Incongruence Kills: Why Every Business Needs Brand Guidelines

It’s a bit like the ballet…

Kitiara Pascoe
Aug 7, 2019 · 5 min read

Authentic branding for solopreneurs shouldn’t be that difficult. After all, you are already you. Your brand guidelines shouldn’t be too difficult to create.

That’s not to say you should share photographs of your dinner or swear every other sentence — this is a professional brand after all — but you already know your personality pretty well.

But what about large businesses where many people will be creating content, where you’ll be outsourcing writing and where there’ll be multiple designers onboard?

You might have a business with 50 employees. Perhaps ten of them create content or do some sort of graphic design.

Each of those ten have their own unique personalities. Their own favourite colloquialisms, their own style of writing and their own favourite design flairs.

But they’re not creating as themselves, they’re creating as the business. And the business needs its own unique, consistent voice. All of its departments need to give off the same vibe, the same tone and the same style.

The business must move and speak and flow as though it were a single being. Just like a troupe of ballet dancers performs with a smooth, flowing sense of oneness, even though it is made up of many dancers all potentially doing different things.

A business that has a high-energy, snazzy homepage but a dry-as-a-desert services page is going to reek of incongruence.

A travel brand that has one guide written like Mary Berry on a trip to Provençe and another written like a Kardashian on a party cruise is going to lose readers.

If no one’s on the same page, you don’t have a business brand, you have a collage of confusion.

And it’s fine if you want to rebrand to a different tone of voice (as long as you do it exceptionally rarely), but that tone of voice must change in one fell swoop.

A brand guideline is usually a document that lays out the brand’s personality.

It’ll have the fonts the brand uses, the colour palette, the variations of the logo, the tone of voice and even specific words it uses along with the words it never will.

Some brands might use a lot of colloquialisms and pop references, others might forbid colloquialisms and eschew all mentions of the low-brow.

Some might speak conversationally in the second person whilst others might speak to the reader in the third person.

They might say, ‘you can find our products…’

Or, ‘customers can find our products…’

Brand guidelines cover the entire range of the business personality. Will the newsletter emails start with ‘Hey there!’ or ‘Dear Mrs XYZ’?

Will it include dad jokes and amusing photographs or will it issue strait-laced communications that keep things serious?

Knowing your brand’s tone of voice is imperative to forming a strong and consistent brand that customers will recognise.

In the same way you can recognise a left jacket at a dinner party as a specific friend’s even though you never saw them wearing it — it’s just something they would absolutely wear.

In the same way you might be able to attribute the first notes to a certain band without knowing it’s their new song — it just sounds like their music.

You rarely gain brand awareness amongst your audience overnight but it’s this consistent, congruent branding that eventually gets them to understand your business’ personality and what they can expect from it.

Imagine if you saw a reclaimed furniture website that was slick, beautiful and gave you the absolute impression that this business was a high-end, expert-driven retail outlet.

So, in need of a stunning coffee table upon which to lay out your coffee table books (should these exist?), you put the shop’s location into your Sat Nav and drive on down.

Except it leads you into the dodgy part of an industrial estate where you have to park up amongst the weeds and see an abandoned-looking warehouse with a sign over head that says, ‘Great Furniture @ Rock Bottom Prices’.

Surely this can’t be it?

You head inside to find a moulding display of dubious looking furniture very much rescued from the tip.

If you were to ask the owner about the website, he’d say, ‘oh yeah nice eh? My wife’s brother is a top web designer.’

But you don’t, because he’s too absorbed in next door’s skip.

This is an extreme example. Hell, maybe the furniture was actually lovely but the whole battered warehouse, creaky sign, cobweb vibe put you off. Your expectations came crashing down because the branding lead you to believe one thing and the rest of the business was very different.

If your branding is high end, you better believe every other part of your business needs to be high end too. And if your brand is rough and ready, make it rough and ready throughout.

Even the quality of your branding isn’t as important as its consistency. If you create consistency, customers understand what to expect and that builds trust.

I’ve been testing the brand congruence of a few businesses and one of the biggest slack points is job postings. Many businesses might not realise that the HR department play much of a role in branding, but if you want to hire people who work well in your company, they need to understand your branding just as much as you do.

I saw plenty of identikit generic postings that could absolutely have been interchangeable. They gave no impression of what the business’ ethos was or of its personality (except maybe lacking one at all).

In comparison, I found another which was so personality-filled that I almost found myself applying — even though I’m self-employed and it wasn’t my industry.

It just sung. I got the brand from a single job advert. And when I went onto their website, I got what I expected. I felt like I knew them. And, as a result, I felt as though I could trust them.

Brand guidelines need to be developed and used across everything:

Your staff are not robots, it’s not that you want them to become the brand. But you absolutely want to give them the guidance to emulate the brand when they produce anything for it.

Solid brand guidelines will help business owners understand their own goals and place in the market. Getting focused on this is so important. And brand guidelines enable you to outsource anything you need, knowing that writers and designers will be able to see exactly what your brand looks like, sounds like and feels like.

In short, if you don’t know what your brand sounds like, your brand doesn’t have a voice.

Originally published at http://theliterarylifeboat.co.uk on August 7, 2019.

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Kitiara Pascoe is a freelance ghostwriter, content marketer and author. After three years of sailing around the Atlantic and Caribbean, she washed up in Devon, UK. You can find her on Twitter @KitiaraP and @TheLitLifeboat. She’s the author of In Bed with the Atlantic and The Working Writer and you can find her journalism and blog at KitiaraPascoe.com or her ghostwriting and content marketing services at TheLiteraryLifeboat.co.uk

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Kitiara Pascoe

Written by

Travel and Outdoor Writer | Journalist | Author of In Bed with the Atlantic (Fernhurst, 2018) | New book pub’d by Quarto coming 2021 | kitiarapascoe.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

Kitiara Pascoe

Written by

Travel and Outdoor Writer | Journalist | Author of In Bed with the Atlantic (Fernhurst, 2018) | New book pub’d by Quarto coming 2021 | kitiarapascoe.com

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +800K followers.

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