Making a Branding Style Guide

When you’re serious about branding and understand its importance, you’ll probably get why a style guide is necessary.

Some people may think creating a branding style guide is silly and too “plannish” without enough doing.

We’ve seen companies thrive once a style guide is created and accessible. We’ve also seen companies make a style guide that is pretty much ignored.

How do you make a style guide that is used?

First, as we’ll outline below, you need the right stuff in a style guide. Second, you may need to help employees see its importance. It might be helpful to send employees a few examples of companies that are all over the map with branding (and point out their struggling profits and how it relates to their lack of branding focus). Then, show them a few examples of successful companies that have excellent branding and consistent use of their branding decisions. Show them those companies’ style guides and explain how sticking to it strengthens their brand. You can do all this with a quick gallery of images and not much text (so employees actually read your message).

Then, when you make your style guide, make sure it’s clear and quick to refer to. Put it on your company repository/board online, wherever that may be. Make templates so that people who create content don’t have to even think about how to format or style things. As much as possible, try to have templates for most things your company produces, and try to make those templates part of each creator’s workflow.

Why does a style guide matter?

If you think about it, you are bombarded with so many messages every day. You have people around you talking to you about what they care about; you have news outlets feeding you current events; you have social media with thousands of topics; you have podcasts, videos, etc. With all this input, a company needs to be very clear about who they are and how they can help you.

Here’s an extreme example: If I told you about a company I like–let’s say it’s called “The Awesome Company,” and I said they make lawn chairs and lawn mowers and lawn games and laundry soap and launching rockets, it might be difficult for your brain to really know how to think about the company. I mean, their products all have the sound “lawn/laun” in them, but that doesn’t necessarily give me a clear idea of what they’re totally about and why I should care.

Sometimes we see this in companies. They are giving people so many different ideas and messages about who they are that they end up not giving much, if any, message.

Here’s a better example: What if I started a dry cleaning company and I couldn’t decide what my biggest unique selling point (USP) was? What if on my business care and store door, I listed my top ten selling points? Would people memorize all those ten selling points and the next time they heard my name, would they remember all those selling points in conjunction with my name? Would they read the selling points at all? (The answer is most definitely “No!” We don’t even read the back of cereal boxes anymore.)

This is also a comment on the importance of branding in general, but my point is, we need to keep things simple for everyone’s over-messaged brain. We need to pick the one most crucial thing (our USP) that we want people to think of when they hear our company name. To this day, when I hear “Nike,” there’s a good chance that my brain will think “Just do it.” Simple messages win out over long, involved messages.

A style guide helps define exactly what that message is (both in word and in design). Once you have a well-define style, it’s easier for employees not to mess it up by putting out things with all kinds of other messaging and design. Those other messages and designs will muddy your brand and dilute it until it’s essentially invisible.

If your style guide is easily accessible and offers exact templates in all the file formats needed, you’re on your way to a much more clear message to the public.

What should I include in a style guide?

The best style guides are all-inclusive. By that, I mean that in addition to covering the look and feel for your brand, it also includes the messaging. The best style guides include:

  • Title Page
  • Why It Matters
  • Messaging (including USP, supporting bullet points, 30/50/100-word descriptions)
  • Brand Colors
  • Brand Logo (including logos for use on dark and light backgrounds)
  • Representative Samples of Branding Used Correctly (types of collateral that are used most often, such as an email signature or video intro/outro, plus many “look and feel” examples from the company’s every day content)
  • Who to Contact with Questions

It doesn’t have to take forever to make a style guide. Just put together the decisions that have been made, and visually sample what everything should be. I’ll put a few example pages below.

Some sample pages from a style guide I created for a tech coaching company:

Kraft’s Name Change and Branding Change


Kraft announced its international parent name for daughter companies such as Cadbury, Nabisco, Oreo, etc.:  Mondelēz. The thinking was that “monde” represents world, and “elez”, according to Kraft, represents “a fanciful expression of ‘delicious’”.

The company is splitting in two and needed a new name for the international snack foods division that will become a separate entity.  Personally, the name “Mondelēz” reminds me of words as varied as sleeze and Mona Lisa.  But, we’ll see how this goes.   We can only wait and see how the international community responds.

*Update: Sales have decreased since the rename, whereas they had been increasing and were expected to continue to rise before the name change.

One concern:  I don’t think the name options were passed by a group of potential or current customers.  When doing a branding campaign or choosing a name, it’s crucial that you get feedback from your customers or potential customers.  Otherwise, no matter how hard you try, you can’t know what disinterested parties will think of your ideas. Even when you try to think like a non-owner or non-employee, you just can’t.  It’s imperative to get that outside opinion.

Kraft’s name seems to have come from a several-month competition within the company, and they received many name submissions.  I would be curious to know if any customer focus groups or polls were taken. This would have been a great opportunity to do a social media campaign, thus helping customers feel ownership and perhaps loyalty toward the new brand.  Unfortunately, it sounds like it remained an internally-focused affair, with limited outside feedback from regular consumers Kraft should be trying to engage.

Lesson:  Before you make a huge change or announce a big change, always, always, always get feedback from your target audience, whether that be investors, customers or potential customers.

Arm and Hammer Brand Logo


I was just minding my own business today, when my eyes caught on a piece of Arm and Hammer packaging, specifically, the branding and logo design.

I am surprised at the disconnect between the graphic and the tag line. Here you have this beefy arm drawn in kind of grungy style and then the tag line is “…purity”. There’s a disconnect between the graphic and the words. I’m not saying they should change it, but I’m pointing out that we need to think seriously about our images, words, and impressions they make.

Even Arm and Hammer can make mistakes—but the reason they are still successful is that they established a stronghold years ago. If they were brand new with that logo today, I don’t know that they’d go anywhere.

What if they rethought their branding and made a small change to send a clear message? I’m not saying they should throw everything out, because they have many years’ worth of excellent mindshare with their brand and logo, but a tweak would make it even more powerful.

I don’t know about other people, but I don’t associate Arm and Hammer with purity and never knew that was part of their branding. Therefore, they could probably change their tag and be more powerful and consistent with what customers already love about them.


1.  Make sure your logo and tag fit each other.

2.  If you’re an old brand, you can get away with poor marketing, but you can do even better with good marketing. ?

What You Can Learn from Microsoft


Today I was reading an article about Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft.  *Update: he left the position in 2014.  While he tripled both revenue and profit after he took over, his stock didn’t really budge.

One interesting point a hedge fund manager made is that Ballmer himself is the problem.  It’s almost like he does a great job, but no one can see it because they’re distracted by his poor personal branding.

Are you like Steve Balmer?  Have you been busy creating a business you care deeply about, but you’ve neglected to 1) define who you personally are and 2) plan how you can show who you are to others in a way that can’t be misunderstood?

If you’ve seen the “monkey boy” video of a Microsoft employee dancing around, you’ve seen Ballmer.  Now, a person can dance around on stage and make that part of his positive branding, but in Ballmer’s case, no branding campaign ever was considered, as far as one can tell.  So, other people have had a heyday defining him and making fun of him, whereas the video could have strengthened his personal branding in a positive way.

Don’t let that happen to you!

In case you haven’t gotten into personal branding much, it’s basically like branding a product or company, but, instead, you’re defining yourself and making sure your “message” and “look” is always saying the one thing you decided you want people to think of when they think of you.

So, while Nike has people thinking “Just do it” (corporate branding), Barrack Obama has people thinking “Yes, we can” (personal branding).

It’s important to define who you are and how you project that in everything you do and say.  For instance, if you’re a small business owner who wants to get a loan, find your strong points and emphasize those to the bank both in person and in your business plan, documentation, etc.  Look the part and act the part. Be consistent.

The same is true if you’re looking for angel investors, partners, employees, etc.  Know who you are and show it in everything you say and do.

Lesson:  Don’t be a monkey boy unless that’s what you’re going for. If that’s what you’re going for, be consistent and emphasize what’s great about having a monkey boy head a company (fun environment, whatever). Make sure you’ve considered your personal branding and consistently represent yourself correctly.

Lipstick on a Pig

We’ve all heard the saying “it’s like putting lipstick on a pig,” with the main assumption being that you can’t hide the fact that a pig is a pig.  However, let’s say a pig has magnificent lips (stay with me here) . . . if you focus in on the lips, people can’t see the pig.

Branding and messaging are similar.  While I hope you aren’t marketing a pig (unless that’s what your customers want), I assume that your product/company is not perfect.  No product or company is perfect. However, while we don’t deny imperfections, we certainly don’t market them. Fix the imperfections everywhere possible, but focus on your strengths.

This applies to more than R&D.  While you want to improve your products and company at all times, your also need to show the best you possible.

To show the best you possible, there are three preliminary steps:

1.  Find Your USP (Your Gorgeous Lips)

2.  Discover Who You Are (Your Skintone)

3.  Choose Appropriate Messaging and Graphics (Choose a Matching Lipstick)

3.  Keep Your Focus (Paint within the Lines)

The Lips:  Your USP (Unique Selling Proposition)

What is the best thing about your product or company?  Find it. That one thing is your unique selling proposition, or your lips.  Hopefully it’s not price-oriented, unless you’re Walmart. Ideally, it’s a proprietary secret sauce that everyone loves, or the best quality lightbulbs anyone can buy or maybe you’re a company with over 90 percent customer satisfaction.  It needs to be something that your competitors can’t easily or quickly duplicate (which is why pricing is dangerous–they can change their price to beat yours overnight).

Research (i.e. Find out What Your Tone Is)

Now you know what to call attention to, let’s find out what your skintone is.  Each product or company tends to naturally have a certain “feel” or “swagger”.  Some are fun and vibrant, some are trendy and cool, some are solid and conservative.  Don’t be embarrassed about who your company or product is. It’s best to know your “coloring” and pick matching lipstick instead of trying to be something you aren’t and having the lipstick seem unnatural or, worse yet, make a fool of you.  Survey your customers. Give some open-ended questions and maybe a few questions where you list ten adjectives and let them choose the one that best describes you. Again, don’t be embarrassed about what you end up with–unless you’re a seedy company and your customers know it (can’t help you there, but you should change).  Know who you are!

Messaging and Graphics (Choose Your Lipstick)

Once you know who you are, choose matching lipstick.  In other words, choose messaging and a look/feel that matches who you are and your USP.  For example, if your customers think of you as a stable, conservative, trustworthy broker, don’t go with Harley Davidson photos and bike gang talk.  If you are known as being fun and thinking outside of the box, don’t go with standard corporate blue and boring text. Make sure every word and graphic fits your unique “skintone.”

Keep Your Focus (i.e. When Applying Lipstick, Stay in the Lines)

Once you’ve decided who you are, and what kind of text and graphics you’ll use, you need to start painting and stay in the lines!  Keep your focus! You want to keep things simple and keep all the focus on the lips through the elements you’ve chosen. No matter what, don’t let anything distract you or you’ll end up with lipstick all over the pig and no one will even see those gorgeous lips through all the makeup smeared everywhere!  For instance, say you chose your company’s USP and at the last minute, someone adds a new little feature to the product….don’t change your focus unless this new item is going to put you on the map! Keep your message simple and stay within the boundaries your choose: remember you’re focusing on those lips.

If you find your lips (your USP), find your skintone (who you are), choose a matching lipstick (the right image) and paint within the lines (keep your focus), you CAN put lipstick on a pig and keep the focus on the beautiful lips.

Now, let’s get out the lipstick and paint away!

Branding Makes You a Babe

Any brand can be a babe.  It’s true.

Just like the perfect hair and a good makeup artist can turn any ugly duckling into a beauty, any person or product/company can be a babe.  It’s been done and you’ve seen a few stars (and companies) it has been done with. We won’t name names.

The same holds true for any brand or product.

While I personally think it’s unethical to market a product or company that you don’t believe in, it is true that an ugly duckling or dud can be spiffed up into a winning brand.

And that’s where this blog comes in.  It’s all about the little tips and secrets the professionals use to make their companies and products shine or not.  Thanks for taking the journey. Let’s start a branding makeover for your product or company.

Beginning Branding

What does branding mean to you, and why does it matter?

When I’m talking about branding to new business owners, I often remember attending a cattle branding when I was five years old. My dad (a complete non-cowboy) had taken me to this “party” and I was shocked at what the main entertainment was.  These poor little calves were caught and held while someone branded them. My alarm was apparent to some of the adults around me, who tried to persuade me that the calves didn’t really feel it. From the calves’ reactions to the branding, it seemed to me that they did, in fact, feel it very much. Or maybe they just didn’t like the lack of control while they were held down. Either way, they didn’t appear to enjoy being branded against their will.

Branding is like that.  You and your business get branded whether you like it or not. People form opinions about you.  Luckily, with personal and business branding, you can formulate a plan and make sure those opinions are positive, accurate and helpful to your bottom line. You can control your branding to a much larger extent than most people realize or take responsibility for.

Branding Defined

Most experts define “branding” as the combined efforts of figuring out what strengths you should emphasize and on emphasizing those strengths in word and design. 

We may think of the Nike “swoosh” or the Apple icon when we think of branding, but as you probably know, there is so much more to branding than just a logo or even a “look and feel”.  In wise branding, you first determine your marketing basics, such as SWOTs, USPs, etc. These necessities set you up for better branding success.

Branding activities can include:

  • Studying your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses.
  • Looking for unrealized opportunities in your targeted markets.
  • Discussing what your corporate strengths are.
  • Discussing what your product strengths are.
  • Deciding what you want your corporate strengths and product strengths to be.
  • Deciphering  the emotions and words that are currently associated with your brand.
  • Determining the emotions and words that you want to come to mind associated with your brand.
  • Developing an overall brand strategy.
  • Developing a look and feel that supports your overall brand strategy.
  • Developing a logo that supports your look and feel AND your overall brand strategy.
  • Creating a brand guidelines document to ensure consistent use of your branding.

What You Can Do

You are already a brand.  It may be a well known brand or not known yet, but already you exist and people associate certain things with you.  

You can change yourself completely or you can tweak things to focus on your strengths and slowly get rid of your weaknesses.

Either way, the results improve when you purposefully think about your branding instead of not being aware of your brand or what your customers think about you.

If You Get Stuck

We can do everything from an external review on your branding plan to competitor branding research to a full branding solution. If you get stuck, we are here to help in any way you need. Drop us a note and let us know what your goals are. We’ll help you get there.