Introducing Brand Tone: the Style Guide's newest member

Earlier this year, I finally heeded the advice of the social media strategist that I work with at Amadeus Brand (hi Odette!), and I upped my Instagram game.

  Amadeus Brand  on Instagram

Amadeus Brand on Instagram

As a grandmother in the Gen-Y generation (or the granddaughter of Gen X, depending on the literature you’re reading) I am not as comfortable with une demonstration publique on social media as my more millennial friends. The thought of putting myself out there was excruciating, even if it were in the good name of business development. Odette was fabulous and she wrote me a great strategy to support my business objectives, which was to obviously to win new business, but also attract the right sort of business.

Off I went. I certainly haven’t set the world on fire and amassed a gazillion followers, but for the most part it’s a very enjoyable exercise and a good creative outlet where I can curate my own gallery of things that I visually admire, as well as share tips, inspiration and creative work from Amadeus Brand. As well as the enjoyment factor, my experience has also provided me a first-hand understanding of Instagram - a channel that many of my clients are now choosing to use as part of their marketing mix.

Success, Insta-style

Instagram is a unique beast. First and foremost, visuals are at the very heart of its proposition. The platform exists because it fills a need for people to tell stories in a visual way. There are other benefits, such as the ability to post long-form captions that Twitter's 280-character limit does not allow, which allows it to become a quasi micro-blogging channel (a plus for the wordsmiths out there). It also produces a ‘brand grid’ – thumbnails of each post organised into three never-ending columns, which is great for communicating a visual ‘umbrella’ of content, ripe for a speed of consumption that Facebook cannot match. For businesses who are visual in any sense – architects, designers, artists – participation on Instagram a no brainer, although I’m constantly impressed at the way that non-visual businesses are also using the platform to communicate.

 Small-business lawyer Jess Kerr from  Sinclair + May  is using Instagram to share knowledge and personalise her brand

Small-business lawyer Jess Kerr from Sinclair + May is using Instagram to share knowledge and personalise her brand

I’ve found that the best performing Instagram accounts have a tight, cohesive grid comprising of consistent imagery and colour. Each post appears to be strategically considered to work on two levels: singularly as a unique post, and collectively as part of the wider brand grid.

For maximum traction, I've established that a brand needs to be posting between 1-2 times per day, every day. That’s a lot of imagery! From a brand management perspective, this almost does my head in, and I’ve discovered that a traditional brand toolkit does not allow enough flexibility to allow for the thirst that social channels are demanding.

By way of background, a traditional brand toolkit typically allows for the following elements, which are usually documented via a visual brand style guide:

..a traditional brand toolkit does not allow enough flexibility to allow for the thirst that social channels are demanding.
  1. The logo: composition and usage guidelines

  2. Colour palette: identification of a suite of colour and their unique codes and breakdowns for application in a variety of environments

  3. Typography: specific fonts that should be used and how they should be applied

  4. Imagery style: types of imagery that should be used by the brand, be it photography, illustration, pattern or texture

Brand Tone: the new player

After playing the Insta-game for a few weeks, I quickly established that my own style guide was not cutting it. The two fonts that I'd designated - which in any other era would have been ample - didn't stretch far enough to cover the volume of content I now needed to produce. Ditto to the colour palette of six carefully-crafted colours that I'd selected. As a result, content creation for me became an organic exercise, driven by gut feel rather than adherence to any sort of documented brand guide rails. This is fine for a brand specialist, but I knew that my clients and other non-brand people would need something more robust. 

Enter 'Brand Tone': a new, natural inclusion for brand style guides which provides an overarching visual character of a brand. This character is driven by exploring the following dimensions:

Vibrancy

Will the tone of imagery be colourful or neutral?

Saturation

Will imagery be high or low in saturation?

 Source:  MadebyKaran  and  Odette & Co

Basic colour personality

Will the brand use imagery that is bright, earthy, pastel, monotone etc?

  Shillington Education  isn't afraid to use a bit of colour

Shillington Education isn't afraid to use a bit of colour

  Roar Publishing  peppers their grid with pastel pinks

Roar Publishing peppers their grid with pastel pinks

 
  Abbie Melle  takes the most delightful earthy images of rural scenes

Abbie Melle takes the most delightful earthy images of rural scenes

  New Brutalism  has curated the most incredible monotone collection of brutalist post-war British architecture

New Brutalism has curated the most incredible monotone collection of brutalist post-war British architecture

Photographic profile

If using photography, will there be rules around the type of image? Will it be coloured? Black and White?

  Eyes of Love  use of colour is central to her photography brand

Eyes of Love use of colour is central to her photography brand

  Fish Eye Dreams  black and white photography of Istanbul is quite remarkable

Fish Eye Dreams black and white photography of Istanbul is quite remarkable

Filter

Will you apply any Instagram filter? If so, which one is right for your brand?

Filter.jpg

The benefits of Brand Tone

The biggest benefit to establishing brand tone is that it allows brand custodians to be more creative and flexible in their identification and creation of brand content. Instead of being constrained by the constructs of the traditional brand guide, which may prescribe rigid directions for brand execution, it instead allows for an ‘anything goes’ approach as long as it fits within an overarching tone. I find this an important and practical consideration when one is producing content at the voracious speed that a successful Instagram presence dictates. 

...it allows brand custodians to be more creative and flexible in their identification and creation of brand content.

Brand tone is also an important tool for Instagram given the culture of ‘sharing’ other people’s content (with the appropriate credit, of course). ‘Re-gramming’ other content is an important tenet of Instagram’s community, and when done thoughtfully and appropriately is a really lovely part of using the platform. Denoting brand tone allows for content creators to apply rigour to the identification of shareable content from other brands, as they can quickly identify imagery that will visually enhance the brand grid.

It also allows for additional creativity in using the colour palette. Instead of sticking to a rigid set of colours (most brands identify around six brand colours), the palette may be explored in a more tonal way, by using tints or even colours outside of the palette that fit the overall tone (0 to 255 is my go-to tool here).

Make use of captions

There is a whole other post that could be devoted to brand tone-of-voice (I'll pop it on the list!) but it pays to give it some thought if you are spending some time developing your brand tone. Will your brand aim to inform as simply as possible? Will it exude some personality; be it cheeky, irreverent or even a parody? (This can work - check out @garyjanetti).

Much has been said about Instagram's new algorithms that are rewarding content that inspires connection (AKA that dreaded word 'engagement'). Kick-ass visual creatives are obviously always going to inspire appreciation through an old-fashioned double-tap (like) and if your audience is particularly moved, a comment. This is all good for one's Insta-game. 

We are increasingly seeing engagement being driven through the use of content captions, where a brand has an opportunity to inform, educate and/or delight their audience with a few (or many) lines of text. It's not unusual to see a relatively plain image garner 1000's of likes or comments due to the weight and value of its caption. 

There is no one best option here, and the best approach is to go with whatever approach allows you to add the most value to your audience.   

You can't trump creativity

In the end, when producing content at-pace for social media, you can't beat good old fashioned creativity. It's true - the best and most loved accounts out there demonstrate often exquisite creativity, be it through visuals or their captions. It's a frequent lament from my clients: they take great pride in their grid and want to look as polished as they can. Fortunately, with a bit of legwork up front defining a robust brand tone, nearly anyone can up their social game and get their brands working hard and looking great.

Have you seen any brands doing a good job with their tone? Leave your favourites in the comments and I'll check them out!