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:

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.

Personal Branding

What made you want to read about personal branding?  That’s an often overlooked important question for the subject of personal branding.  Why? Because while learning about personal branding is all the rage, rarely do you see any focus or discussion around the most important starting point:  why do you care and what are you striving to accomplish?

Your goal may be different than someone else’s, and it’s essential to define what you’re after.  Are you trying to get a raise or promotion?  Are you trying to get a better job (or just any job in this economy)? Are you trying to succeed in the arts or other areas that require strong personal branding?  Are you trying to get more press?

Once you know what you are trying to accomplish, you can move on to the next step, an often forgotten crucial detail:  who is your audience?

If you are trying to get a job, your audience is different (usually) than if you are trying to make it as a rap artist.  Often people hop into their branding initiative without taking a good hard look at who their audience SHOULD be, so they just do spammy branding with no focus.

No focus often translates into no effect when it comes to almost anything.  So, choose your goal, choose your audience, and then get to the rest of the branding process.  We can go through the major steps of personal branding strategy and give you a checklist to ensure no detail is missed and you get the strongest brand possible. Contact us now and get your personal brand on top.

Sarah Palin and Personal Branding

Sarah Palin.  No matter what you think about her, here’s a woman who’s had it rough.  My personal guess is that she’s smarter than the press makes her out to be.  Who knows . . . . but I do know one thing: someone needed to do better branding for her.  The Democrats are pros at branding and marketing. The Republicans . . . not so much. Or maybe the press just hates them.

I don’t know which is true, but the Republicans don’t exactly make their people appear intelligent or anything positive, in general. I personally don’t enjoy politics, and I don’t affiliate with either party, but both parties’ branding, PR and marketing issues are good to learn from.  It’s too bad we can’t tell from the outside whether people really are who they appear to be. We just can’t. And that is why your personal branding is so important. People don’t know if you’re great at something, so you better make it clear that you are.

You Are Your Logo

Again, you are your logo.  If you want people to think you’re intelligent, you find out what studies have shown make people think you’re intelligent.  Then you have to go past your “logo” and into some other branding and PR/marketing techniques.

Back to Palin, from what I remember, they did have her wearing glasses, which studies have shown makes people think you’re more intelligent than without glasses.  And, she is attractive, which I’m sorry to say studies have also shown makes people think you’re more intelligent. (Although I don’t know if those studies regularly included women, and the results could be different in that case–I’ll have to see what I can find on that and report back.) 

So they had started on the whole logo or image thing.  But they didn’t follow it up with messaging about why she’s so smart, capable, etc.  Just a few facts about something great would have helped.

Then there was the debate over her clothes.  Again, is this a crazy world or what? We have vice presidential candidate and we’re talking about clothes!  But this is the world we are dealing with, and people actually care about these things. Again, that logo that is “you” matters.

But where I think Palin’s branding went wrong is they tried to do the logo part (had her wear glasses, got her more business-like clothes–though they should have done that sooner so it wasn’t a change we all saw).  But they didn’t do the messaging part about her “brand”. They didn’t tell us why she is so great, so smart, so capable of running a country.

Find Your Strength

I believe everyone has greatness, intelligence and capabilities in different things, so each of us has a good branding story to tell.  However, the story wasn’t effectively told in Palin’s case. That’s not to say someone didn’t try, but if they did try, it wasn’t presented in a way that the press or grassroots people picked up on and spread.

Which brings us to an important principle:  You can have a great brand and no one will ever know if you don’t spread the word.

PR and Marketing

Once you’ve done all the brainstorming, decision-making, writing down your brand basics, will it do any good if you don’t spread the word?  Have you ever seen a company that had a great product, great branding and never went anywhere? That can be due to more than just lack of PR and marketing, but more often that not, if no one knows who you are, you have a branding and marketing problem.

So, how do you spread the word once you’ve figured out what that “word” (or message) should be?  Here are just a few of many little efforts you can make that may pay off big:

Branding on Social Sites

All the social sites can help you.  For instance, if your potential customer base is on Twitter, and you want people to know you’re great at basket-weaving, post a few photos of you doing your weaving. Do some live videos. Put tips on YouTube. Tell people why your baskets use the best type of reed or why your certain base design is more long-lasting. The same goes for a design business, software, restaurant, etc. Just make sure you’re posting things that help your followers so they don’t stop following you because all your messages are about “I’m so great at basket weaving.” There are many social media options, and the last thing you want to do is to get so overwhelmed that you don’t post on any of them.  Find out where your target audience is, and go there first. You can add more as you go. Or, if you’re brave, try all the main social media options and then see which deliver best for you and focus on those.

Marketing Collateral

There are unlimited types of marketing collateral, and that’s not the topic of this post, but if you are job hunting or self-employed, make sure all the pieces you create about yourself support your branding and appeal to your target audience.  If you are an attorney, and your positioning is that you are the best corporate lawyer ever, don’t use pink hand-crafted velum business cards, right (in most cases)? Conversely, if you are a Mary Kay representative, you wouldn’t send a party invitation made of wood, usually. 

Most people don’t make such big mistakes, but they do make medium-sized mistakes, like not spending enough time reviewing the “feel” of something that represents them. Again, though, the image you are portraying needs to be what you really offer, not a fabricated “I wish I were a successful licensed attorney”.

So, back to Sarah Palin.  Take the time to practice presenting yourself in the way that is appropriate for what you want and who you are.  Look the part, act the part, and BE the part. That’s excellent branding and execution.

Personal Branding: You Are Your Logo

You are your logo.  In other words, while companies spend many hours, days, weeks and often months on determining the logo that best represents them, you do it every day for years without thinking much about it (or in the case of some of us women, thinking TOO much about it).  Let’s deal with both sides head-on.

  1. If you are the obsessive type, decide right now to pick your “logo” and stop obsessing.  I’ll help you do that.
  2. If you are someone who doesn’t care about what your look says to others, realize that, unfortunately, people do judge you by your clothes, hair, and so on.  It’s just a sad fact of life.

I’m not saying anything drastic is necessary (you don’t have to drop 100 pounds or get a nose job), but do think about the way you want to present yourself to your “target audience”.  Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • Who is your target audience?  In other words, who are you trying to win over?
  • What do they see as your strengths?  What do you see as your strengths? It’s helpful to focus on existing strengths that matter to your target audience.
  • What is the best way to project that image to your target audience? A personal example:  I love suit jackets. I am more comfortable in them and feel ready to work when I’m in one.  However, I have found that when my “target audience” is the type who thinks suit jackets are overly stuffy, I bite the bullet and wear a button-down shirt or whatever is considered appropriate for the people I am speaking with or needing to win over. I’m not going for an image of “stuffy”. I still choose clothing I personally like, but I choose based on the situation and people. When I meet with someone who would be offended by my lack of a suit, I wear a suit. It’s important to know your audience. Sometimes people say, “I want to be me.” I agree with being you! Make sure the “you” that you’re projecting is who you think it is.

To sum up, decide who you are and then present that in a way that your target audience can relate to.  You are your logo, and your appearance needs to represent you correctly. Shine on!

Mitt Romney’s Personal Branding

mitt romney branding

I always feel bad for politicians.  I mean, I don’t know if there is a good, honest politician, but I still feel bad for them.  It must be hard to run for office. What’s worse, though, to a marketing fanatic, is that you can’t control your branding as much as a company can.

Since politics is heavily reported on, you and your personal brand is at the mercy of many, many individuals–most of which probably hate politicians, or at least half of which hate your party–you have to be extremely diligent so others don’t take over your branding campaign against your will.

With that intro, you have to feel bad for Mitt Romney.  Here’s a guy who the media can only define as “Mormon” and who therefore doesn’t get any other soundbites.  Somehow, his people need to find a way to change his brand to his strengths and not his personal religion.

If Romney is ever going to get a chance at winning the presidential race, his people better get a strong, catchy brand and phrase going ASAP.  Otherwise, the only branding he’ll ever have is “Mormon.” Sad for him, but that’s the way the American media and pundits have portrayed him. Not a word on his actual platform or past performance.  Well, okay a few words, but less than 10 percent I can safely estimate.

*Update: Mitt Romney did not win the presidential election.

Good luck to all the candidates everywhere!  Decide who you are and put it everywhere! Otherwise, others will define you and it won’t usually be pretty.

Steve Ballmer’s Personal Branding

Steve Ballmer’s Personal Problems…Personal Branding, That Is

I was reading an article about Steve Ballmer in Business Week and found it very interesting that Ballmer has apparently tripled revenue and more than tripled profit at Microsoft, yet Microsoft’s stock hasn’t risen.  An interesting quote from David Einhorn, a hedge fund manager, gives a hint at the problem. Einhorn states, “His continued presence is the biggest overhang on Microsoft’s stock.”

It sounds like a personal problem.  A personal branding problem, that is.  Ballmer needed and still needs better personal branding.  Now, of course, his monkey boy dance may not have helped (check it out on YouTube), but even that could have been turned around to give him an edge by emphasizing his personality and how it will invigorate Microsoft.  If he and Microsoft had given a little PR effort into his personal brand, it would have helped the company. Instead, not much personal branding has happened until now.

This is the trap we all fall into. Sometimes we care so much about our jobs and our organization that we don’t take time to work on our personal branding.  The interesting problem is that when we aren’t working on our personal branding, someone else is defining us instead.  And that can end up hurting the company.

If you are one that struggles with finding time for personal branding and you care more about the organization you work for than your own branding, remember that it DOES have an effect on your organization.  Even in the workplace, when others are defining you—which usually means it will be in a less negative light, since people unfortunately have problems like jealousy and ego—your lack of positive personal branding can hamper your efforts to accomplish great things at the company.  In extreme cases, it can cause you to no longer be at the company (!), which clearly means you really can’t help the company anymore.

Don’t neglect your personal brand!  It has now become more than just a selfish, ladder-climbing necessity. It’s actually sometimes a selfless necessity for the better of your organization.

Now get out there in your monkey suit and work it, baby.  ?

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.