When we talk about branding, most people automatically think of the visual elements of a company’s brand: their logo, signature colors, typeface, etc. But what about how that brand sounds? They say a picture is worth a thousand words — but that doesn’t mean those words should be an afterthought! To claim your place in your industry with confidence, you need a dedicated brand messaging plan. You need brand messaging guidelines.
What Are Brand Messaging Guidelines?
We know — “guidelines” sounds boring and rules-y. But without rules, your brand identity might wander all over the place!
Brand messaging guidelines provide a framework for how you talk about your brand. These guidelines inform what your brand sounds like to customers and employees, how it translates to your audience, and how your company will present future products, news, and updates. It’s important to understand how brand messaging guidelines differ from brand identity or visual guidelines — those are purely to do with visual elements (duh).
Every piece of written or spoken content your company produces, external and internal, should follow your messaging guidelines. Strong, consistent messaging makes your brand instantly recognizable and can set you apart in your industry, not to mention increase trust and customer loyalty. And when employees know exactly how to talk about your brand, they become reliable brand ambassadors.
“But wait!” we hear you cry. “What if I don’t have brand messaging guidelines?!” First of all, there’s no need to yell. Second of all, sit tight — we got you. It’s kind of what we do.
Who Are Brand Messaging Guidelines For?
Not to be all mushy, but brand messaging guidelines are for everyone. Many established brands already have them, which is how they got to be so indelible in their markets.
But if you’re new to brand messaging guidelines or considering updating your existing ones, you might fit into one of these categories:
- You’re starting a new business and need to decide how you’ll talk about your mission, products, and services.
- You’re doing something very new or different from your competitors and need to convey your “thing” to your target audience.
- Or, you’re providing a traditional product or service, but in a new way.
- You’ve experienced a lot of changes in your market and need to adapt to this brave new world.
- Your audience has evolved from what it once was, and you need to be sure your messaging aligns with their changing expectations.
- Your company grew faster than you thought it would — congrats! — and you need to adjust your internal and external communications accordingly.
What’s Included in Brand Messaging Guidelines?
You can’t make the perfect sauce without the right ingredients. Here’s everything you should include in your brand messaging guidelines.
- Brand Name: What’s in a name? No, really — include the explanation or origin of your company’s name, no matter how straightforward or obvious.
- Message Map: A message map consists of two parts: your core message, or a succinct statement about what your brand does; and your brand pillars, which are 3 to 5 attributes that enable you to deliver on your core message.
- Positioning Statement: This gets everyone at your company on the same page. A positioning statement includes your market category, target audience, differentiators, and what you deliver to meet customers’ needs.
- Mission Statement: This is your “why” statement — why you do what you do (besides revenue).
- Core Values: While you don’t need to include these in your mission statement, you should at least be able to identify your brand’s core values that support your mission.
- Brand Story: There’s usually some version of this on a company’s “About” page on their website. It’s a narrative history of your brand that enables your audience to connect to it on a human level. A brand story usually describes your company’s origins, the initial problem the founders tried to solve, and how they got where they are today.
- Personality: If your brand were a person, how would you describe them to others? Are they the life of the party, or the wise mentor? (Or both?)
- Voice: When your brand “speaks,” how does it sound? Is it casual, professional, sophisticated, or somewhere in between?
- Audience: Who most frequently interacts with your products or services? Your audience can consist of several different categories, which may require you to adjust your brand voice accordingly.
- Tone: Speaking of which, your tone will guide how you speak to audiences in different categories, on different platforms, and at different stages of the customer journey.
- Brand Essence: Distill your core message down to about 3–8 words, and that’s your brand’s essence. This can also double as a slogan! (Think “Just Do It,” “When You’re Here, You’re Family,” etc.)
All (or most) of these elements should be packaged up nicely in an easily-accessible and digestible document, complete with examples.
Use these guidelines to shape messaging as it pertains to visual elements, written copy, customer service interactions, internal announcements, and even the annual report. You wouldn’t necessarily show your guidelines to customers or clients, but employees should have access to them for a refresh anytime they need one.
What Brand Guidelines Can Do For You
More than just a pretty package, your brand messaging guidelines should be the oil that helps your brand operate smoothly out in the world.
First and foremost, brand messaging guidelines help you crystallize your brand’s personality, value, differentiators, mission, and identity. If you know “who” your brand is and what you’re talking about, your audience will, too.
If you’ve done your buyer persona research and shaped your brand messaging accordingly, there’s a solid chance your target audience will like what they hear. A strong and accurate brand voice will attract and retain the right kind of audience for your products or services, and they’ll want to tell their friends.
When you’re stumped by how to talk about a new product or how to communicate a sudden setback, your brand guidelines can help fill in gaps in your messaging. If you are clear on your brand’s voice, tone, audience, and personality, you have the framework to convey novel messaging.
Whatever message you convey, your guidelines will help you keep it consistent across all platforms. At the same time, your guidelines can also help you identify likely places where your message doesn’t quite resonate with your target audience or serve your brand any longer.
A unique brand identity can set you apart from competitors. You don’t need to break the mold or anything — but as the old marketing wisdom goes, “It’s better to be different than to be better.”
Lastly, strong brand messaging guidelines will help you maximize the impact and value of your brand by keeping it relevant, memorable, consistent, and scalable. Not only can scalability enable you to grow, but it also reduces the ongoing cost of digital marketing efforts by making it easier for internal teams or external partners to craft impactful, on-brand content.
What Brand Guidelines Can Do For Your Customers
Think about your favorite brands — how do they make you feel? If you get the warm fuzzies thinking about your preferred meal kit delivery service, that’s likely due in part to their surefooted brand messaging.
Engaging, consistent brand messaging can inspire customers’ confidence in your capabilities, as well as in their own choices. In other words, it takes guesswork out of the equation, and all but squashes any second-guessing.
Clarifying your own brand identity will help you make it crystal-clear what your brand is, who it’s for, and what benefits it delivers. Confidence and clarity of message eliminates confusion and saves customers valuable decision-making time.
If you understand exactly how your brand needs to come off, you’ll likely make a stronger connection with your audience. This is especially important if you are in a complicated industry — you want to make sure you don’t alienate customers, but rather help them understand how you can meet their needs.
People like to feel as though their favorite brands really understand them. Even if we’re one of 5 million, we like to feel a personal connection to the companies we give our money to. The most effective brand messaging can make customers feel as though your company just gets it.
6 Steps to Creating Brand Messaging Guidelines
Your mileage may vary, but there are stops you should definitely hit on your brand messaging journey.
- Research the competition
How do your competitors talk about their brand? What about their messaging seems to resonate with their audience? Are there any competing brands whose persona you admire? Don’t try to beat them at their own game, but definitely take note of what works.
- Create buyer personas
These are crucial — you need to know who you’re talking to, their pain points and goals, and how they prefer to interact with companies like yours. Buyer personas emerge through interviews, KPIs, customer surveys, and transactional data.
- Audit existing messaging
Do your current communications accurately reflect your brand persona? Does your messaging resonate with your customers? What about your company’s name? (Don’t get nervous — it’s just something to think about.) Again, loyal or even lukewarm customers can lend invaluable insight into the efficacy of your brand’s voice.
- Gather your stakeholders
These can be your leadership team, top-performing employees, most valuable customers, investors, or board members — everyone who relies on your brand to work well.
- Ask some questions
Prompt these stakeholders to do some reflecting. How would they like your brand to be perceived? What common questions, concerns, pain points, or objections do they hear from your audience that could be addressed through messaging?
- Start writing!
Don’t worry about having all the answers right away. Start writing down anything and everything you’ve learned about your brand. If you’re a little intimidated or stumped, use some of these prompts to help you get unstuck:
- In one sentence: What do we do?
- What’s our company story?
- Where did our name come from?
- What’s our market or industry?
- Who are our customers?
- What problems do we solve for our customers?
- How do we want people to feel when they encounter our brand?
- How do we want to talk to our customers?
- Do we change the way we talk to certain audiences?
- What sets us apart from similar companies?
- Why would a customer choose us?
- What’s our superpower?
- What’s our guiding mission?
- Why do we do what we do?
- What are this company’s core values?
- What value do we want our audience to associate with our brand?
- Would we ever utilize user-generated content?
- How would we describe our brand’s personality?
- Does our brand’s persona have limitations?
Challenges of Creating Brand Messaging Guidelines
Yes, there will be challenges — you didn’t think it would be all smooth sailing, did you? Any time you’re prompted to do some serious self-reflecting (even if it’s for your brand), there’s going to be some discomfort or hiccups in the process. But that’s show business, baby!
Possible challenges of creating or refining your brand messaging guidelines include:
Big-picture blindness: A.k.a., not being able to see the forest for the trees. It can be difficult, if not impossible, to gain the right perspective from inside your own company. Objectivity is key when you’re deciding how your brand should sound to the rest of the world.
Lack of internal skill sets: To create effective brand guidelines, you need people with marketing savvy, knowledge of your company’s industry and strategic vision, the ability to research and build buyer personas, and at least one person who can write effective marketing copy. That can be a tall order for some companies, especially smaller ones or those without dedicated marketing teams.
Time and resources: All of the above takes time, which can be hard to find for busy or short-staffed companies. A project like this can also take team members away from more pressing projects, which can add stress to their teams.
It’s certainly possible to craft your own brand messaging guidelines internally, but it can be a heavy lift for teams without the necessary resources or objective viewpoint. Luckily, this kind of project is our jam!
With over a decade of experience in web development, digital marketing, and brand strategy, we at Vital feel right at home working with companies of any size, in pretty much any industry. We’ve got the whole collaboration thing down — for our branding projects, we conduct market research, interview your stakeholders, leadership team, and customers, and guide you through your brand messaging development from start to finish.