Your Brand: Clarify it, Polish it, Protect it!

It's worth the effort.

Whether you’re a big, powerful corporation, a tiny nonprofit struggling to be heard, or a small business hoping to grow, you have a brand, and it’s worth some attention and valuable staff time. Failure to pay attention to how your staff or membership or reps are communicating about your organization is a pretty sure indicator that, eventually, if not already, your brand is going to be fuzzy, feckless or forgotten.

Does it matter? Only if you hope to have a future. Only if you hope to gain more ground with less effort, sell more product in less time, retain more clients or capture a larger market share or succeed beyond your wildest imaginings. We recommend a thoughtful, comprehensive brand bible. You can call it a style guide or a style sheet or a brand guide – as you wish. You may ask your marketing director to throw it together quickly and keep it short.

You could do that. We’re recommending you commit the time and effort required – just once – to thoughtfully create a very complete brand guide that will become a living document, to be updated periodically, but useful to all staff, volunteers or members immediately and universally.

What’s the point of this document? Well, first of all, the end product, the actual document, represents only about 20% of the total project. It’s the reflection, sharing, listening, responding and caring behind the document that takes so much time and produces such insight and understanding, not to mention loyalty and pride. Your guide will codify how you present yourself to the world or to your constituents. It will breed consistency and encourage good communication practices based on your organization’s goals and strategic direction. A good brand bible helps you keep your competitors firmly in your sites and reminds everyone in your organization to always put the audience first.

A one-pager that lists the Pantone colors of your logo and the fonts to be used on your web site and brochures is a start, but it just isn’t enough. If your brand bible is going to be a meaningful document that will drive success, it will be of value to every member of your staff or membership – and it will, likewise, be a product of the thoughtfulness and caring of each one of them.

Start with your mission, vision, and core values. If they are unclear or out of date, spend your first day on them. That’s your bedrock. Then turn to your key audiences. After all, we’re talking about communication, so the audience is the most important player. Identify your critical message receivers, and take time to analyze each group: What do they need? What are their pain points? What sources do they trust? How can you provide what they need, and how will this ease the pain? Once you’ve worked patiently through that process for each main audience, you should be able to summarize each one in a sentence or two.

Then, with a clear understanding of the groups to whom you wish to communicate, turn your attention inward. What is your promise? How do you deliver in a unique way? What do you actually stand for when all the dust has settled? Who are your competitors, and how can you deliver on that promise to those audiences in a superior way (superior by audience standards, of course)? At the end of that process, you should be able to identify 2-4 brand pillars, the big ideas behind your brand.

Then spend some time considering your style and personality. Once you’re all clear on who you are and what you do, and why and for whom, think about how you wish to be perceived? How formal or informal? How approachable or powerful? Do you wish to appear spontaneous or cautious? Neither is “right” or “wrong” except as it benefits your preferred image. Do you want to be viewed as well-established and classical or high tech and cutting edge? Are you a serious, formal entity or a fun, casual being? Do you really want to appear affordable for the masses, or pricey and attainable by only certain customers? Work together to clarify the persona of your organization, focusing on the personality you wish to project, even if you’ve been falling short on that thus far.

And then you should be able to find your voice. Agree on the three words that best express your personality. Identify what makes you stand out among the competition, what differentiates you. You might take a little time to express what you are not. And then consider how you can adapt your message so it is relaxed and pleasant, not forceful, demanding, insistent or strident. Identify technical terms or jargon you can dispense with and those terms that are vital to your communication and must, therefore, be crystal clear and strategically applied. As a group you might even wish to come up with bad examples of expression and then transform each into a good example: How we don’t want to talk about ourselves, and how we do want to talk about ourselves.

Consider the communication techniques and channels that will most effectively reach your target audiences with your preferred message, via your appropriate voice and persona. And decide how each should be used.

Now you’re getting down to the grammar and punctuation and appropriate word choice, so agree on a style guide that will be the absolute authority when you cannot settle things yourselves. And then live by it – all of you. Brainstorm expressions or concepts that have caused confusion or frustration for your staff or members, and agree on how to get those right in the future, everyone doing them the same way.

Do you have brand-specific or industry-specific terms or abbreviations that you can’t get away from but you find perennially frustrating? Now is the time to agree on what will always be capitalized and what will be capitalized sometimes and in what circumstances. What abbreviations are acceptable, and what terms must be fully written out? And make a group commitment to use or not use the serial comma, and then everyone stick to the rule. Are there times when it’s inappropriate to use first person? Identify them for everyone. Do you really have an issue with passive voice (and does your group actually understand what it is)? If so, make a rule that can be followed and produce effective writing.

At this point you should be able to describe your brand’s voice in a few words. And it might be smart to take some time to agree on what your voice is not. Make a short list of “words we encourage” and another short list of “words we will avoid.”

Is social media important to your group? Used frequently by many individuals? Then you need to agree on guidelines for what to post and share and how and when.

Don’t forget the visual implications of your guide. How will you all credit references and sources? If several people update your web site, do you have some guidelines on image choice and placement, fonts and their sizes and styles? You should have. And everyone in the organization should have easy access to the approved color palette. How large or small may your logo be made, and must it always be in the original colors? If you’ve encountered certain formatting frustrations over and over, take the time now to agree on how to deal with them.

Finally, what sources and references are we comfortable using, and which will we agree to avoid? List the industry guides, blogs and research sites you trust as well as the sources you know should be avoided because they’re unreliable or controversial. If possible, identify examples of messaging that have worked when for you in the past and got you the results you sought.

It’s a really big job. It’s really worth the time. Chances are, if you give it the time it deserves now, you’ll be able to update this brand bible each year in a couple hours of work and never have to go through this whole process again unless your organization changes significantly.\

Let us know if Tamarack Communication can facilitate the process for you.