Brand Management: Create a Brand Expression Guide to Avoid Brand Creep

Posted By on January 14, 2014

brand management image examples of healthy lifestyle

Brand management starts with defining what your brand is. Swedish Hospital’s Brand Expression Guide shows imagery that represents “the return to a healthy lifestyle.”

Emily and I are often called on to provide brand audits for clients. We’re amazed at how often companies who have spent big money to develop their brands fall prey over time to what we call “brand creep.” That’s when communications that started out with a consistent look, feel and message fall apart into chaos. The easy solution for good brand management is to define what your brand is–and isn’t–with a Brand Expressions Guide (sometimes called a Style Guide).

The Typical Brand Creep Scenario

Spread out 18-24-months of your company’s communications (videos, blog posts, marketing emails, enewsletters, direct-mailers, print ads, banners, brochures, etc.) and evaluate whether all the pieces looks like they belong together. Ask yourself if this body of communications looks and feels like they were created with a consistent look, feel and message. Do they appear to be created by the same creative team marching to the same agenda? If everything looks like it has its own master, you’ve got Brand Creep. For example, does the sales team’s enewsletter look like they represent a different company than the capabilities pitch created by corporate?

MailChimp’s Style Guide Spells Out Their Brand Principles in Plain Language

We really like the MailChimp brand and how it’s evolved over the past three years. They have spent time, money and effort developing a unique one with a chimp mascot named Freddy who adds personality and humor to the business of email and enewsletter delivery.

The MailChimp Style Guide defines the company as consistently friendly. It reflects a company willing to poke fun at itself with humor. And best of all, the brand includes a company ethic that explains its offerings in clear, concise language and doesn’t talk down to its customers.

You can pick up a lot of brand management tricks just by studying their public Style Guide which looks like it’s been written for both company employees and people involved in creating company communications.

By sharing its brand and defining both what it is and what it isn’t, MailChimp makes sure that everyone represents the asset in the same way. There’s plenty of room for creativity within their parameters. And my guess is that when the people in charge of brand management review their communications annually, most fall within their brand guidelines–whether created internally or by outside vendors.

MailChimp’s voice is human. It’s familiar, it’s friendly, and it’s straightforward. Sure, we crack jokes and tell stories, but our priority is to explain MailChimp and help our users get their work done and get on with their lives.

Swedish Hospital in Seattle Does a Great Job of Defining “Many Voices. One Brand”

brand management ex. of ad by Swedish Hospital

The Swedish Hospital Brand Expressions Guide asks copywriters to use a voice that’s caring and human rather than speaking in “hospital-ese.” This ad aimed at aging babyboomers takes the fear out of hip replacement surgery.

The Swedish Hospital Brand Expressions Guide, created by Creative Director, Larry Asher and his agency, Workerbees, is another stellar example of brand management at work. Use it as a study guide on which to model your own brand control measures. And if you like it, give Larry Asher a shout out of thanks for sharing at (tell him Cynthia sent you).

Feel free to download it here in its entirety.
Swedish Brand Expression Guide Rev 042611

I particularly like the way that Swedish explains its reasoning for creating its Brand Expressions.

When you have an organization with as many buildings, service lines and audiences as Swedish, it doesn’t take long before people start getting mixed messages. So the point of this guide is to get everyone who has a say about how Swedish presents itself to the public to agree on some basic, overarching, consistent ways of expressing the Swedish brand.

Some Clues to Help You Recognize Whether You’re Guilty of Brand Creep

    Do you have blog posts that drift from the agreed-upon company message or throughline?

    Is your imagery consistent with the quality and the aesthetic of the brand? (Swedish Hospital likes high-key, light-filled imagery that reflects its positive outlook on medicine. MailChimp, on the other hand, likes stylized, clean graphics with cartoon elements but doesn’t allow standard “happy people smiling at the computer” shots used by their competitors.)

    Does the typography match your graphic standards or has an art director run amok with his own choices?

    Are you consistently using the logo and company tagline?

    Is the copy written in a voice or tone that’s different from the company’s? Is it too informal for a sophisticated brand or too academic (think big, Latinate or abstract words) for a friendly and informal brand?

    Can you spot a common look to the body of communications? Or is everybody playing their own tune?

Let us know if you spot a great example of a Brand Expressions or a Style Guide and we’ll share it.

Cynthia Hartwig