Brand Standards and How to Break the Rules

Don’t Let Brand Standards Stifle Your Creativity

Are Standards Too Restrictive?

Brand standards are one of the cornerstones of good brand management. They are the repository of the principles that guide application. But they are more than the rules around logo, colors, fonts, and business card layouts. Brand standards help manage and protect brand integrity, equity, and value. They safeguard the strategic principles around the brand platform. And maintain the conventions of portfolio management and brand architecture. Verbal and visual branding is, of course, crucial. But then there are values and culture that reinforce the experience and guide behavior. Brand governance practices are also imperative. However, some believe that brand standards are too restrictive. They see standards as an impediment to creative expression. But a philosophical perspective may provide some insight on the role standards play in managing the brand.

Understand the Philosophy

Is there a philosophy around standards? Yes, there is. However, there is often conflict between those who manage standards and those who try to apply them . . . or work around them. Three schools of thought seem to prevail.

Standards Authoritarian

The standards authoritarian believes that standards dictate application to ensure absolute consistency. The rules prevail no matter what. They don’t change. And they are policed vigorously. That probably sounds depressing to designers and marketers. They are just trying to keep the brand fresh, relevant, and competitive. However, you can’t argue with the results. What could be better than unwavering uniformity and consistency? That would appeal to a brand manager. But uniformity can be boring and stale. It’s even possible this approach works to the detriment of the brand. In this environment, you break the rules at your own peril.

Standards Liberal

The standards liberal sees standards as loosely defined guidelines. Rules are suggestions. Interpretation is a matter of opinion. As a result, exceptions become the rule. It even begs the question of why there are standards in the first place. Breaking rules is ingrained in the culture. Creativity is unbound. Brand integrity is often the casualty in this environment.

Standards Realist

The realist understands that the most comprehensive set of standards cannot cover all possible situations. Change is a fact of life. It’s impossible to anticipate every eventuality. The business may expand beyond it’s initial mandate. Competitors may challenge the brand positioning in unexpected ways. Marketing campaigns may require new creative thinking. The realist believes that standards set guard rails within which it can operate. But there is latitude in how it can adapt within limits. Breaking rules in an intelligent way is how the brand adapts.

What’s the right philosophy and who determines it? It starts with leadership. The leadership team has to decide how seriously the company wants to take the management of its brand. A big part of that decision is what role that standards should play. Each organization will be different. What’s practical? How will standards be enforced? When should you break the rules? And if you do break the rules how do you make sure you don’t erode brand integrity?

The Rules for How to Break the Rules

Rule Number 1 – Don’t Break a Rule Unless it is Broken

Rules serve an important purpose in managing a brand. However, they were created based on what was known at a particular point in time. Unexpected situations and circumstances will surface. Implementation will reveal principles that may not be practical. The brand strategy may also change. But it’s wise to exercise some caution before rethinking a rule. Assess whether it is simply impractical or no longer relevant. Perhaps it’s a matter of interpretation. Don’t just ignore it and do whatever. Consider how to amend it or add a new rule before resorting to breaking the rule.

Rules aren’t infallible. They need to evolve and adapt.

Rule Number 2 – Stay On Brand

It is the brand platform that ultimately drives visual and verbal expression standards. The mission, value proposition, and brand character helped shape the principles in the first place. However, rules change. Principles have to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. But the brand platform is what guides adaptation. It is what measures the impact on brand integrity. It is the brand that dictates the rules. Not the other way around.

Being on brand is not a rule. It’s the intelligence, commitment, and will to reinforce what the brand stands for.

Rule Number 3 – Understand the Spirit

Standards are developed with the best intentions. Good brand standards explain the “why” and intent behind any principle. Understanding the intent will allow for an intelligent break from the rule. If that is, in fact, found to be necessary. That will ensure any deviation will adhere to the intent and the spirit of the brand integrity. Exercising some common sense will help ensure that a standard fits reality.

Intelligent brand management requires a good dose of common sense.

Standards should inspire creativity.

The purpose of standards is to guide, grow, and protect the brand. They are not intended to stifle creativity. Well-developed standards with a strong rationale around principles will, in fact, inspire creativity. Standards built on stringent unwavering rules will only invite “workaround” solutions. That will eventually erode the brand.

Breaking The Rules Is How Brands Evolve

Brand Standards become stronger when they evolve. There is no point in enforcing standards that don’t work or have become obsolete. New situations will require updated standards. But it’s impossible to create standards for everything. Good brand management will encourage intelligent interpretation. It is what will keep the brand fresh, current, and relevant. That’s how breaking the rules will help brands grow. It’s how a great brand works.

The goal of How Brand Works is to share our experience, perspectives and philosophy on the different facets of branding intended to enable an effective brand management strategy.