’re even lucky enough to find your font choice among the small list of available fonts. Worse than that, it can be prohibitively expensive to license a font for use as a web font, incurring high repeating annual license fees.

And even if you go through all the hassle and cost of having a font licensed for web use, you’d still not be able to utilise that font on e-mail sends. Which leaves you a choice of one of the original web-standard fonts: Arial, Tahoma, Verdana, Trebuchet or Times New Roman.

Use something other than one of these in an emailer, and if it’s not stored on the recipient’s machine, they’ll only see Times New Roman.

Not everyone is created equal

This is a very key point to remember, because the people who have created your brand guidelines are not necessarily always the people who will be working with them – and not all artists and designers are created equal.

The sad truth is, in order to cut costs, many agencies are doing exactly what your business and so many others do – they hire the least expensive people. This means junior designers, who don’t yet have the experience and knowledge to be able to pay fine attention to detail.

In fact, in most agencies’ creative departments, you’ll find one or two, usually senior, designers who are brilliant at detail work – the rest of them are just typical designers with a great unique art & design style, and very little sense of spelling and detail.

This means that that complicated CI you’ve had put together (and usually paid a fortune for) may actually be too complicated for the average designer working with it to be able to follow.

You brand guidelines simply have to be easy enough for the average designer to understand and carry through, in a way that enables them to add their own style and flair to the creation – because their artistic ability is what you’re paying for after all.

You have to reinvent the wheel

Brand Guidelines are exactly that – guidelines. They’re not cast in stone, and there has to be room for movement to allow you to adjust to different media, sizes and needs.

Even more importantly, if everything you produce looks exactly the same people will think it’s the same information over and over again – and in the world of digital, that means readers will ignore it.

Pinterest is a ‘virtual refrigerator door’

When most people hear the name Robert Scoble, the first thing that comes to mind is “Scobleizer”. Scoble was probably the first person to get famous through blogging and also the first person to get an annoyance measurement named after him.

In September 2008 Follow Cost, a site that calculates how annoying it will be to follow anyone on Twitter, launched the milliscoble unit of measurement, which is defined as: “1/1000 of the average daily Twitter status updates by Robert Scoble as of 10:09 CST September 25, 2008.” According to Follow Cost, a person with a milliscoble rating of 1000 will be as annoying to follow as Scoble himself.

The American blogger and technical evangelist has been around the block careerwise, from his days at Microsoft to video blogging for Fast Company. Scoble currently works for Rackspace, an IT hosting company. His pet project right now is a social play by Rackspace — a content and social networking site called Building 43.

Scoble has also been around the web for a while now, part of that elusive one percent known as the “early adopters” — he has been part of every revolution the web of content has had to offer and is a champion of the social era and what is to come.

Memeburn got to chat to the man behind the blog, the Twitter account, the Facebook page and the Google+ page (incidentally Scoble is one of the few people who believe in Google’s social play) about content distribution and what will come after social.

Scoble believes that we are shifting away from the “age of social into the age of context” where information will based on the context of where we are and who we are with. The idea that the world is moving from a social world to a social-contextual world is something that Scoble believes in and it may or may not be an integral part of a book he is currently working on.

As he is an early adopter, it’s interesting to note that Scoble doesn’t believe Pinterest suits him. He refers to it as “a virtual refrigerator door,” and the place “where you collect your visual identity”.

Memeburn: What do you think the future of news is when you can use platforms like Twitter to tell stories?
Robert Scoble: I look at it as distribution. I haven’t done a blog post in three months and I’m just starting to think about what I’m going to do on it. A WordPress blog still lets you tell stories in a long-form manner. You can put multiple videos and multiple pictures, quotes and do a lot of typography in it. So you can really tell a story in a long form manner that you can’t on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

Facebook and Google+ are ways to put a few paragraphs in but have a lot of engagement. The audiences are clearly there. In just eight months I went from 13 000 followers on Facebook to 337 000 followers. Huge audiences are there — 900-million users on Facebook, hundreds of millions of people on Twitter. Google+… they say there are hundreds of millions, but the engagement is less. Google+ gets you into Google’s search engine and that gets you a lot of content.

I look at this whole world as multimedia. I did a SoundCloud recording of this organ playing in the church that a conference is happening in, so that’s a medium. Then you take a photo with Instagram or the Facebook Camera app or any camera app (there’s so many of them… like Path) or you take a video and put that on YouTube or Socialcam or Viddy. You can do panoramic photos… it’s a multimedia world, and a blog is a good way to stitch that media together in a story so somebody can just read it.

Once you write a story or put content together you have to think about distribution. Either you have to go to Memeburn and say ‘hey, can you distribute my content?’ or you have to put it out on Twitter and Facebook and Google+ and try to build an audience there so that people can initially see it and then push it to their friends.

When I first started blogging, there was no Facebook or Twitter, no YouTube, no Tumblr, there was just blogging and Google. So Google was the only distribution for the online world back then, other than other blogs. Other blogs would all link to each other — now nobody links to each other anymore.

MB: Link love is dead?
RS: I’ve been spinning that out inside Facebook, clicking ‘like’ on things. I’ve clicked ‘like’ thousands of times this month. When I click ‘like’ on something, that distributes that to some of my audience — not all, because Facebook doesn’t distribute everything, it picks what it’s going to pass along to subscribers or friends. But often, if you’re a friend or subscriber of mine, you’ll see ‘Robert Scoble liked TechCrunch’s article’ or ‘Robert Scoble liked this video’ or ‘Robert Scoble liked this game’ or whatever. That’s curation — that behaviour is pushing that along.

MB: Do you think that’s the future of content now — are we all content curators?
RS: I think that’s a huge part of it. By telling Facebook who you are, Facebook can bring you more media like that in the future. If you click ‘like’ on Manchester United, it’ll bring you information about that team. People are figuring that out — it’s not just ads that come to me because I like something, it’s also content. If I click ‘like’ on more of my friends’ photos, we’re going to get more of those, at least on the main feed. I’ve built all sorts of lists now — I have lists of venture capitalists, lists of tech journalists, lists of world news — so I can keep track on Facebook. Google+ has circles, Twitter has lists. Each system has its own way of distributing content around. It’s quite interesting.

MB: Do you think Facebook is doing a better job than Google with sharing the type of content you like?
RS: Facebook is definitely ahead right now. Facebook has machine learning that filters out noise on the main feed. So the more you use Facebook and the more you like things, and train it what you want to see on that feed… you can block things, so if you don’t like all these tweets coming into the feed, you can say ‘block all tweets’ (which is how I keep the feed very clean). You can train the feed, and that brings you higher signal and less noise. Google+ doesn’t have that yet, and neither does Twitter. It will be interesting to see, in the next year, what they do to bring those up to speed.

MB: Do you think the way that Google has integrated social and search works well?
RS: I think so. When I look for a Thai restaurant in London for instance, I want to see what my friends say is important. It’s important to me, because then I know if Loic liked a certain restaurant, then I can tweet him or Facebook him or Google+ him and say “hey, tell me more about this restaurant. What should I really have there?” and he’s already been there, so I can get a lot of information. If it’s really popular with my friends — like, if 50 of my friends have been there — that tells me that’s a really good place to go or at least it’s popular.

MB: What are your thoughts on Facebook’s Instagram deal?
RS: There are two ways to look at it. One way is that Zuckerberg kept it out of the hands of Apple and Twitter, so there was a bidding war. Another way is that Facebook is an engine — it’s like a car engine. Right now, if you only like 20 or 30 things, it’s like running on three or four cylinders. It runs roughly, it doesn’t run really well. He [Zuckerberg] needs more likes from you, he needs to know more about you.

Each photo you take is worth about four likes if you think about it. If I take a picture of you here — just one picture — it joins our social graphs, it tells you where we were, it hooks into the other content about this space, on and on. So Facebook now knows a lot more about you, just through one picture. So the more that Facebook can learn about you, the better it can work, the more addicted you get to Facebook, and therefore the better the ads work, and the more he gets paid.

MB: Do you think the partnership with Flipboard is another way that Google is trying to go after products that are Apple-related?
RS: Google+ is forced to do that. One of the reasons I’m on Facebook more than Google+ lately is because I use Flipboard, and I am not going to move my reading behaviour off of Flipboard. I tried Google Currents — it’s not as good. They have to care about distribution — if they are not distributed where the readers are and where the influencers are, they’re out.

They’re not going to be as popular as Facebook or Twitter. They had to be on Flipboard. Now that they’re coming, I’m very excited about that. Flipboard has its own noise controls, so it will be very interesting to see what it does for me on Google+. I’ll be playing with that a lot the day it comes out.

MB: Where do you think the future of social is?
RS: I’m actually seeing that we’re shifting out of the age of social (the age of conversation) into the age of context. The Google Glasses that are going to come out in a year or so are going to tell us stuff live. It’s going to tell us stuff live based on the context of where we are and who we’re talking to.

We’re going to have face detection on your face, and it’s going to pull up a Google+ page that you’ve written, or it can go to Google and search information about you. It can know that we’re in a space that is an audience space and tell us things we need to know as an audience member, like when does the next session start, so we can make sure we’re there, or where is the bathroom — all sorts of information that we need in this context.

I like thinking of the world as moving from a social world to a social-contextual world. But very few people are thinking about that, I’m really at the beginning stages of writing a book on it. Highlight is a good example of this — it shows us people nearby us, but it adds context. It tells us there are 50 people near us. That’s an important contextual piece of information. We’re probably in a large space where there are a lot of people all very close to each other. It’s a fun world to think of, this contextual world.

MB: Is a book up next for you then?
RS: No, we’re totally changing how marketing is done. I’m very interesting in how this world is evolving — it’s changing quite quickly, and I’m going to focus a bit more on my blog from now on, and keep doing my video interviews with startups. That’s really what I like to do, and go see cool new startups that will change the world.

MB: Which startups excite you?
RS: Highlight is one — I asked Ron Conway, the famous angel investor in Silicon Valley, this at the Apple event — and he said Pinterest and Highlight. Pinterest doesn’t suit me personally — I keep trying it and it’s just not for me. It’s cultural. If you walk into someone’s house, if you go and look at the front of the refrigerator door, it has all sorts of knick knacks and pictures and sayings and stuff like that. That’s almost always controlled by the woman of the house, not usually the man of the house. Pinterest is the virtual refrigerator door. It’s where you collect your visual identity.

There are some things that I am using it for. Sports teams would be fun to collect there, or cars. There are some things that guys like to collect visually, but we look at it and we see a lot of shoe pictures, wedding dresses and home decorating stuff, and it’s just like “uh, I don’t know…” I’m struggling with it.

But Highlight… I’m a professional networker, and I took to that like crack. That’s an amazing tool for us inside the tech world. I don’t know that it will go mainstream soon… there’s not enough utility there to get my dad or a normal person on to it. We’ll see how it evolves. I think if it’s an app on the Google Glasses, three or four years from now when he gets the glasses, then that’ll be where it goes mainstream. Right now it’s sort of geeky and it steals some of your battery life.