A strong brand identity doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t just pick a few colors and haphazardly slap a logo together. You need to approach your design strategically to build an identity that truly reflects your brand—and can support you as you grow. This requires deep thinking, a team with strong communication and design skills, and an intimate understanding of who you are, what you do, and how you want to present your brand to the world.
This work isn’t easy, but it’s some of the most important work that any brand can do. So if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it the right way. Of course, tackling a brand identity can be both intimidating and confusing. What should it include? How do you start? Who needs to be involved?
Don’t worry. With the right guidance, you can move through the process effectively, and that’s why we’re here. To make it easy, we’ve broken it all down into this simple step-by-step guide, including our best tips and handy toolkit to help you along the way. Follow this guide and you’ll end up with a beautiful, functional brand identity that will help you outshine your competition, connect with the right people, and tell your brand story through every piece of content.
Let’s get into it.
Note: First published in 2016, this post has since been updated to include our streamlined process and free brand toolkit.
Table of Contents
- What Is a Brand Identity?
- Why Do You Need a Brand Identity?
- What Does a Brand Identity Include?
- What Makes a Strong Brand Identity?
- How to Build a Brand Identity
- Step 1: Know Your Foundation
- Step 2: Assess Your Current Identity
- Step 3: Audit Your Competition
- Step 4: Hone in on a Visual Direction
- Step 5: Write Your Branding Brief
- Step 6: Design Your Logo
- Step 7: Choose Your Color Palette
- Step 8: Choose Your Typography
- Step 9: Design Additional Elements
- Step 10: Build Your Brand Guidelines
- How to Use Your New Identity
What Is a Brand Identity?
Is it your logo? Your color palette? Your infographic style? It’s all that—and more.
Branding pro Marty Neumeier defines a brand identity as “the outward expression of a brand, including its trademark, name, communications, and visual appearance.” To us, a brand identity is the sum total of how your brand looks, feels, and speaks to people. (Sometimes that even includes how it sounds, tastes, feels, and even smells.)
That said, when most people talk about brand identity, they’re referring to a brand’s visual identity. For the purposes of this post, that’s what we’ll be focusing on.
A strong brand identity is not about making pretty packaging; it’s about communicating your brand story effectively. Design is a powerful tool that can transform how people interact with your brand in three important ways.
- Differentiation: How can you stand out in a crowded marketplace? Your brand identity can play a strong role. Whether you want your product to stand out on a shelf, or you want your ads to stand out on Facebook, creating a consistent, cohesive presentation is the secret to success.
- Connection: The more effectively you communicate who you are, the easier it will be for people to engage with you and, ultimately, join your community of lifelong fans.
- Experience: Everything you create reflects your brand. Thus, if you want to create a consistent, cohesive brand experience, you need to present a consistent, cohesive identity. From your website, to your social media, to your sales brochures, a strong identity is the key to elevating your brand experience.
Some brands elevate brand identity to an art (think Apple, LEGO, or Levi’s). Some brands make it their entry into the playing field (think Warby Parker or Casper). Others struggle because they don’t know who they are or don’t know how to communicate it effectively. (The truth is too many brands fall into this camp.)
Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, one thing is certain. If you want to be a competitive and successful company, crafting a strong brand identity is mandatory.
When you create a brand identity, you’re basically building a toolbox of visual elements to help you communicate effectively. This can be basic or extensive; it all depends on your brand’s needs.
Regardless, every brand needs a basic identity, which includes three core elements:
- Color palette
If you create a wider variety of content (or plan to), you may also design additional elements to express your brand across mediums, including:
- Data visualization
The good news is you don’t have to design everything all at once. If you don’t have a ton of resources (or don’t know what your future needs will be), start with the basic logo, color, and typography. You can build out additional elements as you need.
What Makes a Strong Brand Identity?
Here’s the thing. Having a brand identity on paper doesn’t mean your identity is good or effective. Even if you design every element needed, it may not help you achieve your long-term goals.
A strong brand identity needs to work for everyone, both your internal team (e.g., brand ambassadors, content creators) and the people who will interact with it (e.g., customers).
To truly succeed, you need to build a brand identity that is…
- Distinct: It stands out among competitors and catches people’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: It can grow and evolve with the brand.
- Flexible: It can be used in many different applications (web, print, etc.).
- Cohesive: Each piece complements the other.
- Easy to apply: It’s intuitive and clear for designers to use.
If you design an identity that doesn’t resonate with your target audience, or doesn’t truly reflect your brand, you will have wasted a lot of work. (Luckily, we created this guide to ensure this doesn’t happen.)
How to Build a Brand Identity
To demystify the process for you, we’ve broken the process into 10 steps to get you from A to Z. These steps are listed in this specific order, as different elements of your identity are built upon others. Whether you’re building a fresh identity from scratch or embarking on a rebrand, follow this sequence to design a strong brand identity that sets you up for success.
Before You Start
Download our free Brand Identity Toolkit, which includes tools, templates, and checklists to help you along the way.
Before you jump into the steps we detail here, know that the visual aspect of your brand identity is not the first thing you should tackle when you’re building a brand; it’s actually the last thing. A brand is like a house; it should be built on a solid foundation.
First, you need to know who you are: What’s your personality? What do you care about? What do you do? How do you talk about what you do? These are the core elements of your brand that your visual identity will communicate. If you don’t have this foundation to build upon, you can’t design a visual identity that properly tells your brand story.
How to Do It
Before you proceed, make sure you know your:
- Brand Heart: This is an articulation of your brand’s core principals (specifically your purpose, vision, mission, and values). If you don’t have these documented, see our guide to find your Brand Heart.
- Brand name: If you haven’t done this already, find out how to choose the right name. Note: You really cannot design a logo without a name.
- Brand essence: This is your voice, tone, and personality. See our guides to find your voice and personality if you need more clarity on these.
- Messaging: Know your tagline, value proposition, and messaging pillars to ensure your visual identity communicates the right story.
Additionally, you need to know why you’re going through this process at all. If you’re starting from scratch, it’s obvious why you need to do this. If you’re rebranding, make sure everyone on your team understands the challenges you’re facing with your current identity and what you’re hoping to achieve with a new one. (FYI, here are 10 reasons to consider a new brand identity.)
As long as you have your core brand elements established, and your team is on the same page, you can proceed.
Good branding is ultimately about good communication. To make sure your visual output aligns with your brand values, reflects your personality, and communicates your total brand story, you need to have an intimate understanding of your brand.
Thus, you should start with a brand assessment to understand:
- The current state of your brand’s identity
- How that brand identity might be crafted or tweaked to align with your goals going forward
By taking a critical look at your brand, you can get the insights you need to build an identity that accurately communicates it.
How to Do It
Use the Brand Audit Template in the toolkit, and follow our guide to audit your current brand identity. You’ll have more conversations about the direction you want to go in later, but this template is the first step to make sure you’re moving in the right direction.
Building a brand identity is all about differentiation: making your brand visible, relevant, and unique. Thus, it’s crucial to understand not just who your competition is but how your brand compares in terms of your visual presentation.
Through a competitor audit, you can compare your brand to each competitor, and compare your competitors as a whole, which can surface some surprising insights.
For example, we once did competitive research for a brand and found that all of their competitors 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 use of the color red), but it revealed a great opportunity to differentiate.
Fun fact: In 2011, the video platform Twitch made a splash with their all-purple branding (at a time when their competitors used bold greens and reds). The color instantly became a hallmark of their brand (now a multi-billion dollar company).
Noting these types of opportunities is why a competitor audit can be invaluable.
How to Do It
Use the Competitor Brand Audit Template in the toolkit to assess your top 5 competitors.
As you move through the process, pay special attention to how your competitors present themselves in terms of common visual elements, trends, industry-specific visual themes, brand personalities, etc.
Now that you’ve taken a critical look at both your current identity and your competitors’ identities, it’s time to get your team aligned on the direction you want to go in.
Design can be incredibly subjective. Colors that convey power and strength to one person may be perceived totally differently by others. Even the vocabulary you use to describe your brand can be interpreted differently across your team.
At this stage you aren’t ready to design yet; you first need to have important conversations and move through exercises that will help you land on a shared vision for your brand identity.
- What are the key brand traits you want to express through your visuals?
- What type of visuals communicate these traits?
- What do you want people to feel when they “see” your brand?
Note: It’s important to get brand stakeholders in the same room to have these conversations, identify the path forward, and make sure everyone on the team is aligned. (The insights you get from these conversations will help you craft the creative brief that designers will use to bring the visuals to life.)
How to Do It
To prompt these conversations, it helps to conduct exercises to guide your conversation. (Think of this as a creative therapy session.) Use the Brand Attributes Spectrum Exercise in the toolkit to help your team identify the main brand attributes you want to convey through your brand identity.
Note: You won’t get the insights you need in a single meeting. It may take several meetings to talk through and come to a consensus.
Once you’ve completed the previous steps, you have the information you need to start design. However, you shouldn’t jump right in. Start with a creative brief that details the pertinent info you need to keep your team on the same page—and ensure you create an identity that aligns to your brand goals.
How to Do It
Use our Branding Brief Template. Note: Don’t provide too much or too little info. Your brief should always inform, not overwhelm.
A brand identity is an intricate design system. Each element influences the other, but it starts with your logo. A strong logo captures the essence of your brand, helping you make your mark (literally) in the world.
How to Do It
You can go old-school here and bust out the pencils to free-sketch in black and white. You want to make sure that the core imagery is powerful enough to deliver the message on its own, without the enhancement of color. To start, work on loose shapes and complementary imagery to inspire your logo mark. For step-by-step instructions, check out our guide to design a logo you love. If you’re looking for creative inspiration, you can also check out these 15 examples of brands with an awesome identity
Example: You can see many iterations of our logo for UCI Applied Innovation, from the most basic black-and-white sketch to fully rendered images.
And the final result:
Once you have a solid logo, you can explore your color palette. Color is a great tool to differentiate your brand from competitors, but know that color can also elicit strong emotions, so choose wisely.
How to Do It
A good color palette is clean and flexible, supplying designers enough choices to be creative but not enough to overwhelm. This includes:
- 1 main color
- 2 primary colors
- 3-5 complementary colors
- 2 accent colors
For more tips, see our guide to choosing the right colors for your brand identity.
Example: Color treatments for Sweet Mission‘s packaging provide a cohesive identity for the brand’s products.
Every visual element in your identity should contribute to a cohesive visual language, and thus each should complement the other. This is particularly true of typography, which should be informed by the shape of your logo.
How to Do It
Every stage of design has its own unique challenges, but typography can be tricky in a visual language, especially when brands follow trends that are hot for a second but quickly become dated or appear unoriginal (serif vs. non-serif).
To keep it simple, limit the number of typefaces to 2-3. This generally includes primary and secondary brand typefaces for specific purposes, such as body copy typeface, UI typeface, etc. For a deeper dive into choosing typography (including whether or not to license fonts), see our guide to choosing the best typography for your brand.
Example: Guidelines from the Visage brand identity dictate how typography should be used.
Every brand’s needs are different, so you may or may not need to design a comprehensive identity. That said, consider your brand’s future needs. If you are planning to experiment with different types of content, make sure you include those elements in your identity.
Photography plays a huge role in your brand identity, from your product images to your advertising. It’s important to identify clear guidelines about the types of images (and visual treatments) that are and aren’t appropriate.
To learn more about the role of images in storytelling, see Fabrik Brand’s guide to brand photography.
Example: The photo guidelines from the Visage brand identity include detailed instructions on the use of filters and typography.
When it comes to illustration, you need a cohesive and uniform language. Don’t over-illustrate or use clashing styles. Instead, think of how your illustration will be used in conjunction with other visual elements.
To figure out how to illustrate your brand, follow Smashing Magazine’s tips for drawing a strong identity.
Example: The Civ.works brand identity includes a simple and relatable illustration style.
Good iconography is influenced not just by the creative visual language but by the applications for the work. It depends on what your product or service is, as well as the industry and medium (e.g., website vs. printed sales brochures).
Iconography is part art, part science, so you want to make sure things are as clear as possible. For more tips, see Design Systems’ complete guide to iconography.
Example: Iconography guidelines from the Avalere Health brand identity make it easy to communicate more effectively.
In addition to aesthetic appeal, data should be designed for clarity and comprehension. Thus, it’s important to design visualizations that adhere to data visualization best practices.
If you’re not familiar with data best practices, find out how to design the most common charts and graphs with our Data Visualization 101 guide, and check out these 25 tips to improve your data visualizations.
Before you move on, use the Brand Identity Checklist in the toolkit to ensure your visual language is complete and adheres to best practices. You can also bookmark these 75 tips, tools, and resources to help your team create a great brand identity.
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.
How to Do It
Include clear, easy-to-follow guidelines for every part of the brand identity, including examples and use-cases for print, web, video, and interactive elements (if applicable). Also include practical detail, denoting as much information as needed to help your designers replicate the brand identity successfully. For more direction, plus great examples, follow our guide to create a brand style guide people will actually use.
Once completed, make sure guidelines are distributed to the team, stored in an easy-to-access place, and regularly updated.
Example: The Avalere Health style guide includes a handy TOC to make it easy to access the desired info.
As we know, consistency is key when it comes to building a strong brand. You can’t toss your fresh brand identity into the world and expect people to know how to use it immediately. Designate a point person to answer any and all questions related to the brand application, and implement a system of quality control to preserve your brand integrity at every touchpoint. You should also…
- Find out what brand identity mistakes to avoid at every stage.
- See our 5 tips to launch an effective rollout.
- Follow these tips to make sure all your content is on brand going forward.
And if you’re feeling overwhelmed or don’t have the resources to take on the project yourself, consider bringing in some expert help. Follow our tips to find the right creative agency for you, or chat with us. We’re happy to help you get your brand on the right track.