Every company has a brand. But there’s a difference between simply existing as a brand and really putting your heft into a clear brand identity. A solid brand identity tells a strong story about your brand and paints a clear picture of your company. It’s what will turn potential and occasional customers into avid fans.
So what is this magical thing called brand identity, exactly, and how can you best define and leverage it to serve your company? Read on to learn more.
What is a brand identity?
A brand identity is not just a logo; it is all the components that demonstrate how you, your employees, your stores, and your materials interact with the general public. It should represent the spirit of who your company is, what it stands for, and how it wants to present itself to its customers.
What are common elements of a brand identity?
While the full identity package can vary by company needs, here are the frameworks that all brand identities should have:
A brand’s visual identity includes its logo, color palette, typography, and anything visual that can represent the brand. It’s important to ensure consistency across each of these elements to create a seamless, consistent experience for customers and potential customers across the brand’s channels and materials, i.e., websites, packaging, advertisements, and social media profiles.
The same goes for the brand’s messaging, which encompasses its unique value proposition, key messages, and brand voice. Just as a visual identity should make a brand instantly recognizable, so too should the way a company talks about its products and the language it uses to create an emotional connection in a way that’s resonant with its target audience.
Brand guidelines establish a framework for a brand to exist within, helping ensure a consistent brand experience. This is the container that guides implementation across channels and touchpoints and includes visual elements, brand tone, the application of language, and guidelines for how a brand should be represented across different media.
Brand experience these days is decidedly multi-channel. From physical spaces to digital, from customer service to advertising campaigns to the box a product comes packaged in when it makes its way to a customer’s door, each of these is a touchpoint and an opportunity for a cohesive, engaging, on-brand experience that the customer will remember.
Additionally, you’ll also want to consider marketing and communication strategies that align with the brand’s identity and resonate with the target audience. This includes selecting appropriate channels, creating relevant content, and utilizing various marketing tactics to effectively communicate the brand’s message.
Where do you begin to build a solid brand strategy?
The first step is to ensure that you have a solid understanding of your brand. Follow these six key steps to round out your strategy:
Determine your brand archetype to define your voice and tone
As consumers, we all have certain brands that we’re drawn to more than others. Maybe it’s something you’re nostalgic about from childhood, like LEGO or Transformers. Maybe it’s a juice brand that changed your life, or an outdoor supplies store with every last gadget you need to survive the apocalypse.
Beneath every brand with good storytelling is an archetype. That archetype is a personification of basic human desires. For instance, the desire to be liberated translates into an outlaw archetype — which makes sense, right? What else is an outlaw but a person who seeks liberation in everything he or she does? Similarly, the human desire for understanding translates into the archetype of the sage.
Why is it important to know your brand archetype? Because it’s the lens through which all of your storytelling, whether written or visual, passes through. It helps set your brand values and tone, too. After all, an outlaw brand will talk much differently than a sage brand, and will emphasize entirely different sets of values. And it will attract different customers, too.
Define your target audience – and build personas around them
Once you have your archetype, it’s important to know who you’re talking to. That means defining an audience, and then building personas directly around them. But here’s the thing: You’ll probably have more than one persona. And you’re going to have to be more specific than “mass audience” when making your definitions.
In truth, your audience is likely to be two to three primary customer types. Lock those in and create a strategy for reaching each. What are their roles? What are their challenges? How do they buy? Think through these questions and consider how they currently or will interact with your brand.
Determine your brand architecture
Three commonly used brand architecture frameworks are:
This is the most common kind of brand architecture. In this type, there is one overarching brand that sells lots of different services beneath its umbrella. For instance, you might think of FedEx, and all of the services it offers across its portfolio. Each service maintains the same brand consistency in terms of look, feel, and messaging.
Sub-brands are unique identities within a parent brand, crafted for specific markets or products. They retain a connection with the main brand, sharing core elements while exhibiting distinctive characteristics. This approach allows brands to diversify customer needs and offerings, all within the framework of a flexible brand portfolio. For example, Tide PODS are a sub-brand under the Tide parent brand. They maintain a subtly separate look and feel to distinguish them from Tide’s liquid detergent product.
Endorsed brands often come about through mergers. There’s the overarching main brand, while each brand also retains its own identity. Marriott is a great example of this. Marriott itself is a trusted parent company, and within its portfolio there are vastly different hotels, each of which also retains its own identity. But sister brands can endorse each other, and all sub-brands are lifted by Marriott’s endorsement.
House of Brands
In the house of brands model, there are many brands in the house that have totally different identities from each other. For instance, you may know General Mills for its cereals. But it also holds a number of brands you might not realize fall within its dominion, such as Annie’s, Bugles, Larabar, and many more. Each brand in the house has its own identity, and the main brand has no correlation to the others.
The benefits of a well-implemented brand architecture
There are many of them!
- Better grasp of what your organization and brands do: Building a clear brand architecture increases clarity in the marketplace so that customers and employees understand what it is you do and, on the customer end, why they should want to buy from you.
- Increased growth through brand equity: In both the House of Brands and Endorsed Brands models, each brand within the house ultimately serves to positively generate brand equity both for each other and for the parent company. They also create opportunities to generate new revenue opportunities through cross-selling between sister and related brands.
- Better change management: Change can be rough in any organization. The clearer an organization can be about its brand architecture, the more seamlessly it can help employees and organizations navigate any changes.
- Clarity around company culture: Clarity in brand identity and architecture can help solidify company culture. After all, it’s what helps employees know what the company stands for and how to act within that culture.
One last thing to consider. Associated brands within a brand architecture can lift all boats — but it can also affect them negatively too. If you have a more controversial brand within your portfolio, you might want to pause and think more about what type of brand architecture will work best to mitigate the spread of damage should that more controversial brand run into trouble.
Create your Messaging Guidebook
Now that you’ve got clarity on your brand architecture and identity, the next step is to create your messaging guidebook. This will contain information like your messaging house, which will come with a tagline of 3-5 pillars (also known as value props) that help differentiate you from the competition. It will also contain your voicing guidelines and will define how you talk about your products, customers, and offerings. Think of it truly like the guidebook it is — something that you’ll return to continually for guidance on how to implement your messaging strategy. This will also be a key tool for onboarding new employees and any contractors you may employ to execute marketing and sales plans.
Build the logo and visual system that bring your brand to life
Congratulations! You now have enough clarity to start tackling your creative strategy as it relates to your visual system. Take the time to really think it through. Choosing to use the color green because it’s your kid’s favorite color is sweet, but it doesn’t help if your target audience does not resonate with it. You’ll want to consider all applications, including how specific items such as logos (and again, colors!) will show up in prints and appear in digital view. Design systems for digital applications can help demonstrate this. And lastly, templates are incredibly useful to have wherever possible, so that teams can use the brand consistently and efficiently without having to reinvent the wheel every time a new asset is needed.
Build the Brand Guidelines
Check, check, check: with the above items done, it’s time to fold it all together into your brand guidelines, i.e. documentation that shows others how to use your brand — again, both employees and any contractors you’ll need to quickly onboard. A simple working document in PDF form can be all you need. Make sure to be explicit and comprehensive in your dos and don’ts, specs, how-tos, and more. For the English nerds out there, if you’re taking a stance on the Oxford comma, now is the time to let the world know.
For brands with more complexities, there are plenty of digital tools that can help you do this, including digital asset management tools (DAMs, great abbreviation there) that will help you manage your brand between multiple teams and locations. One of our favorites is BrandFolder, but check out a full suite of recommendations on G2.
New brands vs. existing brands
New brands obviously need to start from scratch on all of this. But if you’re an existing brand, you’ve already got a lot to work with, whether it’s free floating materials you can gather, evaluate, make cohere, and make new, or you already have a foundation of documents completed that need a refresh. And guess what? As an existing brand, you’ve got a real leg up in your ability to:
- Interview current customers to get a pulse on how your brand is performing.
- Look at tools like Google Analytics to check website performance.
- Check your CRM data (if you’re B2B) for additional insight into your audience — for example, who is buying your product, and for how much.
What does it take to build a brand right?
Full start-to-finish brand identity work can take companies months to years to complete. However, phases or steps can be put into place to help define what is most important to update in your brand, and how to roll it out in a way that does not interrupt your customer experience.
Still, you’ll want to plan for more time rather than less. Whether it’s a refresh or something completely new, brand identity work takes time and tends to overrun. But it’s worth the investment. When it’s done, it will guide your company and align your company for years to come.
One thing to clarify, because it comes up a lot for us: brand identity work is not something that you define while building your digital assets, such as a website or an app — you’ll want it done well before.
We’ve seen it many times before. Investors pressure brands for snazzier, more on-brand digital assets, so they come to us looking for a quick fix. But when we dig into the heart of the creative work, it quickly becomes clear there’s a certain squishiness at the core that only a clear brand identity can clarify.
At the same time, don’t undervalue the importance of a great website or app experience. Websites and digital touchpoints became the replacement for in-person experiences in the pandemic area, so now, customers are more comfortable with digital media and tend to be driven there first out of convenience. Meet your customers where they are by aligning on a rollout strategy that includes those most common outlets first.
Remember: You are not always the target audience
Oftentimes, opinions about how a brand identity and strategy manifest come from a place of “shoulds” — personal opinions that are distant from the end customer.
Sometimes, this comes in the form of a disconnected C-Suite, who approaches the brand in a top-down manner — trying to shoehorn the brand identity to fit metrics and business goals. Other times, for small businesses and startups especially, where the founders have a large impact, it can be personal opinions and attachments that get in the way of really seeing the target audience. This likely started out differently; a founder-led company can only get off the ground if the founders’ ideas really resonate with a target audience. But if the target audience has evolved, and the founders’ perception has not, this can hold back the brand from becoming what it really needs to be to capture the audience that would be most responsive to it at scale.
To avoid these fates, ensure that you are empathetic to those that serve in the role of buyers. Solicit multiple points of view on how others interact, use, and purchase from your company. Going outside your bubble is incredibly important at this stage.
Need some examples?
The project management technology company, Asana regularly responds to customer questions on its message boards, and turns feedback with high community upvotes into features. They have their core brand, yet as a product-led company, they’re willing to evolve it through customer-driven product roadmaps.
Zoom, and specifically what happened to it in 2020, is another great example. With so many people, organizations, and now even schools turning to Zoom to carry on business as usual from home, the company’s technology was under great strain to perform reliably. As the user base rapidly diversified, the company had to reimagine its product roadmap and along with it, its target audience and its branding — and it’s having to do so again as the world has returned to normal and demand has again shifted.
In these rapidly changing times even more so than ever, companies must be adept at listening to their audience, understanding their core brand strategy, and shifting to adapt accordingly.
Brand identity work is an investment
A strong brand identity — and the work you put into it — pays dividends. With a strong partner who can do the research and thought as an outsider, you’ll be investing in a strategy that considers all outlets for where your brand will be visible — and your business will benefit from that investment in spades.