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.

Sizzle your way to better brand language

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So we were down at the Garden Centre the other day, buying a goldfish. That was a lot of fun – but for me, the really exciting part of the trip was finding issue 4 of Weber’s ‘Grill On’ barbecue magazine, because their brand language is fantastic.

We have two Weber barbecues – a big gas one and a little charcoal one – and we’re basically barbecue nuts. At the end of a hard day, few things are more relaxing than standing out in the back garden with a cold drink and something delicious sizzling on the grill.

And Weber have transformed what we barbecue and how we barbecue it, because they understand the real purpose of brand language. The best brand writing doesn’t tell, it shows. It helps people understand how wonderful your brand is by showing them how to get the most out of what it does.

Weber’s awesome cookbooks

Weber do that really well. They even publish cookbooks – we have their complete barbecue book and smoking guide. Both are fantastically informative, including deep dives into barbecue theory and practice, all-purpose grilling tips and tricks and of course a small mountain of delicious recipes.

Those books contain some of the most practical, informative food writing I’ve ever read. Weber’s content strategy turns their barbecuing expertise into useful, practical guidance that transforms their users’ brand experience. They pretty much guarantee that you’ll get the best out of your Weber kit.

Oh, and the ‘Grill On’ magazine is excellent too. It’s basically the Weber catalogue – but before you get to any product info, you have fifty six beautifully designed and written pages of barbecue recipes, grilling science and practical info. It’s a great read.

But what’s in it for Weber?

All that content’s great for the Weber barbecuer, because it brings the whole process to life in a way that’s practically, positively relevant to them. After all, they’re the ones paying good money for Weber kit. They have every right to all the help and support the brand can give.

And of course people who know how to get the most out of a brand automatically become excellent ambassadors for it. Whenever anyone sees them using it, they see high quality results achieved in a confident, purposeful way. What’s not to like?

Then they start talking about it.

You’ve had a sample of me raving about Weber above. If we were chatting face-to-face, I’d probably have pulled one of the books off the shelf to show you. You might also be munching away on a delicious recipe from it. So you’d probably end up feeling pretty positive about Weber barbecues.

The big brand language question

That’s what good content does. And it all goes to show the most important question to ask yourself when you’re writing for your own brand. It’s not:

  • How do we tell people how awesome we are?

Instead, ask yourself:

  • How do we help people do awesome things?

Then you’ll be on to a winner.