A brand identity is more than a logo. It’s more than a brand style guide. It’s an essential way to differentiate yourself from your competition. A brand identity influences your customers’ experience at every touchpoint. It subconsciously affects how they view everything from your industry, to your relevance, to your trustworthiness.
It is the sum total of how your brand looks, feels, and speaks to them—the elements that help them decide if they want to engage with you.
Building a Brand Identity
Some brands have elevated brand identity to an art (think Apple, LEGO, or Levi’s), while others have made it their entry into the playing field (think Warby-Parker, Snapchat, or Casper). No matter your organization, your brand identity should be front and center.
But building that brand identity is no easy task. You need a solid foundation but flexibility, an identity grounded in your roots but looking toward your future.
It seems like a tedious process—and it can be. It requires deep thinking and foresight, but the results are well worth it. We’ve been through the process many times with our creative partners and our own rebranding, so we are well aware of what can go wrong—and how to make sure it goes right.
To demystify the process for you, we’re sharing our creative approach to building a brand identity, specifically the visual elements of a brand identity. If you’ve never been through the process before or think your brand identity could use a little updating, take note.
What Is a Brand Identity?
This definition can be a bit murky. Is it your logo? Your color palette? Your infographic style? To us, it’s the total composite of elements that shape how your brand is perceived. Some brand identities are tied to the practical elements: design, packaging, etc. Some even move into the realm of the senses: how it sounds, tastes, feels, and even smells (e.g., cosmetics).
For the purposes of this post, we’re focusing on the visual element of a brand identity (aka your brand’s visual language). This includes:
- Color palette
- Design system
Keys to a Good Brand Identity
A logo and a color palette alone do not make a brand identity. A good identity is well thought-out to make it:
- Distinct: It stands out among competitors and catches your audience’s attention.
- Memorable: It makes a visual impact. (Consider Apple: The logo is so memorable, they only include the logo—not their name—on their products.)
- Scalable and flexible: It can grow and evolve with the brand.
- Cohesive: Each piece complements the brand identity.
- Easy to apply: It’s intuitive and clear for designers.
The Process Behind the Brand Identity
When we begin a branding project, we approach each phase from a philosophical and highly critical standpoint. We want to inspect, poke, and prod until we get to the core of a brand. Then we get down to business. Here’s what that looks like.
1) Research & Discovery
This is hands-down the most laborious stage. It takes time, energy, and manpower. But it is crucial to build the foundation upon which the visual language will stand. In this stage, we learn everything we can about a brand. This research helps us create a brand persona, a comprehensive picture of what the brand is. To do this, we ask many questions.
Who is the audience?
One common misconception is that a brand identity is exclusively informed by what a brand wants to present. This isn’t entirely true. We also need to understand what a brand’s customers want to engage with.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the brand’s customers will choose the logo color. But it means we get a solid understanding of their needs, wants, and values. (Audience personas are incredibly helpful here. If you’ve never created them, try this exercise to do them in under 60 minutes.)
Beyond a brand’s primary audience (customers), we also want to know what secondary or tertiary audiences it may reach (e.g., other brands or potential employees). A brand identity is the “face” that interacts with the entire world. Whatever we create should accurately reflect what the brand wants to do and say to particular people.
What is the existing brand?
Sometimes we’re building a brand identity entirely from scratch. Other times we’re updating a stale identity. Either way, we need a full assessment of:
- The current state of the brand’s identity
- How that brand identity might be crafted or tweaked to align with goals going forward
We want to know how the brand is perceived, both internally and externally. Getting an honest and accurate reflection is the only way to understand how and where it’s succeeding or where we need to course correct.
This stage requires a fair amount of research, including conversations and surveys with:
For the internal team, we supply a detailed questionnaire covering various aspects of the brand, from brand values and character to logo evaluation and future positioning.
Who is the competition?
Building a brand identity is all about differentiation: making a brand visible, relevant, and unique. Without a firm understanding of the competitive landscape, it’s easy to blend in. This research is crucial to understand not just who the competition is but how the brand compares, in perception and presentation.
As such, we analyze the competition, brand by brand, as well as the industry. We look specifically at how competitors present themselves in terms of common visual elements, trends, industry-specific visual themes, brand personalities, etc.
For example, when we did competitive research for one project, we found that every single competitor used the exact same four colors. This isn’t uncommon, as many industries tend to gravitate toward the same visual elements (think Netflix and YouTube’s red-and-black color pairings). But it revealed a great opportunity to differentiate.
One notable example of this: In 2011, video platform Twitch made a splash with their all-purple branding at a time when their competitors used bold greens and reds. The color became synonymous with their brand identity. You’ll even see purple type on their site. The company was so successful it sold to Amazon for a cool $1 billion in 2014.
2) Visual Ideation
By this time, we have a ton of information to help inform ideation. Between competitive analysis, customer feedback, and internal surveys, it’s a lot of data on paper.
This is where we take that text-based information and translate it into visual concepts. The information we have is often steeped in emotional language about the brand’s personality, goals, and values. Now the challenge is to figure out how to communicate and enhance those sentiments through visuals.
We tackle this by bringing in our team to brainstorm word clouds.
Our focus is not to free associate words into other words. The goal is to bring those words to life. The associations may be abstract, but it is important to get everything out.
FAST > SWIFT
FAST > CHEETAH > LIGHTNING BOLT > ZEUS
We then select specific elements that elicit the strongest emotional response, trigger additional imagery, and help us build a visual playground to go nuts in.
Our team at work for the ESPEN (Expanded Special Project For Elimination of Neglected Tropical Diseases) brand identity, a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation project.
After so much homework and brainstorming, now we get to start the real fun.
We go old-school here and bust out the pencils to free-sketch. As we go through iterations, we flesh out logo mark, core shapes, and complementary imagery—all in black and white. As we receive feedback and iterate, we want to make sure that the core imagery is powerful enough to deliver the message on its own, without the enhancement of color.
Here you can see many iterations of the logo for UCI Applied innovation‘s brand identity, from the most basic black-and-white sketch to fully rendered images.
The final result:
Once we have solid visual imagery, we explore color. Certainly, emotion plays a huge roll in color choice. This is also, as previously mentioned, a good chance to differentiate.
A good color palette is clean and flexible, supplying designers enough choices to be creative but not enough to overwhelm. This includes primary, complementary, and accent colors.
Every stage has its own unique challenges, but typography can be tricky in a visual language. Brands often follow trends (serif vs. non-serif) that are hot for a second but can quickly become dated or appear unoriginal. We often find ourselves pushing back against certain requests.
We believe branding is like building a house. Each element is built on top of the other. Therefore, typography should be informed by the shapes of the logo. You’d think it’s a simple choice, but typography is just as emotional as anything else. It needs to communicate the brand persona effectively.
We limit the number of font families to 2-3. This generally includes a primary brand typeface, then secondary typeface(s) for specific purposes based on where it will be used, such as a body copy typeface, UI typeface, etc.
Good iconography is influenced not just by the creative visual language but by the applications for the work. It depends on what the product or service is, the industry, and the medium (e.g., web-only vs. UI vs. sales brochures).
This is often a weak point in visual languages. Brands think that because they have their logo, color, and fonts they can slap them together any which way. Since brand identity is all about introducing yourself to your audience, it’s important to make it an enjoyable experience. In information design, that means providing a truly consistent and cohesive presentation.
Hierarchy & layout: The proper order of content, including headers, subheaders, body copy, images, blurbs, etc.
Data visualization elements: How charts and graphs should be designed, how data is presented, etc. (If you aren’t familiar with this area, check out this guide to data visualization to best practices.)
Photography, graphics: Where, when, and how to use photography and graphics, including guidance on filters and treatments.
Appropriate logo use: Guidelines for how the logo may be modified, including examples for reference.
4) Building The Brand Style Guide
The only thing more heartbreaking than a poorly designed brand identity is a beautifully designed identity that is never used or used incorrectly. A brand style guide is the savior here—if it’s crafted the right way.
We include clear, easy-to-follow guidelines for every part of the brand identity, including examples and use-cases. This also includes practical detail, denoting as much information as needed to help the user replicate the brand identity successfully.
Keep Your Brand Identity Strong
A strong visual language should always reflect your brand. Whether you’re totally overhauling your brand identity or you’re just starting out, strive for consistency and look for ways to apply good design at every level of your organization.