A Beer-Napkin Primer on Country Mardi Gras + A Complicated Story on Blackface – New Bayou Books
I like to think I’m reasonably well informed when it comes to the public side of managing a creative business. New Bayou Books is my first entrepreneurial effort, but I have some pretty deep practical experience with marketing and outreach. At least, I like to think so. As in, it gives me pleasure–comfort–to believe that.
But whatever the degree of my own self-delusion, I’m not intimidated by logos, slogans, media kits, websites, copy, and corporate art . . . all the stuff that collectively establishes a company brand, or identity. I feel like I generally know the score when it comes to such things.
Which is why the challenges I’ve encountered over the last couple weeks have been so humbling. Overall, when it comes to how your company shows up in the world, it’s all about consistency and control. Across every product and platform, you want to be consistent. It’s not just effective marketing, it’s the mark of a professional.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds. At least that’s been my experience. What I’ve learned over the past few weeks is there’s a quantitative and a qualitative side to developing your identity, your style (I am deliberately avoiding the word “brand” here because it sounds phoney to me, and studious distaste for such words is part of my identity).
On the quantitative side, the challenge is managing the elements of your corporate style consistently across platforms and products. On the qualitative side, the trick is finding the balance between your vision, however it shows up in your head, and the way someone else manifests that vision in the real world.
Consistency, the Quantitative Side of Corporate Identity
As it stands today, New Bayou Books is a little more than four months from launching our first title (Tattoos and Tans, in August), but our presence is already pretty widespread. Between social media platforms, our own website, the behind the scenes marketing materials we have created like media kits, vision statements, and presentations, there’s a lot out there. And everyone of those products or platforms I just mentioned has its own set of rules and challenges that will make consistency harder than you think. At least, I found that to be the case.
This is why you need a style guide. And trust me, I used the correct verb. It’s not optional if you want to operate in the professional ranks. And in order to create a style guide, you’re going to need access to a graphic designer. A style guide includes your logo and one or two variations of it for use in different circumstances (as a publisher, for instance, our logo has to work on the spine of a book, as well as on a website, at the top of a press release, and on the stickers with QR codes we’re going to start sprinkling around the world soon).
It also includes your primary and secondary corporate colors. The colors have to make sense in a wide variety of circumstances. They need to look good online and in print. They need to be distinct, but pleasant enough to look at for a long time. They need to contrast enough so even color blind people can distinguish between the shades. They have to be pretty and practical.
And then you need fonts. At least one serif and one sans-serif. The two fonts need to look good together–maybe you use the serif for titles and headlines and the sans-serif for normal text online (because sans serif tends to be easier to read on your phone or on the computer), and you reverse that orientation for print. And they can’t be too obscure. Every piece of software seems to have a different baseline set of fonts, so you’ll want something that’s either likely to already be there, or something you can easily import.
Another style guide element that might be a bit less obvious is language. Slogans, keywords and phrases. Stuff like that. Will you abbreviate your company name? Will you call your customers customers, or friends, or allies, or neighbors or some other clever thing? You need to think about it all, upfront, so you can apply your rules, your style, consistently across an expanding universe of platforms.
The key to managing the quantifiable side, as far as I can tell, is first in the straightforward act of actually creating your style guide–just writing the shit down to keep everyone on your team in sync–and secondly, in being diligent as you conduct your business out in the world. It’s just a matter of discipline. Know your rules and apply them across the board.
Comfortably Ambiguous, the Qualitative Side of Corporate Identity
The qualitative side is, as you’d expect, less clear cut. I got a good taste of this recently as I went back and forth with several graphic designers on ideas for our first book jacket.
The style guide we created certainly applies to the book jacket, but there’s more to it. For one thing, this is our very first book and so it is essentially the face of New Bayou Books. Most people will not read an Instagram post, or this blog, or an excerpt from Tattoos and Tans (the entirety of which is posted, by the way, at NewBayouBook.com) and think to themselves, hmm, I wonder if that’s a Garamond font they’re using? A consistent application of format and style in marketing and outreach materials means the only thing readers remember is the content (readers, by the way, is what we call our customers).
But a book jacket is different. People do scrutinize the cover of a book, even if it’s just for an instant, usually, and even if their perception of it is less analytical than intuitive. In fact, that’s the whole deal, right? We’re talking about the qualitative side of corporate style–what your gut says about it, how it makes you feel.
And the first book jacket for New Bayou Books is . . . well, it’s crucial, because it’s our face to the world. In an instant, it has to convey not just the story of a tattoo artist who moves back to Eunice, Louisiana to open the town’s first shop and the drama that unfolds, but it also has to show, in an instant, the identity of the company. Not just what we stand for, but how we stand. Our style, our posture. Not just our vision for Louisiana literature, but the color and shape of that vision.
There’s a lot riding on it. But it’s not just the stakes involved that make something like a book jacket more about the art than the science of style. For me, the challenge is there’s only so much I can do to convey what I was looking for in the book jacket. Since I can’t draw and I’m not a graphic designer, I had to find alternative ways to express myself to the designers I worked with. It was like telling a musician about a song you want them to play. Even if they understand your words perfectly, it’s almost assured that what they they play will sound different than you were expecting. That’s just the way it is.
I could go on (and on) about this unique aspect of human interaction and art, but instead let me just leave you with two pieces of advice on the subject of defining the quantitative side of your corporate style.
The first is this: when you’re working with an expert who’s going to translate your vision, don’t try to tell them what you see. Instead, tell them what you feel (or what you want to feel). Give them the words that come closest to the gut reaction you want to elicit in your customer (or, reader, in our case).
The second piece of advice is a bit of a paradox, and I wish I could explain it better, but the reality is I’m up against my own cognitive limitations here. Not to mention experience. Like you and every other person on the planet, I’m learning as I go. Nevertheless, here’s the advice.
First, understand that, like the guy describing the song he wants to hear, understand that no matter what the artist you’re working with comes up with, it will be different than what you envisioned. There’s just no way around that. But here comes the paradoxical part. Even though you must be willing to compromise in terms of accepting the incongruence between your vision and the real product, you should never compromise in the gut. If it feels wrong, it is wrong.
In the end, defining your corporate style might be a little bit like defining obscenity: you’ll know it when you see it.