Do Brand Guidelines Suffocate Innovation?

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Do Brand Guidelines Suffocate Innovation?

Your brand is one of the most powerful assets your organisation has but do brand guidelines help or hinder its development? Your brand serves as a short-cut to decision making as it should be instantly recognisable. The mere-exposure effect suggests that the more people are exposed to a brand the more favourable them become to it.

Rightly or wrong brands are closely guarded internally within organisations to prevent distortions or miscommunication of positioning and the value proposition. But how do our brains respond to brands and do brand guidelines help this process?

How Does Your Brain See A Brand?

The brain sees a brand as an object. Brands are no more than a mental representation of a product in our mind. They are a means to an end as we purchase products to achieve explicit goals (e.g. listen to music). Whilst the brand meets our psychological goals (e.g. belonging or authority).

Even if we use the brand as an extension of ourselves it is still desired for a current goal. Marketers talk about how brands connect with people emotionally. Positive emotions are important to encourage purchase. We mainly respond emotionally to brands because they help us meet important psychological goals. Brand guidelines could actually hinder this process.

Do Brands Have Personalities?

A neuroscience study by Marketing Professor Carolyn Yoon (2006) cast doubt on the popular view that brands are like people and have personality traits. Furthermore, research suggests that brand loyalty is mainly availability and habit, with relatively few brands connecting to consumers at an emotional level. This means that brands need to evolve and respond to consumer needs. Otherwise we may move onto a different brand which is more strongly associated with achieving a set goal.

Brand Guidelines Ensure Consistency?

Brand guardians often argue that brand guidelines help maintain consistency, whether it’s the fonts, messaging, colour, language, or imagery used. The danger here though is that the brand becomes fossilised and unable to respond to changing customer needs and trends.

Consistency is fine if it is appropriate and it works better than an alternative. But people will normally respond more positively to a great customer experience, even if there are some differences in how the brand is presented, than a consistently poor experience.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

What Defines A Brand?

What matters about a brand is how real people interact with it and what stories they pass onto each other about their experiences. Trust in a brand is not generated by assurances and promises in documents. Instead we learn to trust a brand through actions.

The important relationships are the interactions our customers and employees have with each other, whether face-to-face, over the telephone, via our website or through other means of communication. It is not via the largely illusionary relationship we have with the brand.

Aligning With Business Objectives: 

There is also a risk that focusing on consistency prevents marketing from testing changes to how customers interact and view the brand. In the digital space this can stop the A/B testing of new experiences that may be more effective at engaging visitors and improving conversion.

A/B testing aligns each web page with the goals and objectives of the organisation. If we are limiting this process because of brand guidelines then we are essentially acknowledging that brand guidelines take precedent over the businesses goals.

This cannot be healthy for either the organisation or the brand. It prevents the evolution of the brand in response to changing customer preferences. Furthermore, most brand guidelines are developed without any scientific evidence to support them. They are largely based upon subjective opinions. Those judgements should be tested to ensure they are optimal for the brand. By trying to use guidelines to prevent change we run the risk of suffocating brand development and innovation.


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