How to Build a Brand Identity Playbook for Your Business

Your brand identity is who you are. It conveys the story of your business to your customers when you can’t be there to tell them in person. Your brand identity is the crucial foundation that drives every single creative decision in your marketing efforts. So how do you make sure your team gets it right? Enter the brand style guide.

 

Illustration of construction vehicles working on building the word brand

 

There are lots of fun terms for this important piece of documentation: brand book, style guidelines, or brand usage guide, to name a few. I like to think of it as a brand personality playbook, because that really captures what it is — and what it does.

The answers to all kinds of marketing questions can be found in your brand style guide:

  • Which colours need to be used in your web design?
  • What kind of content should you be publishing?
  • Which copy is best for your website’s CTA buttons?
  • Should you use emojis in your email subject lines?
  • Do you need an Instagram business account?
  • How should you be targeting paid search ads?

I’ve been lucky to work with brands of all sizes on developing their brand style guides, and can’t stress enough how important it is that every organization has one — and uses it.

Let’s get down to the serious business of exactly what this playbook is, and how to create your own brand style guide.

What Is a Brand Style Guide?

Your brand style guide does the heavy lifting in capturing everything that your brand is, what you do, and how you want to be perceived — and translating that into concise creative guidelines. The style guide typically covers design and copy, and can also capture your corporate mission statement and values, business point of difference, legal restrictions and usage, and audience targeting.

Brand guidelines are intended to be used by everyone on your marketing team when making creative or strategic decisions. Every organization, from startups and nonprofits to SMBs and international corporations, benefits from this guide — and should be using it.

Think of it this way: Whether you have a two-person team managing everything from sales calls to website copy and social media posts, or a remote 500-person marketing team conceptualizing and publishing creative content, it all needs to feel on-brand.

A potential customer encountering your business online should get the same experience as if they came into your store. Whatever images or words or even colours they encounter should be identifiable as you.

Whether you call it a style guide or brand guidelines or a playbook, this documentation is used in tons of ways. Here are some examples:

  • Company descriptions on your website, social media, and business directories
  • Copy tone used in your website, social media, and downloadable content
  • Colours, images, and logo used on social media, client documentation, and print content
  • Copy, design, and targeting for advertising campaigns
  • Chatbot scripts
  • Email signatures
  • Custom forms on your website
  • Product photography and descriptions
  • Email design, copy, and segmentation

From the brand new design intern to the senior marketing executive, your brand style guide ensures everyone on your team is making the best choices to represent your company.

How to Create a Brand Style Guide

To create an effective brand style guide, follow these five steps:

  1. Discovery — Kick off the process with brand discovery work, including branding exercises, interviews, and audience research.
  2. Goal Setting — Outline the key business objectives, like your company’s values, mission statement, long- and short-term goals, and the point of difference that sets you aside from others in your industry.
  3. Audience Identification — Build out 2-3 customer personas, incorporating all critical demographic and behaviour information.
  4. Creative Guidelines — Establish all usage guidelines for design and copy, including everything from logos and colours to voice and tone.

Ready to dive in?

The brand discovery process

Before you sit down to write your brand style guide, you have some important information gathering to do. This is what our agency calls the ‘discovery phase’.

Every organization will have its own way of doing brand discovery activities. The way you conduct yours can depend on the size of your business, the location and availability of key stakeholders, and of course, time and resources.

Even if some of the information needed to create your brand style guide is already available, it’s good to go through the process. Often you might discover new information, or unearth outdated ideas and documentation that no longer represents where your business is today.

It’s also extremely helpful to get everyone on the same page by sharing insights about the company, hearing others’ viewpoints, and working together to narrow everything down into key points. Go team!

These are some of the steps that the Forge and Smith team has worked through with clients during the discovery phase:

Pre-kickoff questionnaire

Who doesn’t like to feel prepared for a meeting? Help everyone be ready with answers to the questions you’ll be working through by sending out an outline ahead of time. This way, nobody gets caught off guard and draws a blank when it’s time to identify crucial points about your brand. Questions you might want to include:

  • What is your brand’s purpose? Why do you exist, what problem do your customers have that brings them to you?
  • What are your primary business goals?
  • Who are your biggest competitors?
  • What makes you better or different from competitors?
  • In an ideal situation, where will the business be in 3-5 years?
  • How do your website and other digital assets support the business and its goals?
  • Who is your audience? Describe 2-3 typical customers and prioritize them.
  • How do you want your business to be perceived?

Kickoff meeting

This meeting can be a doozy, so set aside plenty of time! Use the questions you’ve prepared, and plan exercises around ones that require creative exploration.

Branding exercises

Here’s where it gets fun! You can create your own branding exercises to do at the kickoff meeting, or use ones you find online like this Forbes article on thought-provoking branding exercises, or this list of creative branding activities. These are some objectives of branding exercises:

  • Establish audience personas
  • Identify key brand personality traits — my personal favourite tool for this exercise is Brand Deck
  • Create your brand’s story

Interviews

Make sure to get input from all key stakeholders. This might require phone or video interviews to review the questions, or sending out surveys to include them on your branding exercises.

User Research

Collect as much data as possible about your audience using any tools at your disposal: website data, email database, focus groups, pop-up surveys, feedback forms, reviews, heatmaps, or good ol’ fashioned phone calls.

Once you’ve done all of your information gathering in the discovery phase, it’s time to start putting it all together and draft your brand style guide.

Brand story and business goals

Based on the feedback from the discovery phase and existing company documentation, you should be able to populate the first sections of your style guide. Imagine a new hire receiving this style guide and using the first pages to become familiar enough with your organization that they could write your LinkedIn company description.

 

illustration with icons to indicate planning surrounding a bullseye and the word goals

 

Who are you?

Pages you might include in this section are a clear mission statement, a description of company values, and your brand’s history or story of how and why it was founded.

What makes you special?

Based on the competitors you identified in the discovery, you can craft a statement that sums up how your business is different, and what you do better than others in your industry.

Audience personas

I seriously love building personas. It’s like creating characters for a story or game — you get to design a person! Which persona details you prioritize will vary depending on your business, industry, and goals. Age or gender could have no relevance to who uses certain products, while others are specifically intended for one age group.

You can find persona templates online — Hubspot has good ones — or build your own. Details you might include, if applicable:

  • Age and gender
  • Industry
  • Position
  • Salary
  • Education
  • Relationship status
  • Interests and behaviours
  • Social media platforms (where is your audience — you need to be there, too)
  • Beliefs or values
  • Motivations
  • Frustrations (what problems do they have that your business solves)

When your team creates something representing your brand, whether it’s an ad campaign or simply creating a new CTA button on your website, they should be able to clearly say, “this is geared toward CEO Charlize”.

Design guidelines

When it comes to capturing the essence of your brand, looks definitely matter. How your business is perceived can be influenced by colours — study up on colour psychology! — and images. Media is also usually what stops a user from casually browsing and gets that precious click.

two young professionals in front of an iMac screen pointing at paper colour charts on the desk beneath the screen

Using the personality traits identified in your branding exercises, you should be able to build out a complete design section for your brand style guide. These are common pieces in the visual identity section of brand guidelines:

  • Logo and usage guidelines
  • Brand colours
  • Typography
  • Non-brand image selection guidelines
  • Restrictions (ex. not using images depicting certain things)
  • Any legal guidelines
  • Description of brand traits to be captured in images

A new designer on the team should be able to use your brand guidelines to source appropriate stock photography, or style a new page for your website.

Stuck on stock? Get tips from a web designer on How to Create Powerful Visual Content using stock images.

Copy guidelines

Design and copy are a one-two punch. If images and video stop a potential customer from scrolling, copy is what reels them in. You often have a limited space to convey both your message and why the user should care about your brand, so getting the copy on point is a big deal.

The brand personality traits you used for design also apply to drafting your copy guidelines. Some areas you might want to cover:

  • Brand voice and tone (ex. we are this, not that)
  • Language guidelines (ex. slang, trendy words, industry terms)
  • Usage examples
  • Any legal guidelines
  • Description of brand traits to be captured in images

From this section in your brand style guide, a new copywriter should be able to write anything for your business, from your Instagram bio to a 1500-word blog post.

Stop staring at a blank document! Here are a content writer’s tips on How to Write a Business Blog (even if you think you can’t).

These are just some of the many pieces you might include in your own brand style guide. There are tons of free online resources you can use to help build out what you need to make it awesome. Remember to have a little fun with it.