Room for Interpretation? How Flexibility in Brand Guidelines Helps Product Messaging

February 28, 2022 / Marjoram

Brand guidelines are created for a reason. A few very good reasons, actually. 

Branding efforts help your company define an identity and stand out from the pack. And brand standards and guidelines make certain that your organization is presented in a systematic and easily recognizable manner. 

Brand Flexibility

Your company does many different things and talks to many different audiences. A well-defined and developed brand — a boon for any organization — helps bring all those various initiatives under one roof. The company brand book ensures that your company speaks with the same, identifiable voice to the multitude of audiences it addresses — no matter who’s doing the talking. 

Brand guidelines are there to help. But let’s be honest…they don’t always. Why is that, and what are the things that get in the way? 

How Do Brand Guidelines Go Wrong?

Let’s first take a moment to recognize the difference between brand standards and branding guidelines. 

We know that guidelines are general instructions. They provide a loose framework for how to navigate a process. They’re not intended to relay a course of action that’s overly specific. When brand guidelines are written with the intent of policing behavior, however, they stop being guidelines and become rules. 

There is, of course, a time and a place for brand rules. They’re especially effective at governing the use of logos, fonts and colors—and there is a very good reason to want the exact same logo to appear with every visual presentation of your brand. 

But hard and fast rules are more difficult to apply to abstract concepts like brand values, voice and personality. Crafting marketing appeals that account for these brand attributes while also speaking to a B2B customer’s specific pain point is hard to do. This type of message development is an extremely fine needle to thread. Doing it well requires both creative and technical thinking, and overbearing brand guidelines make this difficult job even harder. 

A lot of brand/product messaging issues start right here, when more prescriptive approaches to brand discipline fail to provide the necessary space for product marketing teams to do their work creatively.  

There’s no doubt that a focus on the details is an essential part of brand development. In fact, a rulebook governing the application of branding elements is a critical tool in every company’s marketing toolkit—but a focus on details can easily go too far.

What are the consequences of taking an overly strict approach to writing and enforcing the company’s brand guidelines? 

Restrictive Brand Guidelines Can Hurt Sales 

When brand guidelines are too rigid, they can end up hindering, instead of helping, communication efforts.

Over-reliance on rules, templates and prefabricated language can stifle the creative process at the campaign level and impede the ability to develop and articulate an appropriately unique message for each product, service, department or sub-brand. Under these restrictive circumstances, product teams struggle to formulate messaging that effectively captures their customers’ problems or otherwise resonates with their audience set. 

Knowing there is little wiggle room to work with also encourages product teams to slow things down. When emphasis is placed on following strict instructions, product marketers are motivated to devote more time to brand compliance efforts. The process then entails several rounds of revisions, which come at the expense of concepting and brainstorming fresh approaches. In this atmosphere, taking risks is discouraged—or worse, frowned upon. Unsurprisingly, the typical result is content that ends up safely in the “brand zone” but fails to differentiate the product/service or speak to the customer effectively. 

A top-down relationship between brand and product teams is another unintended side effect of constrictive brand guidelines. Anticipation of potential rejection of their work by the brand team creates stress and anxiety on the product team. In the presence of these negative emotions, it’s easy for feelings of resentment to arise and friction to develop. Left unresolved, this friction leads brand and product teams to adopt oppositional postures, with each side looking to advance their priorities in a zero-sum contest. 

All these factors negatively impact go-to-market strategies and—ultimately—sales.

Finding the Brand Flexibility Sweet Spot

Working through a contentious brand approval process is nobody’s idea of a good time. More importantly, if that process is losing your company money, it‘s just plain bad business. 

As a marketing executive, your job is to empower your product teams to win in their respective markets. That means finding a way to overcome those overly constraining guidelines and bridging the gap that may exist between your brand and product teams. 

You must take care to deploy brand guidelines with enough flexibility to allow the end users in your company’s many departments, units, and teams to effectively apply them to their distinct communication needs. 

How can you do that? Start by encouraging conversation and collaboration between your organization’s opposing marketing forces. 

Flexibility Begins with Dialogue

A common shortcoming of many brand guideline sets is that they’re self-referential — they talk about the brand and only the brand. Many product teams struggle to apply the brand’s aspirational tone to their product messaging, which is by nature more technical. Too few brand books explain how exactly to deploy the right branding tactics and elements at the campaign level to achieve this challenging goal. 

Engaging the brand team during the ideation stage of a product marketing campaign is key. Doing this will bridge the gap in the product team’s understanding and help identify the appropriate elements they can deploy in their specific product messaging. Involving the brand team early also gives them a chance to offer insightful suggestions. This can go a long way to reducing the stress involved in the brand approval process. 

Tools for Adding Flexibility to Brand Guidelines Application

Just getting the conversation going is a great start. You can now leverage this collaborative energy to create some real, functional tools, like messaging frameworks and campaign addendums.  

A messaging framework should be developed for every marketing campaign to complement the brand guidelines, provide clarity, and encourage flexibility in applying the guidelines. This framework serves as a clearinghouse for all the messaging priorities of the campaign’s stakeholders. Completing this exercise enables product teams to see and properly weigh each priority and identify how their targeted messages relate to the broader brand themes. 

Another method to encourage flexible application of brand guidelines is creating a campaign addendum. This document supplements the brand guidelines by outlining acceptable circumstances for the product team to pursue a more tailored messaging approach for a marketing campaign. It can include potential opportunities for differentiation in imagery, layouts, graphics, messaging, and other marketing elements. 

Whereas a messaging framework is specific to an individual campaign, the campaign addendum is an evergreen  addition to the existing brand book. However, both tools make it easier to apply appropriate elements of your company brand creatively and more freely—to the best possible effect in your product marketing efforts.

Benefits of More Flexible Brand Guidelines

Effective B2B product marketing relies on a harmonious, collaborative relationship between brand and product messaging. It’s sustained through the committed use of tools that make it easier for product teams to implement the right branding elements and standards in their product campaigns. Achieving such a synergetic environment comes with impressive benefits, including: 

  • More creative and effective product messaging
  • Proper positioning of the brand to target audiences
  • The ability to consistently maintain brand/product balance in messages aimed at customers
  • A faster, more efficient brand approval process
  • Less rework and less rejection of work
  • Absence of friction between brand and product teams

Flexible Brand Guidelines Deliver the Best of Both Worlds

Extremely rigid brand guidelines prioritize the brand to the detriment of effective product messaging. Over-prioritizing the brand, especially at the expense of product teams’ ability to reach their unique audience sets, is counterproductive. A more open approach to brand discipline maximizes the impact of your targeted product messaging and promotes your brand, helping both to stand out from the crowd.