Back in 2010, when consulting became my primary job, I launched my business by teaching an online branding class. I taught creative entrepreneurs how to build a cohesive brand and touched on the most important elements of a brand style guide.
I’ve always been drawn to the idea of branding, probably because branding has always felt like storytelling to me. It’s a heroine’s journey. It’s an experience to behold.
I’ve never wanted to be “told” what a brand is, I’ve wanted to be shown.
As with my favorite books, the BEST brands are love and adventure stories. Stories to which I can relate. The best brands communicate value, belonging, fit, aspirations and so much more. There’s tremendous power in a compelling brand, a power that transcends just a logo.
My favorite brands are more than a logo. The logos are merely a trigger for an emotional experience or a “story” that I tell myself related to their products or services.
I, legit, FEEL things about these brands, and not just because of their visual identity.
When I think about Apple, I feel empowered, productive, modern, but also cool; like I’m a hip, tech-savvy creative – or hacker – who frequents coffee shops and embraces minimal, intentional aesthetics.
When I think about Target, I feel inspired. I feel like I’m in the millennial female equivalent to Disneyland – a magical land of wonder, delight and beautifully organized affordable affluence where paychecks disappear faster than you can say Merona.
When I think about ban.do, I feel like a modern hippie. A chick who feels powerful in pink, but doesn’t take any shit. A woman who has the freedom to surround herself with cutesy products and snarky circumstance.
The fact is – in my mind – neither of these descriptions is far from the truth because the important thing about these brands is that they help me confirm the narratives about myself.
Because here’s the thing: effective branding isn’t about what the branding says about the company, but what the branding says about the consumer.
As I describe in many of my current branding classes: An effective modern brand, a brand that connects deeply with people, is the combination of five key things: your product, your “why,” your brand identity, your brand essence, and strategic marketing.
But what I want to highlight explicitly is how important your target audience is to this equation. They. Are. Everything.
Because they are the heroines of your brand journey and brand experience.
And a brand should be an experience. But how do you create an experience with your brand? You do this by creating (and sticking to) a brand style guide. I’ll walk you through my step-by-step branding process for creating one.
But first to put a sharper point on why this matters.
Without a brand experience, your brand:
- Feels only like a logo.
- Seems purely transactional.
- Doesn’t create super fans or excited repeat customers.
- Might be inconsistent or hard to remember.
- Won’t produce the results that you want for your business.
With a brand experience, your brand:
- Is easier to remember.
- Attracts the right customers.
- Converts more browsers into buyers.
- Is easier to maintain and run.
- Operates with more ease.
I recently re-organized the Hey Awesome Girl website design services with an improved backend workflow, to offer a quick but effective way to build beautiful, customized, low-stress, but high-conversion websites… but making a great site starts with your brand. This is why I include brand development in every website project – even if you already have a logo and color palette.
The goal is to define (or refine) not just the brand files, but the whole experience. The brand story.
At a basic level, I do this by helping you create a brand style guide. So let’s walk through how you do that.
How to create a brand style guide + Our step-by-step branding process
Step 1: Start with why (and who, how, what and where) – complete a detailed interview or survey.
Before you even start designing you need to understand what you want to represent with your brand and your brand experience. It’s not enough to “just know it” in your head. You have to be able to articulate it. You have to be able to tell that story and show it consistently for your audience.
I help clients articulate this by having them complete a detailed survey before I start designing.
While I ask some questions about the business owner, I focus more on the product, the audience and how the two relate and connect.
Because remember: Your brand experience is NOT about you. It’s about your customer.
Yes, it is your business – and I do recommend that your branding process starts with your mission, "why," etc., – but you don’t have a company without customers, and a brand only really exists in the hearts and minds of the people who support it.
A meaningful brand is meaningful because people relate to something within the brand.
So I recommend starting your branding process with an in-depth questionnaire designed to help you get to the core of what your brand is, what it provides to consumers and who those consumers are.
Some questions to ask yourself during this first step are:
- What are the USPs (unique selling points) of your product?
- What problems do you solve for people with your product?
- What does your target audience secretly wish were true about their lives that your product can help them with?
- What emotions do people feel when they interact with your product?
- What story do consumers tell themselves when they interact with your product?
These are just a few questions that will help you get to the heart of your brand.
I have an in-depth questionnaire for my branding and website design clients. I’ve taken many of them and converted them into a workbook to help you uncover the core of your brand experience.
Get a Brand Style Guide Template + the top 10 questions you need to answer to develop a compelling and sticky brand experience.
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Step 2: Look for a jumping off point.
Once I’ve journeyed deep into exploring the descriptions of the company, the products, and the audience with an in-depth survey, then I need a jumping off point to start designing.
While a survey gives me lots of in-depth written information that I can start designing with, a large part of branding is taking the vision out of the client's head and putting it on paper. And – let’s be real – for individual businesses, appealing to the desired aesthetics of the business owner is essential for a satisfying working relationship.
Yes, I said – and I will repeat – Your brand experience is NOT about you. It’s about your customer, but I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t think that the desires of the business owner come into play in the design process. I want my clients to be happy, so I don’t just guess what they might want for their design out of thin air – or worse – tell them what they should have.
I prefer to take my lead from the client by making them SHOW me what they like before I start designing.
As part of my brand design process, all clients are required to create a visual inspiration board. The best way I’ve found to do this is via a shared secret Pinterest board. Pinterest is a designer’s heaven and an easy way to curate ideas for design.
And you can use it too. Whether you’re working on your brand yourself or for clients, before you start designing, browse Pinterest and curate some inspiration.
Hey Awesome Girl clients are required to pin a minimum of 30 things to help with the design process, including:
- Five websites
- Five logos
- Five fonts
- Five color palettes
- Five patterns or textures
- Five symbols or icons
The idea is for the client to start taking what’s in their head and putting it into a format that I can then use as a jumping off point for design. The private Pinterest board gives me an idea of my client’s visual aesthetic and what design elements appeal to them.
It’s a helluva lot easier to use things they have identified that they like as inspiration rather than trying to guess.
Step 3: Codify the experience and overall mood.
From here, I combine the visual aesthetics with the feedback from the survey to create a brand mood board. Creating a mood board is an essential step in the design process because once you get this right, it’ll set the tone for all the work you do.
I’ve done branding and website design in the past without this step and, trust me it was a pain in the ass. Without the brand mood board, you don’t have a clear sense of what the client likes or what she is trying to portray systemically with her brand. So then what happens? From my experience, you end up going back and forth about design elements and problems that could have been avoided. No one enjoys that experience, and you end up creating designs that are subpar to what the client initially had in their head.
For that reason, I now start designing with client input. It helps mitigate stress on both sides.
Design work is hard enough. Because we all have an idea in our head of what things "should" look like and most of the time we can't articulate it. But we can say what it’s *not,* right? So starting with the survey and Pinterest board will help you avoid creating things that don’t align with what the client's internal mental design looks like. Additionally, the process leading up to the mood board development creates the relationship you want to have between designer and client.
In that, the client has to be prepared to communicate openly and specifically about their brand visually and verbally. And based on the survey and the Pinterest pre-work, you can usually tell which clients don’t know what they want because things they’ve said in the survey and the elements they pinned don’t “add” up.
The brand mood board is an opportunity to sync up the visual and verbal descriptions to set the overall tone for the brand.
So what’s on the brand mood board?
The brand mood board gives examples of a visual style and color palette for the brand. It also includes adjectives to describe the brand.
It’s the first snapshot of the brand experience. It gives you a measuring stick against which to measure other brand elements for "fit" and alignment.
Step 4: Develop the brand identity.
Once the brand mood board is set, then you can start on the specific elements that most people think of when they hear the word “brand” …as in the brand identity.
The brand identity is the concrete representation of a brand. For the sake of my design process, this is when I develop the elements like the:
- Logo variations
I also include the final color palette with the brand identity, so everything is in one spot for reference.
Step 5: Create guidelines and samples for regular usage.
So based on the questionnaire I know what additional branding elements are needed for the brand. These might be things like an email signature, email newsletter template, etc.
Some of these things I create standard during the branding process, but there may be other ways that you leverage your brand for which I don’t create specific collateral. When it comes to non-traditional usage, this is where your brand guidelines come into play because they outline how to leverage your brand experience when there’s an “irregular use.”
The brand guidelines are a file or folder that includes the following:
- Brand style guide - this guide outlines the elements necessary to create the consistent and cohesive brand experience. This might mean creating standard content that outlines the following:
- About the Brand
- About the Product
- Target audience
- Logos, variations, and usage – Include instructions for use as well as best practices
- Color Palette
- Typography combinations – what font combinations will you use
- Imagery and mood - the mood board is a visual reminder of the aesthetic. This helps when picking images to use with your brand. If the pictures don’t seem to “fit” with the mood board, they will probably seem off-brand if you use them.
- Brand words cheatsheet - which is a doc that outlines words or phrases to use in association with your brand and why they matter for your brand experience.
- Files for all:
- Logo variations
The great thing about this design process is that, not only will you finish it and have an excellent brand guide and guidelines to help you create a beautiful brand experience, but because of the way it’s structured, you’ll have a really in-depth vision of how your brand feels before the collateral design process even starts.
This enables emotion-infused, consistent design. Emotion-infused, consistent brand design is vital because it will represent more than just a logo and a bunch of colors to your audience. It helps create that experience and that story.
While there are a few more micro-steps that I would follow when creating a brand for clients, the above five steps will help any company define or refine their brand.
I can’t highlight enough how important the initial survey and the Pinterest board are, however. They are the jumping off point for creating a successful brand experience. It’s a short time investment – maybe an hour of your time – but it’s worth it to build a reliable brand.
If you’re interested in seeing some of the questions I would ask before you start the branding process AND a brand style guide template, download the free “Creating a Brand Style Guide” Workbook.
It helps you create a brand style guide for your own business.