The Downfall (and Revival) of the Consumer Product Style Guide

Those of us who are veterans of the licensing business remember the days when every successful brand’’s style guide was a cleverly-conceived, highly-immersive printed masterpiece that stopped us in our tracks and commanded our attention. Envy-evoking and impossible to ignore, the purpose of these epic treasures was to deliver brand assets to licensee partners in the most compelling and engaging manner possible. The investment brand owners made in design and printing conveyed the care with which they addressed their intellectual property and their commitment to supporting its licensing program.

About 10 years ago, we saw this grandiose approach to style guide development begin to disappear. Although these guides were impressive, they were costly to produce, both in terms of financial investment and development time. And they were impossible to modify or update once they were printed and shipped. So, the focus shifted towards being cost effective and versatile.

Enter the style guide-as-PDF and digital asset management (DAM) sites. What a brilliant idea! The printing aspect of style guide development was eliminated, saving time and money. Shipping costs were eliminated as well. You could provide the style guide and access to your property’’s assets to all of your licensee partners with a single link in an email blast. And updates could be made on the fly without wasting precious time and expense for printing.

Although the advent of the DAM site was a major breakthrough, the new, cost-effective approach to style guide development came with a significant tradeoff. A tangible, emotional connection with a licensed brand gave way to a virtual, yet utilitarian approach to asset delivery. Although the content was different for every brand, all style guides began to feel similar due to the standard PDF format. Licensees were a bit disconnected from the brand because these digital style guides were stored on file servers and viewed on computer screens. Or worse… they were printed on letter-sized paper, 3-hole punched and put into binders alongside every other brand’’s style guide, effectively completing their homogenization. The wonderfully immersive experience that had provided brand distinction was all but gone.

Somewhere along the way, during this change in approach to style guide development, we collectively lost our sense of what a style guide is supposed to do besides deliver content and standardization. The digital style guide became just that…… a content delivery system. Nothing more than a glorified PowerPoint presentation. Some of our entertainment industry clients have even taken it a step further by establishing a single template design to be used for the style guides of every one of their licensed brands. Talk about losing distinction!

If you’’re looking at your brand’’s style guide merely as a vehicle to present seasonal, trend-focused artwork to your current licensees, you’’re misunderstanding its true purpose. We realize that, as licensing program design experts, the onus is on us to create an immersive experience with the licensed brand within the limitations of the rectangular, digital, PDF format.

Don’’t just do what’’s expected with regard to how the content is delivered. Dare to be different in the same way that every brand is different and has different needs. Don’’t just apply a template to establish consistency among your brands at the expense of differentiating them from each other, and perhaps from every other in the marketplace.

Striking a balance between function and experience is key. Let the page template design and navigation convey your brand’’s story, and allow it to unfold in a linear fashion as you guide your partners through your licensing program’’s assets. Connect with licensees on an emotional level by establishing an overarching visual theme for the guide that aligns with a central aspect of your brand’’s story. Infuse the style guide design with visual pauses – intro pages and section divider pages dedicated solely to bold imagery, background scenes, character art or even editorial phrases –– to make the journey from front to back cover more immersive and the storytelling more compelling.

Brand owners who embrace this approach are not allowing the PDF to be the downfall of the consumer product style guide. Instead, they’’re taking advantage of the format’’s versatility and creating digital masterpieces that rival their printed predecessors.

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