The phrasing “on-brand” or “off-brand” is popular enough nowadays that it’s often taken as a joke. You might call a friend’s shoe choice “off-brand” compared to their more typical, consistent style, or call an overpriced drink “on-brand” for a luxury restaurant. Major organizations, however, use this language far more seriously, and for good reason. They’re correctly worried about brand compliance. What does it mean for a company to stay brand compliant, and why does it matter?
What and Why: Definitions and Importance
Casey Schmidt offers this definition of brand compliance: “…an approach that maintains the fundamentals of a brand to prevent errors or misuse… consistency in assets like images and logos… Brand compliance structures projects and campaigns so that messaging and other elements stay true to brand values.”
Schmidt immediately notes that brand compliance is different for every brand, a logical follow-up to the ‘values’ element of his definition; brands should be compliant not to some predefined set of values, but those that adhere to their individual organization. What is perfectly brand-compliant for a skateboard company might be dramatically non-compliant for an ink manufacturer.
Moving to the next question—the “why it matters” of brand compliance—we can look to the data to justify the pursuit. Stanford University’s findings that 75% of consumers “judge an organization’s credibility and trustworthiness on its website’s look, tone, and feel” are highly persuasive. It’s safe to guess that you’ve come across a poorly structured website that turned you away from a business. The danger is real.
Moreover, the danger is real because of how avoidable it is. A bad website is off-brand because it shows neglect, or an apparently conscious lack of effort. It’s not 1990; website design is not a brave new world for the highly-skilled few. Taking the time to ensure that your site looks appropriately professional should never be a bridge too far.
And on that website (and elsewhere), avoid low-quality content. While it’s true that brand compliance is different for every organization, one unifying factor is that brand compliance should never include the descriptor “low-quality.” This point is summed well by Siteimprove: “…if your branded content is regularly inconsistent and sloppy, what’s to say your quality, service, and products will be of a consistently high quality?”
Good Impressions and Consistency
Being brand-compliant is analogous to making a good first impression. On an individual level, if you meet someone for the first time and present yourself as a stable, positive, engaging person, and ensure that your appearance is pleasant and appropriate, that person will likely be comfortable with talking to you, and spending time with you, considerably more.
Of course, a good impression doesn’t guarantee a best friend—just as brand compliance doesn’t guarantee instant conversion. It is the first, crucial step to that conversion, however.
So, how can you maintain brand compliance? Katie Oberthaler writes that brand compliance ensures that all branded assets are uniform by “us[ing] consistent messaging … include the correct design elements … match the brand’s voice, tone & personality regardless of format or platform … [and] adhere to regulatory rules.”
This sounds like a lot, but it’s actually simpler advice than it appears. Let’s take each of the four ideas in turn.
Four Keys to Compliance
Consistent messaging simply means you are, to a high degree, saying the same thing with all of your communications, marketing, and interactions with the public. If your brand is defined by being a friend to the working person, write to that audience, about that audience, and most certainly for that audience. If your brand is edgy and surprising, make sure your marketing campaigns excite and provoke. Companies that fail to do this confuse their target markets. Consistency is crucial to an understanding, and loyalty, from those you serve.
Including the correct design elements is quite similar, inasmuch as it’s basically visual consistency. If your brand has been represented by blue and green colors for ten years and you suddenly decide to switch to orange and purple, you’ll see some serious confusion. The same goes for logos, mascots, icons, fonts, and just about any design facing your consumers. You want people to associate characters, colors, icons, and the like with your brand. They cannot do that if you change these elements every other month, so be as consistent visually as you are in your messaging.
Matching the brand’s voice, tone, and personality across every format or platform is key, and an outgrowth of the above two points. You’ll define your organization to the world through your consistent messaging and designs—now, make sure you’re able to fit it anywhere you want people to encounter your brand. From billboards to Instagram, television to magazine, your message needs to fit both the platform and the brand. If your brand is funny, then lean into that, but remember that what’s funny in print doesn’t always translate on video, and so on.
Finally, make sure your brand meets regulatory requirements. Oberthaler mentions disclosures, claims, and packaging as examples. The short way to explain this one? Brand compliance means not getting sued. Lying about what your product does is not brand compliance, and faulty or dangerous packaging is going to make customers justifiably frustrated with you. And they’ll only be frustrated once—nobody’s giving a second chance to a company whose box cut their hand or whose packaging let their electronics arrive shattered.
Consumer Confidence, Brand Integrity
Brand compliance is a business’ way of staying true to itself, just as you do when you decide how to dress, how to talk, and the impression you want people to have. It’s a way of showing that you are reliable and predictable, and that you will offer the same service today as you did yesterday. These are qualities that customers clearly desire in a business, and brand compliance is one of your best tools to showcase these qualities.
How does your company maintain brand compliance? What was the most recent example of brand non-compliance that you remember seeing? Of Oberthaler’s categories, which do you find most important? Is there a brand ‘persona’ that you think would make brand compliance particularly difficult?