Guidelines: a danger for brands turning to content

one way sign Do guilelines stifle creativity?

Adidas has commissioned the Adidas Playbook – a “major piece of content strategy work” – from Altogethernow, one of its agencies.

According to the story in Campaign, which reads like a press release cut and paste, Playbook is… well… um. Ok, I’ll cut and paste it: the work is “designed to be a set of principles, philosophy and best practice that will assist content creators working for Adidas worldwide and create unity in their output.”

The item lacks a description of Playbook’s purpose; it sounds like a set of guidelines for content producers. Although having worked in one of Adidas’s agencies myself, I can easily imagine it commissioning a set of content marketing guidelines.

And why not? Some brands love guidelines. Sometimes they are a handy prop; at other times they are an indispensible arse cover for brand managers. Hand them to the agency and make it their problem. Many ad agencies have done exactly that for things like logo implementation. How to use it on a double page spread, in black and white, at the bottom and never at the top of a page (except on a letterhead but only in yellow). That sort of thing. They used to exist in big fat folders, and probably still do.

Guidelines for content

Seeing as it’s unclear what Adidas is trying to achieve here, let’s talk about the broad idea of brands creating content guidelines. For anyone who has looked at a corporate guidelines document will know how hard it is to put such a thing together.

It is highly unlikely any company would attempt to stipulate what you could/couldn’t write about. Such a document is far more likely to cover tone of voice and a list of dos and don’ts.

Also it is erroneous to suggest that publishers do not issue the same sort of thing to journalists. Yes it is unlikely they would receive a set of rules about what they could and couldn’t discuss in print. But they do get a style sheet which is itself a guideline on how to write.

What benefit

Style guides that tell you how you should express percentages or job titles are useful. But these are closed questions. A list of principles and philosophies is much more open to interpretation and that is where problems could arise. It boils down to a question of whether somebody thinks they are breaking the rules or not. The danger is that idea creation will become more conservative because users do not want to break the guidelines.

Given that many companies cite idea creation as their biggest challenge, creating a set of guidelines could hinder rather than help the creative process.

Conclusion

There is a reason why brands create guidelines for logos. Consistency is key in any marketing campaign and designers need to have the rules clearly set out.

Content is different. The problem with creating a set of guidelines is that it stifles idea creation. Proponents of an approach like this would argue that a content guidelines document is designed to inspire, while keeping on message. Yet, when you create a set of rules, the first thing people do is check they haven’t been broken.

For some that is a barrier, for others it is helpful scaffolding. We frequently argue that brands need to adopt journalistic practices. So does the FT make stipulations on idea generation for its journalists? Probably not; that’s what an editor is for. Does the FT produce guidelines for companies producing native ads? Highly likely.

So the key is: show the way but don’t hold back. Content marketing agencies producing more content on how to produce content looks to be a growing trend with the sector continually scaling up.

Guidelines: a danger for brands turning to content is part of Content24, the blog for London content marketing agency FirstWord.

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