Do brand guidelines kill creativity?


If you’re ever really bored, bind your legs together with tape and try running around.

You’ll feel like a copywriter trying to work with a typical set of brand guidelines – if the ones I’ve come across are anything to go by. It’s not easy trying to perform when you’re restrained by loads of rules.

Of course I exaggerate, I’m an adman after all. Maybe your brand guidelines allow a lot of creative freedom. Orange’s, for example, inspired its agencies to create great advertising and direct marketing.

But my experience suggests that Orange is a rare brand. Working as a freelance copywriter, over the last ten years I’ve seen a lot of guidelines. I’ve even had to write some. When I read a new set, I get a sense of déjà vu. They dictate similar styles of imagery (usually library photos), typeface, headline lengths and tone of voice. They’re all excellent at controlling campaign uniformity, and equally superb at stifling creativity.

It’s not surprising then that the campaigns created using these rules end up looking and feeling similar. More about bland than brand, they lack that essential cut-through.

It doesn’t have to be this way though.

Look at Nike. If there are guidelines for this brand, they certainly don’t show in Nike’s ads and other communications. Nike’s art directors and copywriters appear to have the freedom to create fresh, big ideas. Their campaigns are varied in look and feel, but they always seem right for their target audiences. Of course the thing that holds them together is a Nike attitude.

In my own business, the most successful brand I’ve worked on over the past ten years has very flexible guidelines.

I think flexibility is one solution to the problems caused by brand guidelines.

The other is to create a brand design idea so brilliant it sparks off more brilliance in the advertising and communications.

Do you disagree with any of the above? Or have you anything to add? I’d be delighted to hear from you.

2 replies
  1. Matthew Connaughton (
    Matthew Connaughton ( says:

    I believe brand guidelines reinforce a brand and its attributes – since it is up to the custodian of the brand to develop it. This said, I can only assume the question is posed as a result of being told “that’s too leftfield for our brand” – which is an unhealthy approach to take.

    There are too many people who are scared of using their brand and they feel it’s something that should be wrapped up in cotton wool and never be allowed to be outspoken. This approach is outdated and counterproductive.

    As someone with a wealth of experience in others abusing their brand (unbeknown to them in many cases), I don’t think you can easily say that brand guidelines stifle creativity. The decision makers tend to do that – regardless of what the guidelines say – if you take them anywhere near their comfort zone. Stifling creativity is not the (flawed?) document’s doing, but that of those who are charged with its “policing”.

  2. Dean
    Dean says:

    Hi Matthew – thank you for your comments. I agree, in many cases, the problem is with the people who police the brands. However, far too often I’ve found brand guidelines themselves at fault; they’re just too restrictive. I never used to see this problem before brand design gurus came along and started setting the rules for the ad and marketing agencies to follow.
    Did you see this prediction about brand management on today’s Brand Republic: Maybe, in future, brand guidelines will simply have to be more flexible.

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