How to Manage Your Brand When You Don't Have a Marketing Team
Creating or revamping a new brand identity for your business can be a lot of work. And time. And money. Which means it really sucks when staff members start doing um… creative things with the new logo. Or that one blue color in the palette morphs into 527 variants accompanied by new shades of puce, fuschia, and mustard. Or you realize you just spent three complicated hours trying to put together a simple flier and this was so not your job in the first place so what the heck?
Getting a solid system in place for brand management will help you avoid the stomach churn of stuff going out the door that is decidedly not “on brand” and the wasted hours trying to track down files or create new materials. Because in the end the power of a brand to remain visually relevant and memorable relies less on who created it and more on the ability of its owner to keep it going and growing.
This guide will walk you through four areas of consideration so you can be smart and sane about how you manage your brand:
Create guiding documentation
Collect and organize your brand assets
Create new brand assets that don't suck
Keep the system going
Because it’s easy to go deep into each of these areas, this article provides an overview (and even the overview is fairly robust), while subsequent articles will dive into the details.
1) Create guiding documentation
Managing your brand in its very simplest form starts with style guides. A style guide is a collection of agreed-upon brand decisions that are captured in a document for everyone to reference. There are a number of different types of style guides:
- Visual style guides
A visual style guide outlines the rules for logo usage, the color palette, and fonts. It might also include rules for using images, particularly if you want people to conform to a certain photographic style or image treatment, design templates for stationery and other collateral, and examples of how the brand elements are to be applied in context.
This type of style guide is the most common and often is referred to as a brand guide. In reality, a full brand guide will also address the linguistic aspects of a brand identity so it is more accurate to call these documents a visual style guide or a design style guide.
Messaging and editorial style guides
Messaging and editorial style guides address the verbal aspects of your brand identity, the language, and grammatical nuances. They often contain “boilerplate”—chunks of text that are repeatedly used in various communication channels such as a company profile, mission statement, or description of a product/service offering. Messaging guides set the parameters for voice and tone and will often provide grammatical rules for different types of information as well as specify how important terms, acronyms, and proper names should be spelled and used.
- Social media style guides
Because social media create such an immediate and yet permanent public record of activity, there’s an axiom: “Think twice, publish once.” Certainly formalizing a set of guidelines around conduct on social channels will help everyone in the company with the first level of thinking.
A social media style guide will likely share similar elements as your messaging or editorial guide such as voice, tone, and boilerplate. Of course with social media, people tend to be more casual and conversational so give thought as to how your official brand tone and voice translates to a social setting. Social media guides should also address profile images, avatars, and tagging protocol.
- Brand style guide
A brand style guide or brand guide is the compilation of all the decisions around the visual (images and aesthetic), verbal (language), and situational aspects of your brand. This might be a single complete document or it might be in parts.
In addition to these style guides, documents that outline a brand strategy, marketing plan, and/or editorial calendar can also be useful in helping people understand how to handle and create branded materials.
At minimum, you should have a visual style guide and beyond that, other types of guiding documents you’ll need will depend on your situation and the number of people involved in company communications and regularly creating brand materials. Regardless, style guides are only effective if they are used and kept updated to reflect evolutions to the brand identity.
2) Collect and organize your brand assets
If you’ve ever wasted time trying to track down the source file of an image used on the company website or the latest version of your team’s salesdeck or you’re tired of team members emailing you for the company logo, then you’ve felt the pain of operating without a system for organizing and storing your brand assets. It’s not uncommon for companies to have their brand assets—artwork, marketing materials, templates, and such—scattered across hard drives, desktops, and multiple cloud services. It seems an insignificant thing in light of more important job functions, but once you round up your assets and create a centralized home for them, you’ll avoid a lot of time-wasting and frustration when using them. You’ll also better preserve brand equity when everyone’s using the same and most recent versions of brand materials and not otherwise putting inconsistent or incorrect information out there.
Audit your communication materials
The first step towards an organized system for both your printed and digital brand assets is to determine what you already have. Look through what's stashed on your desktop and any cloud storage sites like Google Drive or Dropbox for logo files, images used on the company website and its social media channels, staff photos, collateral like one-pagers, fliers, and presentation decks, social media and so forth—anything that bears your company’s logo or language. If you have printed material, now is a good time to gather up those pieces as well so you can cull the outdated stuff.
Pull out your master versions
After you’ve assessed what you have on hand, you may find you have many different kinds of brand files in various states of polish and relevancy. The important thing here is to decide which are your master versions and tuck away all other iterations in folders marked “draft” or “old” so it’s clear to everyone those are not be used. The following categories describe the most common types of brand assets you're likely to have in your system:
- Logo files
If your organization has been around for some time, you’ve probably amassed quite a collection of logo files and will need to review exactly what you have. There are two things to look for: variations of the logo design (horizontal and vertical orientations, with tagline and without, etc.) and different file formats (PNG, PDF, EPS, etc.).
Most organizations will have photos purchased from stock houses, commissioned as custom photography, or self-generated by the staff or a combination of these types. An important consideration for photos is resolution, or how crisp and clear the image is rendered. Resolution is indicated as dots per inch or “dpi.” As a general rule of thumb, images with a high dpi typically have a higher resolution that will translate to cleaner, crisper images in print and onscreen, especially if they also have a large aspect ratio (width X height). High resolution images will also give you more flexibility with zoom and creative cropping. If you have multiple versions of the same image or you have the choice to purchase/download different resolutions of an image, go with the one with the highest resolution as your master because you can easily scale photos down for use in digital but you can’t really scale them up for use in print.
- Other multimedia
You might also have video and motion graphics, recordings of presentations and webinars, and audio files to track down and organize. Of these, there may be multiple versions of the same asset, edited for different lengths, audiences, and delivery modes.
Your templated assets may include digital letterhead; slidedecks; documents like one-sheets, proposals or reports; and social media posts.
Boilerplate, or messaging blurbs, are chunks of text such as a company overview, a positioning statement, or a service/product description commonly used in all kinds of communications like websites, emails, articles, and presentations. It’s helpful to have the master versions of this company verbiage rounded up in a master doc and included as part of the brand assets.
Although you wouldn’t think of login credentials for a company’s technical services like its website host, domain registrar, social media accounts, or email service provider as a brand asset, from time to time you need this info. If it’s stashed away somewhere obscure or has been lost forever to a former employee’s laptop, you’re either going to waste a lot of time tracking it down or you’re not going to be able to use your services at all. For that reason, technical information should be considered an important asset to include with your other brand files.
Decide on a storage location
If as you were tracking down your file masters and organizing things you haven’t already decided on a central storage location, now is the time to do that. While you can use an internal company server or your website host server, storing your assets in an OS- and device-agnostic cloud service like Dropbox, Box, or Google Drive is your best bet. Besides universal access, automatic backups and the ability to recover accidentally deleted files are inherent to most cloud hosting solutions. Which one of these services you go with depends on preference or, in the case of Google Drive, whether or not your company is already using G Suite.
It’s not uncommon to end up using a combination of cloud services, but try your best to designate a single location to minimize confusion about where current assets live and where new ones should be stored. If you can’t get around having multiple locations (let’s say you have all your video files stored on Vimeo) then consider creating a private page on your website where you set up links to various asset locations and house any guiding documentation. Having such a one-stop-shop interface will vastly improve everyone’s ability to locate brand files and materials when they need them and comply with the organization system you’ve set up.
3) Create new brand assets that don’t suck
Even companies who have in-house design staff often can't afford to have every piece of marketing or outreach material professionally produced. Inevitably, you or other staff will be creating new branded materials from time to time.
Besides guiding documentation and an asset management system, following basic design principles will help self-produced materials look polished and consistent. Entire books have been written on each of the principles that follow; here I’ll only summarize so you have a general sense of what guides effective design.
Follow basic design principles
Whitespace is any area in a design that does not contain text or images. Despite its name, whitespace is not always white. You may have a white headline on a blue field of color and the area of blue where there are no letters or other graphics would be considered whitespace. Whitespace is perhaps the most important design element of all. Without it, words and images would abut each other making everything you see in the world: books, screens, signs, maps, etc. illegible. Our society wouldn’t function very well without whitespace! A dead giveaway of amateur design is a lack of whitespace which often results from not understanding whitespace's importance or a fear of “wasting valuable page real estate." Give the content room to breathe and the chance for a reader’s eye to rest. Wide margins between the edge of the text and the edge of the page or screen, increased leading (the space between lines of text), and ample padding around images will improve readability and highlight the important elements.
Typography is the appearance and arrangement of type on a screen or in print. It encompasses not just the kinds of fonts used but their style, weight, size, and tone. Fonts are both emotive and connotative. Using a wide variance in point sizes for each of your different heading levels and body copy will create visual interest and informational hierarchy that can help make the text more skim-worthy and readable. Well-considered typographic treatment can be just as exciting and engaging as using photography or illustration in your designs.
A design with visual hierarchy makes clear the order in which the reader or viewer should take in information. You can create this visual flow by contrasting scale of objects, grouping elements, employing whitespace, pairing graphics with text, and using color. Designing on a grid will help you determine the appropriate spatial relationships between elements and avoid the material looking like a vomit of elements that have no visual connection or organization.
Color can be used to highlight a key element or as a system to visually distinguish a series of elements, ideas or products from one another. In a design comprised of various shades of grey, a spot of bright yellow or hot pink will create a big visual pop.
Like fonts, color is both emotive and connotative. Yellow is equated with happiness, sunshine, gold. Blue is calming, restful, authoritative and evokes images of the ocean and the sky. Yellow is warm. Blue is cool. Nearly every hue is associated with an image or feeling.
With a visual style guide, you will have a predetermined color palette within which to work and this will eliminate many of the decisions you’d need to make about the use of color in your materials—that's the point of a having a guide. However, when deciding to add new complementary colors to the pallet or working with color combinations, bear in mind two things.
First, color deficiency is rather common, especially among men, affecting about 8% of men worldwide. Consider the hue and relative brightness of the colors you’re using and how easily those will be perceived by someone with a compromised ability to distinguish between color and color contrast.
Secondly, color looks different from screen to screen and from screen to print (and vice versa). There’s no way to control this shift since everyone has different electronic components and settings. Don't waste your time trying to color correct across devices. Instead use the RGB, CMYK, and/or hexadecimal color codes for the colors in your brand palette which will keep color mostly in line and accept that there will be some natural variance.
Using images and video
Photos and videos are incredibly important in modern marketing and outreach materials. Consider how Humans of New York founder and photographer Brandon Stanton’s photo of Vidal Chastanet went viral and raised more than $1 million dollars for Vidal’s school Mott Hall Bridges Academy. While not every image is going to be worth more in dollars than in words, powerful imagery is easier than ever to procure and produce.
There are three different sources for photography and video: self-generated, commissioned, and stock.
Photos and video you shoot yourself, with your smartphone or other equipment, are what we call self-generated. The range in quality is going to vary widely depending on experience, natural talent, and equipment. Even without a decent eye or any photo editing, the appeal of self-generated imagery and videography is their authenticity. The raw quality of self-generated media imparts a degree of vulnerability and humanity that people find compelling. Generally, self-generated media is excellent for social media where the point is to be real and human.
On the other end of the spectrum from self-generated are media created by a photographer or videographer you hire. Besides products, your work in action, staff headshots, and your office environment are ideal subjects for a custom photoshoot or video. Custom photography and videography are investments that pay dividends, and a necessity if you sell products. Since images represent an important part of your visual messaging, a library of high-quality media developed specifically for your business will be utilized many times over for many different situations.
Get your no-frills, same-as-what-I-use list of the places that have no- and low-cost imagery and fonts ready to download for your next marketing project. All the URLs in the guide are hyperlinked so you can get right to the site and quickly find what you need.
Between self-generated and commissioned media is stock. Stock photography ranges from the mundane to museum-worthy. What makes stock stock is its immediate availability for commercial and private use, often for a fee but sometimes also for free. Stock media is no substitute for the raw, in-the-moment capture of your work or the personalized polish of commissioned photography and footage, but it can be effective when used thoughtfully and essential if you don’t have access to any other type of media.
We’ve all seen horrible, cheesy stock images—too-perfect-for-real-life models fake-smiling at their computer screen or eagerly awaiting for your customer service call. Fortunately, stock photography that’s classy, intriguing, and current is easier to come by than it used to be. There are a number of stock sites that focus on curating media of the photojournalistic or self-generated style—real-life settings with real people, natural lighting, and in-the-moment capture. If you'd like to get a list of the top places to find good stock photos as well as illustrations, fonts, and other design elements, check out my 2018 Guide to Free (and Almost Free) Vectors, Photos, and Fonts (see inset box).
Working with Templates
Templates are a blessing and a bane.
On one hand, they remove a lot of the guesswork and effort from the process of creating consistent branded materials and can help to keep voice and visuals consistent.
On the other hand, templates aren’t mind-readers. People get frustrated working with templates when they have an idea in mind and the template they’re using has a constraint that prevents their idea from being easily implemented. This constraint might be as simple as a conflicting style rule or a specific bit of content for which no predetermined place has been allocated in the layout. These situations naturally occur, and it takes technical know-how to develop workarounds for edge cases. It also requires discernment to know the value of the idea in the first place and whether it's worth pursuing.
Bottom line, templates are not a replacement for thoughtful storytelling and design decisions in context. A cupcake tin is not going to work if what you really want is a three-layer cake.
Despite the potential frustrations with templates, they remain a necessary element of efficient brand communications. If a professional designer or design firm has not already created a set of templates for you, you may need to do this yourself. There is a wide range of applications designed to templatize brand materials. My article, "The Best of Free and Low-cost Design Software," discusses some of the better ones to consider using and for what purposes.
Use a design process
Since new brand materials are often created in response to some new marketing opportunity and often in a rush, it seems easier to dive right in and forgo any formal protocol. But establishing a process for design and production will minimize frustration and the time and money expended when you're in the moment trying to get things out the door.
A standard design process includes the following steps:
Identify the project’s purpose and your goals. Questions to ask:
What is it for?
Who is it for?
What’s the main message and take-away?
Why move forward with this project now?
Calculate your human and monetary resources. Questions to ask:
Who on your team can do what between design, production, copywriting, proofreading, revisions, and giving final approvals?
Will you need to hire someone with technical skills your team doesn’t have?
Will you need to purchase photography or printing?
Establish a timeline. The rule here: It always takes longer than you think! In my experience, people tend to overestimate their availability to focus on a project and underestimate how long it will actually take to write or edit any text that will be included as part of the design. As such, I recommend you bump up your estimated time expenditure by 30%, particularly for a large projects like a website redesign.
Assign a budget. You are the best one to evaluate your team's resources and willingness to assume technical responsibility and that knowledge will guide you in the process of establishing a budget that aligns with your needs, abilities, and priorities.
Write a project or creative brief. Everything you’ve decided in steps 1-4 needs to be captured somewhere. Having a creative brief will help everyone involved in the project follow the agreed-upon parameters and remain focused on the end goals. Creative briefs are not necessarily set in stone; things may need to change over the course of a project in response to new opportunities or data. But like style guides and other guiding documentation, having decisions collected and in written form will offer a point of reference and a framework to keep details from spiraling out of control.
Manage reviews, edits, and approvals
In my experience, if there's ever a point at which a project can start to go awry, it's at the review and revisions stage. One reason for this is not having clearly defined project goals or not following the agreed-upon parameters. But another, more common reason is not using a system to collect feedback and track edits. Using email for review and revisions is not a system. Comments can quickly and easily get lost in a thread and gaining consensus is unnecessarily challenging when suggestions are presented linearly and reactively. It's far better to use a tool specifically designed for online proofing, commenting, and decision-making. There are quite a number of these types of apps. Wrike, InVision, Workfront, ReviewStudio, and Cage are just a few to consider. If for some reason using a purpose-built tool is not possible, a decent alternative is to have all reviewers add their comments to a single PDF.
Assigning a specific deadline for receiving feedback will greatly increase your response rate and keep things moving along with your project. When working with an outside creative professional who’s making revisions to the material, be sure to collect and consolidate edits from your team first before passing those along. If instead you are sharing feedback at random intervals and your outside resource has to sort through comments from multiple persons, expect your project timeline and costs to expand accordingly.
4) Keep the system going
In-house brand management works as well as people know how to use the system and follow the processes you put in place. Documentation and orientation to the system are keys to compliance. The more people feel comfortable with the system, the less often you’ll have to nag them to use it.
Documentation doesn’t need to be complicated—a page or two describing asset locations, file nomenclature, the process for approving use of assets, etc. is often sufficient.
Include formal training on the system as part of the overall on-boarding process for new team members. Additionally, you'll want to periodically re-orient everyone on the system, perhaps at quarterly staff meetings or retreats. Training doesn’t need to be long or arduous, 15-20 minutes might be all you need.
Finally, be a good role model. If sometimes you respond to internal requests for files by directing the person to the file storage location, and other times you respond by attaching files to an email, this incongruity sends the message that the system is not necessary. If sometimes you name a new file using your official nomenclature and sometimes you don’t, it sends the message that it’s okay to ignore the system. Even if you’re a team of one or two, consistently using the system will build enduring habits that will serve you now and in the future when more people are involved.
If you’re going to be serious about building your brand, you or someone else on your team has to take the lead on keeping a close eye on how your brand identity and messaging evolves over time. Little things like messy file names, disorganized asset storage, and too many one-off materials slipping out the door seem innocuous, but those things accumulate into an erosion of brand integrity. Who’s paying attention? It’s not hard to keep tabs on things when you have guidelines, templates, and systems, and although it can take some work to get those things in place, it’s much harder to work efficiently and nearly impossible to manage your brand without them.
With clear guidance on how to locate and use your brand assets and create new ones, your team will find it much easier—even pleasant!—to engage in marketing activities. Brand awareness will grow as will the pride in your consistent brand identity. You’ll have wrangled those design cowboys into a competent team of brand ambassadors who know how to coordinate the brand resources they have at their disposal. And when you’re not tied up with templates or tracking down graphics, you’ll free yourself to stay focused on the work that really matters.