Dungeons, dragons and brand guidelines

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Back in the day I used to play a lot of role playing games – Dungeons & Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, all of the classics. You’d get together with your friends, then head out into a whole new world and start exploring it, inventing and living its stories rather than just reading them. It was literally fantastic.

Creating your character was a big part of the fun. You’d roll the dice, see who and what you  could be, then fill out the character sheet that described your new self. Character generation began every game, because you can’t start adventuring until you know what sort of adventurer you want to be.

Brands are characters too

Brand guidelines always remind me of character sheets. Both describe who you’d like to be and how you’d like to move through the world:

A wizard might be very intelligent but not very strong. She’ll be a natural when it comes to casting spells, but she’ll never going to pick up the nearest battle axe and charge headlong into the fray.

A DIY brand might be very useful and durable but not very stylish. It’ll be perfect for priming and painting the garden shed, but it’ll never try to step into your front room and make it look spiffy.

The limits of description

The problem is, both character sheets and brand guidelines are really just aspirations – they’re not the actual achievement of those aspirations. I was very strongly reminded of that by a great little rant from games designer and narrative media consultant James Wallis.

It comes in the character generation section of his influential game ‘The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen’. Writing as the Baron, Wallis takes issue with how abstract the whole process is:

‘For character is not generated but forged on the anvil of life. It is only when the blows of experience ring in our ears that we move another step on life’s path… Our souls are formed first by doing then recollecting the experience of those deeds so that we and others might learn from the experience.’

We judge both people and brands not on how they talk the talk, but on how they walk the walk. Character only lives through action. We are what we do, not what we’d like to be.

You are what you do

That’s a tremendously important thing to remember when you’re building your own brand. Having a clear set of brand guidelines – a clear character sheet –  is very important. They help you understand and communicate who you’d like to be. But only action can define who your brand actually is.

So, once you’ve done all the thinking, make it practical. Test your brand aspirations out against your brand’s actual behaviour. If they match up, that’s great; but if they don’t, then you’ve got some work to do. It’s never enough to just tell people who you are – you have to show them too.

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