Brand Identity Rules – can you break them?

In school us branding experts, loosely speaking, were all taught to adhere to the basic brand identity rules when working with our brands, but today we find that the rules may not apply to every situation, and that being flexible and knowing as much as we can about our consumers will help us better identify and connect with them and build a brand relationship that lasts.  So yes brand identity strategies include some very specific “guidelines” that can be implemented, but we also must be aware of how we connect with our consumer first and use those tools that best connect us with them.

Painting Outside The Lines: Breaking Brand Identity Rules


Creating a brand identity – it starts with a blank canvas.  You sketch out the underlying foundation of values, beliefs and promises, give them body and structure, add shape and colour, a few artistic tweaks and voilà!  A masterpiece of identity, you can implement and receive optimum returns from – all because you followed the rules of brand identity creation.

But what if you didn’t?

What if you’re a rebel?  What if your brand calls to you to break the rules to differentiate it?  What if being different or breaking the rules is in your brand’s DNA, its core values?

Can your identity be just as (or more) successful as your competitors, who follow the rules?  In short – yes.

Brand identity creation is both art and science.  The science is relatively easy if you do your research, if you follow the rules – whichever set of rules that is, because let’s face it, just as with other sciences, there are always differing opinions and hypotheses.  It’s the art that can make or break you.  It’s the art that allows you to differentiate yourself from everyone else who followed the same rule set.  It’s the art that tells you which rules to bend and which to break.

Almost every branding rule is bendable or breakable, depending on your brand’s particular characteristics.  You will find that many basic design rules will fit into the ‘bendable’ category while a majority of the ‘creativity’ rules are downright breakable.  To get you started, let’s take a look at three of the basic areas where you may find an opportunity to work outside the lines.

Colour Treatment:  Be it commonly used colours in an industry, or a specific brand ‘key’ like water or nature, breaking colour-choice rules can have a resounding impact on your identity as a whole – good or bad.  Do you go against convention and use a colour that is the polar opposite to the rest of the industry?  Use a limited palette where one would normally expect a psychedelic vision?  Or perhaps, your brand lends itself to being (consistently) inconsistent with its colouration – using shape, size, placement and other treatments to control the brand, while letting the colours run free.

Layout:  Repetition is a significant factor in embedding your brand identity into the minds of your target audience – but does it have to be carbon copies of a set image?  Or could it be two or three?  Perhaps you build your identity around an identifiable brandmark, a logotype, and a tagline – as three separate entities that work together.  Maintaining consistency and repetition within each of the three identity pieces, you are then able to use some or all three of them, in different ways, that offer the most effective solutions for any given situation.

Taglines:  The obvious choices here are the two listed above – colours and layout.  However, there are other ways to break the rules.  Does your tagline really need to be the ‘optimum’ three words long?  Not if it’s emotionally engaging and easy to remember – make it longer, or even shorter (a one-word tagline anybody??).  Is it the key to people remembering your brand or is it more informational?  If you consider it completely informational, then that consistent inconsistency once again raises its hand.  Focus on one or two words and the underlying message, then build multiple taglines for various scenarios.  Each tagline will maintain consistent keywords and messaging, while being a better fit for its particular purpose.  Then again, ask yourself, does our brand need a tagline at all?

These are three of the areas you can investigate when searching for the right rules to break – remember though: the perfect rule for your brand may not be included in the above examples.  Take the time to find what will work for you.

How do you go about becoming a master rule-breaker?

Well, here are a few ‘rules’:

Understand The Branding Rules And Respect Them

If you don’t know them, going against branding rules isn’t breaking them: they’re called mistakes.  Like any great artist, you first must know the rules, why they are there, and just as importantly, how to follow them.  Then you can start to push the boundaries – finding out how far you can safely bend them and which ones you can successfully break.  Take Picasso for example.

When someone mentions the name Picasso, your mind most likely heads straight to weird faces and people made from geometric shapes and blocks of colour.  Mine did too.  That was until I experienced the Museo de Picasso in Barcelona.  Expecting to find a fantastical wonderland of crazy looking people, I was amazed to find that a majority of his work actually ‘followed the rules’.

Picasso worked for many years, learning his craft, before beginning to experiment in earnest; and while I’m not telling you to take years before experimenting with your brand, I do encourage you to put the effort in to understand and follow the rules first.

Set Rules For Breaking The Rules

Even when breaking branding rules, consistency is still key While it may sound counterintuitive at first – you need rules on breaking the rules.  Otherwise, you are inviting chaos into your branding, losing all semblance of consistency and control.

As highlighted earlier, even when breaking branding rules, consistency is still key.  Without it, your message will be either confused or completely lost.  In doing things differently, you are helping forge a unique brand message through your identity.  Maintaining consistency ensures your message remains strong.

As a brand identity rebel, you still need rules of the game to avoid all-out brand anarchy.  Yes, you are breaking the rules, but only certain rules, and only in certain ways.  You need to communicate this clearly to branding end-users so they understand.  To them it shouldn’t be ‘breaking the rules’, it should be ‘these are the new rules we follow’ – you don’t want them to break the rules; you’ve already done it for them.

A Little Goes A Long Way

Going against the grain can make for a truly unique sculpture.  Go against the grain too often however, and you’ll dramatically weaken its integrity – maybe even ruin it.  You are investing valuable time and resources into building your new brand identity; so don’t push things too far – all the way to the trash.

Are you breaking one rule only?  You have yourself a little leeway then.  Two rules?  If you’re adventurous (and know what you’re doing), you might break three?  Then more caution is required.  All the work you do against the grain is compounding; therefore, the more times you do it, the higher the risk of disaster.

Do What Works For Your Brand

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, and your branding may fit into that category – just make sure you understand what you are trying to achieve and how to go about it.  Only do what will work for your brand – and make sure you test things out first.

Perhaps you’ve found a number of successful brands all seem to break the same rule.  So it will also work for you, right?  Well, maybe.  Then again, how often does copying someone else help you stand out?  If you have a good reason for doing something similar and your execution is outstanding, then it may well spell success for you.  Otherwise, I suggest trying something else.

The rules aren’t there just to be broken, but they welcome the opportunity for those who come prepared.  Embrace the science, learn the rules, and then let the art inspire you to new heights of branding success.


Painting Outside The Lines: Breaking Brand Identity Rules

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