Living Style Guides
The number of contact points where a business engages with its (prospective) customers has been growing for years as the number of mobile devices, social media platforms, and digital products rises. Against this background, brand management seems a more daunting challenge than ever. The central question any brand manager asks himself is: How can the new design be communicated within the company so that everyone who works with it uses it consistently as intended by the corporate design, and yet so that it suits the relevant context? A conventional style guide, which lays down rules and gives application examples to ensure that implementation follows the intended pathway is no help here. The demands are too complex, the applications too numerous, the technological developments too rapid. Faced with this increasing loss of control, designers and their clients can only hope that the latest corporate design or new product brand is handled sensitively and with care – or so it seems. In reality, however, how design is handled in organisations can be controlled – provided you start at the right end. “Because the only thing that can be guaranteed is that people will not behave according to plan, it becomes the designer’s responsibility to design for flexibility.”1
A new brand identity means change. Not just for the customers of an enterprise or the users of a product, but especially for the employees in the company. Unless change is firmly anchored in the company’s DNA (and this is not the case in most long-established companies), it can lead to uncertainty and scepticism. Anything new will always have to battle prejudice – and all the more so the less it is understood. A basic prerequisite is that those responsible for the brand themselves treat it with openness and flexibility. Information, guidelines, films, etc. should be easily accessible. Often there is no rational reason for password-protected brand portals. Open brand portals and design blogs such as Airbnb, Google or Uber operate, even manage to reach out to brand fans. In fact, a company like Airbnb explicitly wishes customers to interact with the brand signatures. Under the banner “the community is the brand” the company welcomes the creative appropriation of its logo – because this is considered a sign of sustainable emotional engagement with the brand.
But despite all openness, one thing must be clear: design is not a democratic process where everyone should have a say. The fact that the majority of people will clamour for faster horses when a creative mind has invented a car is something that most brand managers will be familiar with. Nevertheless, the relevant stakeholders in the company should be included as early as possible. The more interactive and involving the design and communication process is, the sooner employees will not only embrace and understand the new design, but also apply it in their field of work independently and correctly. Correct does not always mean consistently at any price. It is better that the design is applied in a way that suits the application or medium – that it is coherent. In many cases, the employee will understand the application better than a brand manager: for instance, an online editor knows the technical limitations of his platform and is familiar with the habits of his users. Accordingly, he should be able to decide how specific design elements are best used. Contemporary communication strategies for corporate design in the company should best be based on comprehensibility and the continual honing of understanding rather than on rigid, inflexible rules.
Most of the communication tools and methods used today aim to make the person on the other side rationally understand a predefined design system. In information events, training courses, workshops – the message to employees is: “You need to pay attention now, learn and practice so that you don’t make mistakes later!” The main focus is on avoiding mistakes. The tighter the guidelines, the cleaner the implementation will be in an everyday working situation. And, to ensure that everyone is up to date when it comes to the practical application, a living style guide is provided for digital applications; this is a web application where users can download digital modules: easy to use and always up to date. This is ideal for specific, predefined routine tasks. However, in the long run communicating design on a purely rational level leads to the quality of the design implementation staying mediocre. Too little trust is placed in the creative potential of the employees, in their ability to make their own decisions, to shape the process with their own skills, to take new approaches, and to break free from old teachings. The design and the individual applications remain rigid.
A better approach is to create an emotional access; to avoid teaching rules, but instead provide the reasons for these rules. “Start with Why!”, is what Simon Sinek recommends in his trailblazing eponymous TEDx speech. He discovered an underlying pattern that all successful organisations share. While all businesses know what they do (for example, make computers) and most know how they do it (for instance, with a special product design), the most successful businesses will start by saying why they exist (Apple: to change the status quo and to think differently), thus giving people meaning and a credo. This can also be applied to communicating design across the company. Instead of saying that they have a new corporate design and they used this concept to create it, brand managers should start by saying what the brand stands for and why this or that change has been made. If you can use this approach to win over employees, then they become brand ambassadors within the company themselves.
A great way to drive home a brand message emotionally is to use storytelling. Since time immemorial, stories have been used to enthral people, to kindle emotions, and to build trust. In his influential book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, the mythologist Joseph Campbell goes way back in time and finds that there is a basic structure that all successful stories share across all cultures: the so-called heroic journey, a narrative structure that also forms the basis for many Hollywood productions. This is also an approach that brand managers and designers can use: Which archetypical role does the brand occupy in the competitive environment? Which opponents or challenges does it have to overcome? How does it overcome these to be the victor in the end? Coca Cola is a good example of a brand that has referenced a very clear meta-narrative over many years: we are the drink for everyone. Presidents and workers, rich or poor, everyone drinks the same Coke. This great meta-narrative, which also presents a strong credo – the why –, can be used to develop campaign ideas, content, and social media strategies for everyday marketing work. The aim: to use dynamic storytelling to initiate online conversations and, hence, remain a relevant part of everyday culture. Equally, though, a clearly defined meta-narrative can deliver ideas internally and engage employees in conversations. Also numerous ideas for internal engagement concepts can be derived from this approach. Experiencing something personally and in a playful manner is a key aspect, because only once something has been experienced in real life can it be credibly and sustainably communicated to others.
Never underestimate the power of a new brand design: it changes the mindset of employees and can tap into new energy reserves. Even established companies can benefit from a reassessment of where their brand stands in terms of whether it coincides with the corporate culture the employees envisage and desire. If these two aspects do not harmonise then the brand will never appear credible to the outside world and the employees will remain latently dissatisfied. Ultimately, the employees have to believe in the design, because they are the people, who work with the brand every day and who represent it to the outside world.
1 Mike Kuniavsky, Smart Things – Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design, San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 2010.
As managing partner of the design agency Think Moto, which he and Katja Wenger founded in 2010, brand adviser Marco Spies is in charge of the user experience und service design division. Think Moto develops concepts for and designs brand identities, digital products and services for companies and organisations. Spies recently wrote about the subject of multiscreen in form 258.