How to Create Effective Brand and Style Guides for AEC Firms

AEC firms imagine, design and build the world we live in. Critical and innumerable, their contributions to society can be seen everywhere human beings choose to live, laugh, work and love. So, why don’t we remember them?

The answer is simple. AEC firms do not prioritize marketing, often to the detriment of their brand. Fortunately, this AEC marketing guide has the brand and style information you need to make your AEC brand recognizable, memorable and the envy of your competition. 

Brand and Style Guides for AEC Firms

Successful AEC brands, i.e. firms with brand recognition utilize a brand style guide, defined as a set of rules and standards that communicate how a brand should be presented to the consumer. Like a rulebook for your brand, these brand and style guides help graphic designers, marketers, web developers, community managers, and business developers stay on the same page, and present a unified vision of the brand to the public.

How to Create Effective Brand and Style Guides for AEC Firms

There is a lingering misconception among AEC firms regarding branding and its relevance to the industry. The misconception is derived from the RFP and proposal process, which pits competing firms against each other in the boardroom, instead of on the shelf. 

In other words, AEC firms often deprioritize their branding efforts because they falsely believe that the RFP and proposal process is the driving force behind business development. In contrast, an Accenture survey found that 65% of consumers are influenced to buy a service by the words, actions, values and beliefs of a company’s employees—not just the sales team or marketing spokesperson.

To create a sense of brand belonging, it is, therefore, critical for firm leadership to not only establish their brand positions, but make them crystal clear to all employees, and authentic to the organization’s culture. As you might expect, creating a consistent style guide for AEC firms isn’t easy, but with these tools you can build an unforgettable brand guide with relative ease.

Define: Establish Who You Are, What You Do and Why Do You Do It.

To protect your brand, ensure brand consistency, and safeguard your brand’s impact in the market, you need a clear brand style guide that not only explains how your brand should be presented in all situations, but also how it should NOT appear.

The best way to do that is to define your brand, its values, and how you build trust in the community. The result of this process is your brand story, which helps you provide context for, and give meaning to, the visual elements that you use to represent your brand, and create a cohesive brand image. 

However you choose to present your brand’s story, the following elements will serve as the foundation of your brand experience, and inform the rest of your style guide.

  • Brand Name – Defining the name of your brand seems trivial until you experience all the different ways in which people mispronounce it. Be it the name of your firm’s founder, an acronym, or a reference to a vision, remember that good brand names are memorable, simple and easy to pronounce. 
  • Brand Origins – Like the DNA of your business, the origin of your organization serves as the foundation on which your brand is built. It’s the story of how you found your purpose and discovered the value your service would bring to the world.
  • Brand Purpose – Brand purpose is your brand’s reason for being beyond making money. It should connect with customers on an emotional level and show customers that your vision aligns with their beliefs.
  • Brand Promise – A brand promise is the value or experience your customers can expect to receive when they interact with your company. It’s how you set expectations and show that you care about the customer experience.
  • Brand Values – Your core brand values serve as the compass that guides your brand story, actions, behaviors, and decision-making process. Therefore, it’s important to take the time to define your brand values so they can easily be understood by your employees, customers, partners, and the market.
  • Personality – Brand personality is the collection of emotional, intellectual, and behavioral patterns unique to your brand and consistent over time. In other words, your brand personality is how you would describe your brand if it were a person.

Design: Lay the Visual Foundation

With your brand elements defined, it’s time to lay the visual foundation of your brand, i.e. the clearly identifiable colors, logos, and typefaces that make your brand identifiable and easily recognizable. 

This process should also include the development of a clear set of rules for how your visual elements should — and shouldn’t — be applied. Establishing your brand’s visual identity can be a daunting process. You can make the process easier by analyzing your competitors, paying extra close attention to the elements that help them stand out from other brands in your industry.

  • Primary Logo – A logo is a visual shortcut for identifying a brand. Your logo should be available in a variety of sizes and file formats for download, and show how it works in a variety of situations — the less you leave to chance, the better for your brand.
  • Secondary Marks and Symbols – In some cases, you may have a symbol that can be used on its own, or a separate logo to identify your corporate brand identity. These secondary logos should evoke the main brand, repeating some of the shapes, colors, or elements.
  • Size and Spacing – A significant portion of logo design is size and spacing. Your logo should always have enough space to breathe or the impact will be wasted. The use of your logo should, therefore, include specifications for minimum size, and how much space to include around the logo symbol or wordmark, i.e. the ‘exclusion zone’.
  • Correct Logo Usage –Your brand style guide must be clear about how your logo should, and shouldn’t, be used. This is to ensure your brand presents a cohesive, easily recognizable image in the market in every foreseeable situation in which it may be used.
  • Brand Colors – Color should be used judiciously throughout your branding to evoke the emotion or experience with which your brand wants to be associated. This includes your official brand colors, your extended color palette, and the colors against which your brand can be used.
  • Color Ratios – Whatever your brand colors, it pays to stipulate the ratio in which those colors should be used. For example, The University at Buffalo makes it very clear it wants to see its heritage blue dominating at 50%, followed by white (40%), light or dark gray (5%) and just a splash of one of its secondary colors.
  • Accessibility – It’s best to optimize your brand choices to make your brand as accessible as possible. This may include nominating high color contrast ratios for text and interactive elements, considering mobile audiences, and avoiding problematic color combinations such as red and green.
  • Typography – Typography can distinguish your brand from the crowd, convey your brand personality and even captivate your audience. The typefaces you choose to represent your brand should be easy to read and flexible enough to cover all the times and places you need to say something.

Determine: Research Your Audience, Value Proposition, and Competition

Having defined your brand and designed your image, it’s time to establish your audience, determine your value proposition and identify your primary competitors. In other words, it’s time to identify your customers and how best to appeal to them before your competitors.

Fortunately, your firm’s value proposition serves as the core of your competitive advantage, but only if it clearly articulates why someone would want to work with your firm instead of a competitor.

Definition: A value proposition is a short statement that communicates why a customer should choose to work with your firm. It’s more than just a service description — it’s the specific solution that your firm provides AND the promise of value that a customer can expect you to deliver.

Think of your value proposition as a unique identifier for your business. Without it, customers won’t have a reason to work with you. They may even choose a competitor simply because that firm communicates its value proposition clearly in its marketing campaigns and sales process.

Before you ask – No, your value prop is not interchangeable with your slogan, or any other brand asset, like your tagline or mission statement. Your value proposition explains what you offer and why customers should choose to work with you, whereas your mission statement explains your objective as an organization.

You can separate the two brand assets by remembering that your mission statement should be goal-oriented, i.e. reflect the objectives of your firm, whereas your value proposition should reflect your service, i.e. what your firm has to offer the customer. Here are four examples from OpenAsset and our Digital Asset Management solution:

Value Proposition: “The only project-based DAM.”

Mission Statement: “To help AEC firms win more business.”

Vision: “Inspire people through visualization of the built world.”

Tagline: “Find, use and share your assets faster and easier than ever.”

Create a Value Proposition Canvas

One way to identify your value proposition is to create a value proposition canvas, which enables your firm to structure your services around the customers needs. The goal of the process is to identify how your firm provides value within the market.

  1. Identify Your Customers – Create a customer profile to represent your target customer. The customer profile consists of three areas: jobs, expectations and pain points. It’s important to start here, because the answers to these questions can influence the rest of the value proposition canvas.
  1. Create a value map for services – Three specific sectors help describe what the business offers to the customer: gain creators, pain relievers, and services. You need to identify all three to create the most gain and alleviate the most pain for your customers.
  1. Determine value proposition-customer fit – The next step is to create a ranking process that prioritizes products and services based on how well they address the customer profile.

All together, your value proposition canvas should show how your business provides value within the market and enable your firm to introduce new offers to the market and enhance existing services.

Distribute: Speak With One Brand Voice

The final step in creating a brand and style guide for your AEC firm is to establish your brand voice and use it to distribute your message. The best way to define your brand voice is to consider your audience, your brand category, and the markets in which you operate. 

You should also consider headlines, sentence style, grammar, punctuation, common abbreviations, and any terminology that is unique to your industry.

Establish Voice and Tone

Voice and tone are often used interchangeably, but they are different and equally important to creating a consistent brand voice. Though your brand voice shouldn’t change, your tone may alter depending on the situation. Think of it like dialing up or down different characteristics at different times.

OpenAsset’s brand and style guide not only lays out our writing principles and goals, but also describes our brand voice, which is genuine, translational, dryly humorous, and always informative. 

Our tone is professional and expressed in our comprehensive style guide which covers abbreviations, capitalization, use of apostrophes, numbers, and more. It also includes sections on accessibility and writing for different channels, as well as a summary.

Tools and Resources that Improve Brand Consistency 

Now that your brand and style guide is in place, it’s time to distribute it to the rest of your firm and ensure stakeholders have the information and tools they need to create on- brand materials. It’s also important to monitor how your brand guidelines are being implemented to ensure they’re applied correctly. Many brands make their brand standards available online via static downloadable PDFs — but there are a variety of other tools you can use to ensure your brand stays on track.

You can read all about them in our article on how to create a marketing tech stack, or you can contact OpenAsset to improve the way your team finds, stores, shares and utilizes the digital assets you need to market your brand, sell your service and win more business.

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