Having created content marketing programs at four startups now, I realize the only way I’m able to feel fully confident in what I’m putting out there is by drafting a comprehensive Brand Book. This process begins with the classic ‘if my brand was a person, who would they be’ brainstorm; then drills down into things as nitpicky as the way we write a.m. and p.m. and whether we say use a dash in ‘setup’ or ‘set-up’. Content being the counterpart of design, it’s important to put as much emphasis on writing as on the down-to-the-pixel specificity of a logo.
Why Every Startup Needs a Brand Book
Consistency is the cornerstone of a good brand. Conveying integrity, self-knowledge and the promise of the same quality product or experience each time is paramount. A good brand is instantly recognizable because of the care put into communicating every single facet of its identity. If the consumer has even a tiny feeling that something is amiss, the brand experience goes from seamless to discordant.
If you’re a thought leader defining your personal brand, it helps to distill the traits you think are most important for the public to recognize. Rather than overwhelming readers/consumers with your infinite nuances, you should focus in on a few tangible traits which will resonate with particular audiences. Is the whole of Gwyneth Paltrow a clean-eating, environmentally conscious mother who always wears no makeup and a neutral-colored tee? I’m sure it isn’t, but that’s what works for Goop.
Same for a company. What are the key traits your organization wants to convey? What are customers asking for? Are you a tech-savvy, innovative company? Then how does your design, content, customer service style reflect that? How do you instill that in your employees so that they ooze brand identity when they work with clients or recruit new team members?
Thus creating a Brand Book even if you’re the sole employee of your business is crucial. It’s not enough to just know the brand. Documenting it makes you do the work of sitting down, and deciding exactly how you’re going to convey it through content and design. It ensures you’re consistent and shows that you take yourself seriously. Plus, if you’re planning to scale, you can’t teach brand through osmosis. It helps to give new team members an introduction to your brand that they can refer back to at any time.
It’s Never Too Early to Create a Brand Book
Now, if you feel it’s too soon in your startup’s development to determine a concrete brand, don’t worry… your brand will evolve, and you can evolve the Brand Book whenever need be. Much as you develop and iterate your product, then develop and iterate again, you can change whatever doesn’t feel right anymore. (For an amazing peek into branding evolution, check out this article on Asana’s logo redesign.)
Brand is a Conversation
When you’re bootstrapping, you have access to members of the organization you never would in a larger company. You can have a long, in-person talk with the CEOs, founders, the head of customer service, the head of sales and so on and so forth. You might even be able to get everyone into a room for a brainstorming session in an effort to define the brand!
This is immensely helpful because I find that, in the end, defining a brand comes through conversation, sometimes a long circuitous one, sometimes an argument. While activities such as writing brand traits on post-its definitely help get the ball rolling, finding the brand essence is so indelible, intangible, that it’s best drawn out through dialogue.
Take Your Notes and Drill Down
While the brand may be intangible, you must find very actionable ways to communicate it.
So, let’s say once you break down your brand’s traits, and determine one of its most important ones is that your company and product is friendly and inclusive. Now, how do you convey that in writing?
Well, a friendly person talks one-to-one — they say ‘you’ and ‘I’, and they use your name. They don’t talk down to you, but relate by sharing their own concerns and foibles. They gently make fun of themselves. They want to help, but don’t want you to feel helpless so they simply cheer you on instead.
Getting down to the technicalities of conveying friendliness: Simple and concise language, not flowery or academic. Contractions because they’re more informal. Exclamation marks and maybe even emojis.
Your senior designers, videographers, sales, and customer service people can do the same for their own chapters.
And Lay It All Out
Brand books take many forms, as you’ll see in the inspiration section below. Some Brand Books focus more on defining the customer segment, some focus more on how to stamp your brand into every media. It really depends on the brand; the Brand Book is actually a pretty meta exercise in this way.
Your Brand Book can be detailed, dry, fun, cheeky, wild, design-centric, writing-centric, etc. depending on, well, your brand. When you onboard a new team member, they learn the brand both through the content of the Brand Book, and how the content is portrayed.
A Brand Book is for Everyone
A Brand Book is no good if it’s tucked away — it’s meant to be a dog-eared (or more likely bookmarked) document. Brand goes past the graphic design and content departments; it’s in all that your company is. That’s why I like to include chapters like customer service standards, oral and email communication, internal presentations, and more.
In short, the whole company should read the Brand Book thoroughly and have ready access to it.
Some Awesome Brand Books for Inspiration
This guide by the Canadian Tourism Commission is incredibly comprehensive and detailed. I guess if you’re trying to define a whole country, you need a denser guide. That being said, I can’t believe they were able to distill a country that large into one, unified brand!
The slick, super functional Uber Brand Book (you don’t have to read through the entire thing, but can easily jump to whatever section you need).
I love the organization, cheekiness, and simplicity from Mailchimp’s Voice and Tone (this isn’t a brand book per se, but a great example of a reference guide).
It can be impractical on a budget, but a physical Brand Book is feels oh-so-luxurious. Check out this example from Macaroni Grill.
And, my favorite Brand Book of all time, the guide to Santa.
About Aylin Cook:
Aylin Cook made the transition from journalism to SaaS content marketing eight years ago… and never looked back. She’s currently the Sr. Content Marketing Manager at PatientPop, creators of the first all-in-one practice growth platform designed for health care providers.