Thou shalt obey the brand guidelines

Domini's pizza flyer showing the word 'brown' in blue text

THOU SHALT LEAVE 22mm around the logo on all sides! THOU SHALT NOT ALTER its Pantone colour in any way!

I’m sure many readers will have read brand guidelines like that – if not, whisper it, even written some themselves. I must admit, there’s a certain sadistic pleasure in dominating your fellow creatives so completely. Stripping some poor creative agency of its, er, agency.

Too many brand guidlines feature 40 lavish pages on how to use the logo, followed by a single puny panel describing the tone of voice as ‘warm, friendly and approachable’.

I’ve also been commanded to obey tone of voice guidelines where the rules laid down on one page are merrily broken in the examples given on the next. If the medium is the message, what’s the message here?

Well, one take-away is that just writing something good is hard enough – and writing something to tell someone else how to write something good is hardness to the power of nails. Having attempted it twice at book length, I can readily attest to that.

The problem is that it’s almost impossible to anticipate every eventuality at the outset. As the copywriter tasked with putting tone rules into practice, you often find yourself thinking ‘Yes, but…’ The clear and present needs of the message in the here-and-now should not be subject to arbitary rules set in the past with imperfect foresight. (And that definitely does include grammar rules.)

That’s why my books are shot through with mimsy hedges like ‘Your reader and your situation may vary.’ I’m trying to share ideas and encourage thinking, not lay down the law.

With rigid rules, you will sooner or later come up against a situation like the one shown in the image. The creative concept demands a colour that’s forbidden under the brand, skewering the designer on an agonising dilemma. Ultimately, they opt for conformity, which means confronting the reader with a disconcertingly blue ‘brown’. The communicative power of the idea is subordinated to the one almighty brand.

Domini's pizza flyer showing the word 'brown' in blue text

Disconcertingly blue ‘brown’

In principle, the solution is to define outcomes, not methods. Instead of trying to control everything that could ever happen anywhere, you define the ‘what’, back it up with the ‘why’ and leave it to the creative to fill in the ‘how’.

It sounds so liberal and lovely. In practice, however, it would lead to airtight brands like Domino’s being shattered into inconsistent fragments of individual expression.

That would horrify brand experts. But I have two questions. First, to what extent would customers notice and/or care? And second, since firms are (rightly) focused on staff empowerment, diversity and inclusion, why shouldn’t that extend to diverse interpretations of their brand?

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