As the purpose and functionality of a licensing program style guide evolve to better serve both licensed brand owners and licensee partners, we see a shift in the questions we’re asked most often by our clients. Their questions shed light on the challenges they’re facing as the licensing industry itself continues to evolve. Our ongoing conversations with our clients, whether we’re discussing a specific opportunity or simply chatting about their unique perspectives on the brand licensing landscape, are extremely valuable to us as one of the licensing industry’s premiere design consultancies. The insights gleaned from these conversations help us serve our clients better, and also serve our readership better in the context of our newsletter and our blog.
With this in mind, we’ve decided to share our responses to the five questions we’re asked most frequently by our clients about style guide design.
Can a core licensing program style guide include more than one style of artwork?
Typically, a licensed brand’s core style guide would only include artwork in one art style. However, the artwork may be represented in a highly rendered format along with an appropriate stylistic interpretation in vector format. For example, a character-based property may have CG or Photoshop rendered poses as well as vector artwork of those same poses.
This is not to say that multiple art styles should never be included in a licensed brand’s core style guide. There just needs to be a valid and compelling reason to do so. If the brand is well-established as a licensed IP, and consumers are aware of multiple stylistic interpretations, then it would be appropriate to include multiple styles, as long as the usage of each style is properly standardized.
For example, the Peanuts licensing program features comic strip character artwork in multiple art styles, with each reflective of the way in which Charles M. Schulz’s interpretation of the beloved Peanuts characters evolved over the years. Therefore, the Peanuts Global Brand Guide organizes the comic strip art styles by the different art “eras” of the strip, which are defined by the decade in which the art appeared. The guide provides strict standardization for the usage of this artwork, which does not allow licensee partners to mix artwork from different eras.
How important is it to include examples of packaging in a brand’s licensing program style guide?
I’m always surprised to hear this question, since package design is just as critical to a licensed brand’s success in the marketplace as establishing the right partnerships and developing great products. The answer is simple. If the licensed brand already benefits from a separate, stand-alone packaging program guide, then it isn’t necessary to include examples of packaging within its licensing program style guide. However, if a stand-alone packaging program does not exist, it’s imperative to include at the very least a rudimentary representation of packaging examples within the brand’s licensing program style guide. Otherwise, each licensee partner will develop their own look for their product’s packaging. This will result in a lack of visual consistency and a missed opportunity for the brand owner to control the visual presence of the brand at retail.
Which consumer product categories should be represented among the product applications included in a brand’s licensing program style guide?
The good news here is that it is now understood my most licensed brand owners that product applications are an important component of a successful licensing program in today’s brand licensing environment. Let’s keep in mind that the reason to include product applications in a licensing program style guide is twofold: they serve as inspiration for licensee partners while illustrating the proper visual aesthetic for consumer product development; and, they can turn a style guide into a powerful sales tool that will attract potential licensee partners if the appropriate consumer product categories are represented.
Product applications should always represent product categories that are perfect fits for the brand – those that inspire the development of innovative, dedicated products that inherently share attributes with the licensed brand. These categories should be among those that the licensed brand is hoping to pursue anyway. Representing them as product applications will help potential partners envision how their products may look with the property’s art assets applied. Bringing the licensed brand to life on products within their category is a highly-persuasive way to on-board new licensee partners.
What’s the appropriate quantity of design elements to include in a style guide for a brand that’s entering the world of licensing for the first time?
For new licensed brands, there’s a fine line between developing too many and too few design elements. Both can be risky. Overinvesting in design elements development can be wasteful when the property is new and awareness is a bit low. It’s always better to test the marketplace with fewer design elements to see what’s resonating with consumers and what’s not, then course-correct accordingly as the property begins to experience success. Conversely, if the investment in design elements is too conservative, the same artwork will be leveraged by too many licensee partners and many consumer products will begin to look too similar. Or, the collection of design elements may be too narrow to accommodate certain types of products, which will create a challenge for licensees in those particular categories.
The appropriate quantity of design elements will differ from brand to brand, depending upon genre and consumer awareness. As an example, if we were developing a style guide for a new character-based property, we would recommend a minimum of 5-7 composed graphics, 2-3 patterns, 5-7 icons and, if there’s an awareness among consumers of key editorial phrases associated with the property, 3-4 type treatments.
How much standardization should be included in a brand’s licensing program style guide?
The phrase “style guide” often conjures the thought of a document loaded with strict standardization guidelines for the proper usage of a licensed brand’s design assets. However, a style guide’s purpose is to encourage and inspire creativity so that licensed consumer products will be innovative and unique while adhering to a particular visual aesthetic. The truth is, too much standardization can hinder creativity. If a licensed brand is standardized too heavily, licensee partners will be apprehensive when developing their consumer products. Their designs will most likely be too conservative or mundane.
Our rule of thumb for standardization within a licensing program style guide is to be as minimalistic as possible and as visual as possible. Standardize through examples of good execution in the form of product applications. Provide written standardization only where necessary and treat it as a short paragraph, a series of bullet points or a caveat. And, avoid the “dos and don’ts” approach if at all possible. It’s often perceived by licensee partners as an insult to their intelligence. In other words, rather than showing a page filled with ridiculous examples of what not to do with the property logo, simply state something akin to “the logo should never be changed in color, placed on a textured background, stretched horizontally or vertically or distorted in any manner.” Licensees will get the idea.
Sharing knowledge on style guide development best practices
Our goal at Design Force, Inc. is to continuously improve and evolve our approach to style guide development while helping our existing and soon-to-be clients with our expertise in this discipline. We’re happy to be sharing the above insights and welcome thoughts, feedback and any questions on this topic from our readership.