Brand Guidelines: Protect Your Higher Ed Brand from Misuse

Posted: January 21, 2016

You’re finally finished! After weeks of internal planning, weekends slaving over messaging and positioning, late nights designing logos and letterhead and more evenings spent with your font family than your own kids, your new brand is launched and live!

But wait. What’s that? The new logo stretched across a flyer with a multicolored gradient backdrop? Your mascot wearing an eye patch on a pirate-themed student party invitation? Fifteen new departmental “sub-brands” whose connections to your main logo are about as obvious as a riddle?

Brand Police

Perhaps you’ve heard the horror story. Perhaps you’ve lived it. Either way, without brand guidelines firmly in place, your new brand’s unveiling might as well be an unraveling. Here’s how to ensure your brand stays strong and consistent and your brand investment doesn’t go to waste.

What are brand guidelines?

Brand guidelines are an explanation of how an institution communicates its brand to its target audiences using clearly defined messaging and visual elements. The brand guidelines document should be a robust yet flexible resource to help stakeholders contribute to maintaining a strong institutional brand. It will include general guidelines as well as specific directions when necessary.

Anyone who will be creating communications on behalf of the institution (both internal and external) should have access to the brand guidelines. Since nothing in this document is confidential, many schools host a digital version on their website or intranet. The more accessible the document is, the more likely readers will be to use it as a communication resource.

Why do we need them?

In Marty Newumeier’s book The Brand Gap, he notes that brand is “not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.” The purpose of developing your brand is ultimately not about designing a nice logo or ensuring your materials look great. It’s about influencing the perception your target audiences have of the institution. Without a clear brand definition and consistent approach, the audience is left to form their own opinion, which may not be exactly what you had in mind.

Brand guidelines ensure that stakeholders across the institution have access to the tools and information they need to consistently reinforce the brand that you’ve worked so hard to develop. Students, faculty, staff and leadership should all be advocates and champions of the new brand to bring it to life both internally and in the community.

What should be included?

Not all brands are the same. Therefore, not all brand guidelines should be the same. It’s important to structure the guidelines to meet the needs of your institution and your audience. The sections listed below are suggestions of content we often see included in effective brand guidelines.

An Introduction

History – Give the audience a brief history of your institution’s brand. Include information like the formal launch date, who contributed to developing the brand, how much time went into this effort and what types of research were conducted to make it as successful as possible. Providing this information gives your readers a stronger connection to the brand.

Goals – For any project, we recommend starting with goals. The same goes for a rebrand, or the creation of brand guidelines. It’s easy to misunderstand brand guidelines as a list of rules for rules’ sake, but there are important goals that brand guidelines help the institution achieve. If people understand not just “what” the rules are but “why” they matter, they’ll be more likely to uphold them.

Audiences – This may be obvious to those of us in marketing and communications, but other people using your guidelines may not remember that their communications will reach beyond current students, faculty and staff. A friendly reminder to keep prospective students in mind as well as alumni, donors and the community can go a long way. You can take this one step further by including specific audience personas, as opposed to simply listing out various audience groups. This will help readers get to know their audiences and keep them top of mind while creating new content.

How To Use These Guidelines– Many readers may not be familiar with brand guidelines, or even be aware that a brand is something that requires work to maintain. Explain to them that this document should be the first point of reference for any and all institutional communications, both internal and external.


Brand Personality and Differentiators – We often refer to these as pillars and attributes. No matter what terminology your institution is using, be sure to list your brand messaging points along with a description of each one and why we use them. It’s important for readers to understand why we have brand messaging in order for it to really stick. Also, this may be the first time that some of your readers have encountered this terminology.

Tagline and Story – Hopefully, after listing your brand pillars and attributes, the tagline will be easy to remember and serve as a representation of the rest of your brand messaging. Many schools have a story behind the tagline that summarizes the pillars and attributes. This is a great asset to help solidify the brand for all stakeholders.


Tone and Voice – A huge part of communicating your brand is consistency in the written word. This includes print publications, website content, internal memos and more.

Editorial Style Guide – Most institutions follow the Associated Press (AP) Style Guidelines. In addition to making note of the preferred published style guide, it’s helpful to provide answers to common questions such as abbreviations, academic degree, acronyms, numbers, times and titles.

Social Media – Facebook posts, Tweets and Instagram captions are a huge part of an institution’s day to day communication with many different audiences. We often find that major segments of the institution (schools, departments, programs, etc.) have their own social media accounts. It’s critical that everyone use the same standards when communicating on social media to ensure brand cohesion.


Logo Use – Misuse of the logo is possibly the most common offense in higher ed marketing. More often than not, the offender doesn’t even know what they did wrong. Here’s a quick list of notes to include regarding your institution’s logo.

  • Different variations (primary, secondary, vertical, horizontal, etc.)

  • Academic vs athletic

  • Full color, two color, grayscale, black and white

  • Placement

  • Spacing

  • Size and proportion

  • Examples of logo misuse (that way there’s no excuse)

Brand Architecture – This is especially important for larger institutions with lots of different departments. Brand architecture addresses how the logo should be treated when used as part of a specific unit’s logo. Once again, we’ve published more details on this issue.

Color Pallette – Give users the exact CMYK, RGB, HEX and Pantone information for your color pallette to ensure proper use. Even for someone who doesn’t know what those mean, it will force them to think twice before using just any shade of red. Be sure to specify the primary color pallette vs secondary and accent.

Typography – For all of the designers out there, this could not be more important. Your institution should have a primary typeface that is used as often as possible. If the primary typeface is unavailable, we recommend providing a substitute. A secondary typeface provides an option for long form copy.

Photography – Guidelines for photography can include artistic style, use of existing photography, editing and creating new photography. If your institution is fortunate enough to have a full time photographer, we recommend including their contact information.


Logo Use – Logo placement is an important part of higher ed web design. If your institution operates with a decentralized system of websites, it’s even more important to ensure consistent logo use and placement to have consistency across multiple web platforms.

Web Typography– This can be included the “Website” section or in the “Design” section above. Many fonts aren’t supported on the web, so it’s important to have a backup plan to ensure consistency across all digital platforms.

Templates – Most marketing and web departments simply can’t support the needs of every unit on campus. In order to help maintain a cohesive website design, it’s helpful to provide templates that can be customized to meet the needs of individual units while still representing the institutional brand.

How can we make them stick?

First and foremost, you need to treat the brand guidelines as an official document. Take the time to make them visually appealing (you already know what colors and fonts to use). Have them printed on nice paper, professionally bound and distributed to anyone who will need to reference them frequently. Position the brand guidelines as a resource provided by institutional leadership.

Speaking of leadership, if you don’t already have full support of your brand platform, now’s a great time to get it. Be sure that anyone who is visible at your institution can speak to the brand messaging and understands the importance of this effort.

Your marketing team will still need to proactively enforce the brand guidelines and hold individuals accountable for following the rules. You may even consider adding another section to the guidelines for notes on enforcement. Provide details on how violations are handled and be sure that leadership has signed off on that process as well. Gaining their approval will help hold everyone accountable – including the leaders themselves.

We’ve seen great success with institutions who fully embrace and celebrate their brand with a well-planned launch event. This can range from a campuswide cookout with banners and games to simply distributing new letterhead to faculty along with a mug, a copy of the guidelines and a note of thanks. Regardless of scale, this is something to be excited about!

Finally, remember that the guidelines aren’t set in stone. As your institution grows and evolves, so will your branding needs. Be sure to revisit the guidelines every year to ensure that they are still serving your institution and contributing to its continued success.