It's a common misconception that a brand identity is simply a collection of visual elements like colors, logos, and fonts. In fact, designing a brand identity is more complex than just creating an appealing tagline and choosing a couple signature images. The branding process requires figuring out your company's core values and creating a visual and verbal expression of those values.
What is brand identity?
"A great brand identity is more than just a pretty logo," says Chris Grams, head of marketing at Tidelift and former president of New Kind, a tech-focused branding and marketing agency. "Great brand identities are powerful tools for helping organizations communicate a differentiated value proposition."
A solid and robust brand identity answers the question, "Who are you?" If you're Coca-Cola, the answer might be "I'm a bottler of effervescent joy." If you're Starbucks, you might reply, "I'm a community hub where people relax and enjoy life." Northwestern Mutual might respond, "I'm a trusted partner in creating stability and security."
You need a brand identity so that your potential customers can see you in the way you want to be seen. They need to know not only the product you sell, but also the reason you are in the business of selling it and the spirit in which you create it.
How to build a brand identity
The first step in building a brand identity is expressing your story—what makes your company what it is. Did you build your company in response to a certain need, lack, or experience? What happened to push you into action and into business?
"The very best brand identities are built on the scaffolding of a clear and unique story, and become key tools, helping communicate that story to the world," says Grams. "The worst brand identities are simple art projects, designed to look good, but failing at the hard work of building lasting brand value."
That hard work starts with figuring out brand positioning, which Grams recommends doing collaboratively with your entire organization. This involves defining:
- Your competitive frame of reference
- Your points of difference from your competition
- The points of parity on which you have to confront or compete with your competition
- The brand mantra that distills the essence of your brand in five words or less
The brand mantra that results from this process—also sometimes called the brand promise—is different from a slogan or tagline; it isn't necessarily something the company even shares publicly but instead is an idea that guides the brand identity strategy. Good examples are Nike's mantra of "authentic athletic performance," Disney's of "fun family entertainment," and BMW's "ultimate driving machine."
The importance of brand identity
Brand positioning gives designers "a blueprint to work from when building the brand identity," says Grams. "The most important thing to get right is the company foundation: mission, values, and positioning, with all of the other brand identity elements emanating from this core."
The next step is to design the brand identity itself. Alina Wheeler lays out the key concepts, elements, and processes that designers use, in her book Designing Brand Identity. She discusses brand identity basics like symbols, names, and taglines; elements like pictorial marks, emblems, and characters; and aspects of identity like color, typography, and sound.
Ideally, all these and many other elements and aspects work together in a connected system to express a common sensibility based on the brand's core idea and set of values.
"In a world where consumers expect brands to stand for something, a great brand identity becomes a visual shorthand for communicating that meaning to the world," says Grams.
The best brands are those with a unique story and a dedication to specific values, and the best brand identities are those that express those meaningful ideas clearly and vibrantly.
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