What’s a Brand Bible, and What Do You Need to Make One?

It happens more and more these days. Young, scrappy startups want copy and some taglines for their new app, gizmo, or e-commerce initiative. Maybe they’re even open to a new name. “Tell me about your brand,” I ask to get the ball rolling. Is there an existing style guide? Press releases, sell sheet, or an investor deck? Customer profiles? “Well, not really…” which is usually followed by “…and we’d like to launch in the app store by the end of this week.” In other words, let’s paint the plane while it’s at cruising altitude.

Don’t get me wrong, I actually relish the challenge of figuring out a brand as I go. The blank sheet of paper can be a bit daunting, but for a little while, the brand is what I make of it.

For these “just figure it out” assignments, the challenge calls not only for creativity, but prescriptive creativity. In addition to being deployment-ready, the signed-off copy I deliver should have the seeds of what will sprout into the brand’s pillars. I aim to create a variety of taglines in different tones—like clever, sassy, neighborly, straight-laced, or aspirational—and, time permitting, two or three sets of copy with different voices. Some of my ideas are rhetorical and should never see the light of day, but their inclusion can help me gauge client reaction (“Definitely not that!” or fingers crossed, “YES!”) and provide some guardrails for the next draft. Hopefully my musings will spark internal client discussions that get juices flowing about what the brand is going to be when it grows up.

No time or budget for a proper branding exercise? You should at least be able to answer these six questions. Click To Tweet

If you’re asking, “Why do I even need a brand bible?” well, just like the old PSA about reading, it’s fundamental. Branding exercises pour the cement of your brand’s foundation. While usually under the purview of the marketing department, a solid brand bible permeates and lends its voice to almost all areas of an organization, like sales, hiring and onboarding, and press/communications. It impacts company culture, even down to the way workspaces are designed. Critically, brand guidelines ensure consistency as a company evolves and grows its workforce.

A brand bible also provides the rules of the road for external creative partners like us. I was tasked by a former employer to work across teams to come up with fun and unique integrated marketing ideas for the insurance giant, Aflac. They have a well-defined and time-tested brand, made famous by their feathered “spokesperson”—and when the creative brief came to us, rule #1 was “The duck does not speak” (except to quack “AFLAC!”). Detailed brand filters and well-defined boundaries around their star character allowed us to quickly know how we could—and couldn’t—proceed with on-air and digital creative.

Sure, a major insurance company has the resources to conduct ongoing branding studies and the research that underpins them. But if your organization doesn’t have the bucks or the time as you rush your idea to market, a branding exercise is probably a “nice-to-have” that you’ll worry about down the road if all goes well. In the meantime, as you reach out to folks like Wordsmithie to help with your creative efforts, here are six questions you should try to answer as you get the process started:

Who are you talking to? Well, duh. I’m sure you’ve thought about this at length already, but it’s great to get it on paper. Of course, who doesn’t want a top IT decision maker with a billion-dollar budget or an Gen-Z Instagram influencer with eight million followers and a six-figure annual household income? But since you also need to start thinking about tone and voice at this point, it’s a good idea to have a vision of an actual person (or a fictional character) in mind. Who might that be? Your next door neighbor at a backyard barbecue? The sharks on Shark Tank? A harried minivan-driving soccer mom? You need to remember you won’t be speaking to demographic pie charts, you’ll be speaking to a real person. Which brings us to…

How do you want to talk to them? Tone and voice are important items in a brand bible. In a nutshell, your brand’s voice is how it talks to its audience—the underlying and unchanging personality traits like “savvy,” “approachable,” or “scholarly.” Think about what words are in your brand vocabulary and what words or phrases are out-of-bounds (for example, a discount luxury fashion e-tailer might prefer to say “great prices” or “good value” as opposed to “bargain prices” or “cheap”). You may also want to consider having a couple of distinct voices for different uses, like one that’s more informal for social media posts and another more businesslike for press releases.

Tone goes beyond the words on the page as it conveys your brand’s attitude and evokes emotions in your audience. It’s like putting an emoji at the end of a text message to contextualize your intent. Emotional intelligence and empathy go a long way here as you put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Think of a flight attendant sternly saying to you as you gab on your cell phone, “Sir, you need to end your call and put your phone into airplane mode. Now!” versus a more chatty “Hi . . . we’ll be departing soon, so just be sure to finish up your call before we push back from the gate, okay? Thanks!” While both requests have the same goal, the first comes off as a chastising imperative with possible negative consequences if you don’t follow through. The second is a friendly appeal that implies trust that you’ll do the right thing, which is more likely to leave you with the warm fuzzies and willing to cooperate.

Who are your competitors, and why are you better? I’m sure you’ve thought a lot about this already, too. Jot your competitive differentiators down on paper and just as importantly, get them into your internal monologue. As a creative partner, this is going to be one of the first questions we’ll ask you. Plus, it’s great to have on the tip of your tongue if you need to launch into your elevator pitch at a moment’s notice.

Who’s getting it right? What brands do you admire? Whose campaigns, visual design, logo, tag lines, music choice, etc. hit the ball out of the park? Think broadly here—it doesn’t necessarily have to be a company in your industry.

Why should they care? Working as we do, mostly in the tech marketing space, it’s pretty common for a startup to come to us with a game-changing idea that began as the brainchild of a software engineer; sometimes it’s the engineer who reaches out to engage our services. We’ll get all the reasons why the app or service is amazing—what it is and what it does and why the code is ingenious.

But the important question that we’ll try to help you answer is, why should your customer care? How is your idea going to make life easier or more fun, make businesses work more smoothly and improve the bottom line, and most importantly, help the customer sleep better at night? Even though you’re pitching a solution for greater efficiency, profitability, entertainment value, or whatever, you’re talking to people in the end.

What are we trying to accomplish? Ah, the mission statement. Or vision statement. While the terms are often used interchangeably, the former says more of what your company does, what it wants to accomplish, and what the plan is to make that happen. Vision statements are more forward looking and not necessarily actionable, i.e., what your company hopes to achieve and the impact that’ll be made. While we can help you craft a short, sweet, and clear statement around which internal and external stakeholders can rally, coming to the table with thoughts about your company culture and values, strategy, and objectives will help define who you are and what you want to become as you grow.

Spending a little time to think about these six questions will go a long way in helping an agency like ours help you—and put you on the path to developing a brand that’s durable, clear, memorable, and most importantly, resonant. Your brand bible won’t (and shouldn’t) be set-it-and-forget-it; rather, it’ll be a living, breathing document. But with a solid foundation, your brand will be poised to grow and face a future that’s surely going to offer up a lot of unknowns, competitive pressures, moving targets, and imperative change.

ABOUT Michael Gaylord