How to Create a Powerful Brand Identity (A Step-by-Step Guide)

by Nate Butler

Note: First published in 2016, this post was updated in April 2020 to include additional resources. 

A strong brand identity doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t just pick a few colors and slap together a logo. You need to approach your design strategically. This requires deep thinking, a team with strong communication and design skills, and an intimate understanding of your brand.

The good news is that while this may seem intimidating, it doesn’t have to be. With the right guidance you can move through the process effectively and produce a truly great brand identity. Luckily, we can provide that guidance.

Here, you’ll learn everything you need to know about designing a brand identity, along with our best tips and tools to do it. 


Table of Contents


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.)

Ultimately, a brand identity is a way to communicate with the world, differentiate yourself from your competition, and create a brand experience that encourages people to engage with you.

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). Unfortunately, some (okay, many) brands struggle because they don’t know who they are or don’t know how to communicate it effectively. (Not sure if your current brand identity works for you? Here are 9 signs it doesn’t.)

Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, one thing is sure. If you want to be a competitive and successful company, crafting a strong brand identity is mandatory. When you can successfully communicate who you are, you can better communicate with people and form the strong relationships you need for long-term success. 

What Does a Brand Identity Include?

A logo and a color palette alone do not make a brand identity. When designing your identity, you need to create a comprehensive visual language that can be applied to everything from your website to your packaging. Depending on your brand (and the type of content you plan to create), your needs may be more expansive, but a basic brand identity includes:

  • Logo
  • Colors
  • Typography
  • Design System
  • Photography
  • Illustration
  • Iconography
  • Data visualization
  • Interactive elements
  • Video and motion
  • Web design

Remember: Your brand identity should translate across mediums, so include everything you need to make sure it does. 

The Keys to a Strong Brand Identity 

That said, just because you design those elements doesn’t mean they’re effective. 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). As you embark on the design process, make sure your brand identity 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 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 to use.

If any of these elements are missing, it will be challenging for your brand team to do their job well.

How to Build a Brand Identity

To demystify the process for you, we’ve crafted this step-by-step guide to build a brand identity. The process can seem intimidating, but we’ve been through it many times with our creative partners (and through our own rebranding), so we know firsthand what mistakes to avoid, and how to make it easier on everyone.

If your brand is in its early stages or preparing to rebrand and not sure where to start, follow these tips to move through the process seamlessly and build a stronger brand identity that sets you up for success. 

STEP 1: Complete Your Brand Strategy

Your brand strategy is a detailed plan that outlines exactly what you’re trying to achieve and how you’re going to achieve it. It is comprised of your:

Your brand identity is really a tool to help you communicate your brand visually, thus supporting your brand strategy. As such, before you dive into your brand identity, it’s important to have a fully fleshed out strategy. 

HOW TO DO IT

To design a strong brand identity, you need to complete the foundational work of your brand strategy, specifically your Brand Heart and Brand Messaging. These help you understand what it is you’re trying to communicate so that you can design a brand identity that successfully does so. 

If you don’t have your brand strategy documented (or have never gone through the exercise), follow our stress-free guide to creating a brand strategy, and download our free Brand Strategy Toolkit below.

Brand-Strategy-Brand-Toolkit-CTA

Once you’ve documented your brand strategy—and received approval from leadership—you can focus on brand identity.

STEP 2: Dig Into Your Current Brand Identity

When you begin a branding project, you want to approach each phase from a philosophical and highly critical standpoint—inspect, poke, and prod until you get to the core of your brand. 

Whether you’re building your brand identity entirely from scratch or updating a stale identity, you need a full assessment of:

  • The current state of your brand’s identity
  • How that brand identity might be crafted or tweaked to align with your goals going forward

The goal is to understand how your brand is perceived, both internally and externally. Getting an honest and accurate reflection is the only way to understand how and where you’re succeeding or how you need to course correct. 

HOW TO DO IT

Start with our Brand Audit Questionnaire. This survey is a deep dive into every aspect of your brand, from your values and personality to logo and positioning. Distribute the questionnaire to your internal team. You may also need the perspective of:

  • Brand Employees
  • Stakeholders
  • Customers

While completing this questionnaire may be laborious, it’s crucial to build the foundation upon which your visual language will stand.

Example: Brand audit responses provide valuable insight for our designers.

how to create a brand identity 8

STEP 3: Know Your Personas

Your brand identity is the “face” that interacts with the entire world. Whatever you create should accurately communicate who you are. However, one common misconception is that a brand identity is exclusively informed by what your brand wants to present. This isn’t entirely true. It’s also informed by what your brand’s customers want to engage with, or are accustomed to interacting with. If your identity doesn’t resonate with them, it won’t be effective.

This doesn’t necessarily mean your brand’s customers will choose your logo color; it means that you will make more effective design choices once you understand their needs, wants, and values.

HOW TO DO IT

To understand who you’re trying to reach, try this easy exercise to create personas that represent your different target segments. These personas identify both demographic and psychographic information that gives you insight into who these people are and what drives them.

Beyond your primary audience (customers), you also want to consider how secondary or tertiary groups might perceive your brand (e.g., other brands or potential employees). This information can also influence your design decisions.

STEP 4: Identify Your Competition

Building a brand identity is all about differentiation: making your brand visible, relevant, and unique. However, without a firm understanding of your competitive landscape, it’s easy to blend in. Thus, it’s crucial to understand not just who your competition is but how your brand compares, in perception and presentation.  

How to Do It

To get a snapshot of the competition, follow our guide to complete a competitive analysisAs 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.

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 red color), 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 instantly became a hallmark of their brand. (BTW, the company was so successful it sold to Amazon for a cool $1 billion in 2014.)

STEP 5: Write Your Creative Brief

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 a visual identity that aligns to your brand.  

HOW TO DO IT

Use our creative brief template. Note: Don’t provide too much or too little info. Your brief should always inform, not overwhelm. 

STEP 6: Brainstorm Your Visuals

By this time, you have a ton of information to help inform ideation, between your competitive analysis, brand audit, personas, and brief. At this stage, you want to take that text-based information and translate it into visual concepts.

Luckily, the information you have is often steeped in emotional language about your brand’s personality, goals, and values. Now the challenge is to figure out how to communicate and enhance those sentiments through visuals.

HOW TO DO IT

To start, have your team brainstorm word clouds that describe your brand. (Or you can come in with 5-7 descriptors to start.) The focus is not to free associate words into other words. The goal is to bring those words to life through visuals.

Think about what those words make you visualize. The associations may be abstract, but it is important to get everything out. For example, if your brand service is “fast,” don’t talk about other words for “fast” (e.g., “swift”). Think about what fast brings to mind.

FAST > CHEETAH > LIGHTNING BOLT > ZEUS

Think about what concepts you can visualize. Pro tip: It’s usually the elements that elicit the strongest emotional response, trigger additional imagery, and help you build a visual playground to go nuts in.

Example: 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 brainstorming, our design team began to quick sketch every visual idea that came to them. These ideas helped form the foundation of the brand identity. 

how-to-build-a-brand-identity-1

STEP 7: Design Your Individual Elements

Here comes the fun (and challenging) part. You want to design each element in the order dictated here, as each element influences the other.

Logo

A brand identity is an intricate design system. Each element influences the other, but it starts with your logo.

HOW TO DO IT

You can go old-school here and bust out the pencils to free-sketch. As you go through iterations, flesh out logo mark, core shapes, and complementary imagery—all in black and white. As you receive feedback and iterate, you want to make sure that the core imagery is powerful enough to deliver the message on its own, without the enhancement of color. For more tips on logo design, check out our guide to designing a logo you love.

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. how-to-create-a-brand-identity-2

And the final result:

how-to-create-a-brand-identity-cove

Colors

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 guidelines from the Visage brand identity help the team create a variety of colorful and, most importantly, on-brand content. 

visual color

Typography

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 has its own unique challenges, but typography can be tricky in a visual language, especially when brands follow trends (serif vs. non-serif) that are hot for a second but quickly become dated or appear unoriginal.

To keep it simple, limit the number of font families 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. 

how to create a brand identity typography

Design System

This is often a weak point in visual languages. Brands think that because they have their logo, color, and typography set, they can combine them however they like.

But because brand identity is all about introducing yourself to people effectively, it’s important to make it an enjoyable experience. In information design, that means providing a truly consistent and cohesive presentation.

HOW TO DO IT

The goal is to design an intuitive hierarchy and layout that makes it easy to navigate visual communication. Consider the proper order of content, including headers, subheaders, body copy, images, blurbs, etc. For more tips, see the Interaction Design Foundation’s guide to visual hierarchy

Example: The hierarchy guidelines from the Avalere Health brand identity include detailed real-world examples of proper layout. 

how-to-create-a-brand-identity-13

Photography

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.

HOW TO DO IT

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 as well.  

visual identity

Illustration

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.

HOW TO DO IT

To figure out how to illustrate your brand, follow Smashing Magazine‘s tips for drawing a strong visual identity.

Example: The Civ.works brand identity includes a simple and clean illustration style. 

illustration

Iconography

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., web-only vs. UI vs. sales brochures).

HOW TO DO IT

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. 

chart imagery

Data Visualization

Data should be designed for clarity and comprehension, in addition to aesthetic appeal. Thus, it’s important to design visualizations that adhere to data visualization best practices.

HOW TO DO IT

If you’re not familiar with designing data, 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

chart imagery

Additional Elements

Again, your brand may have unique communication needs, depending on your industry, content, etc. Make sure that your brand identity includes these elements, such as:

  • Interactive elements
  • Motion graphics
  • Video
  • Web design

For more tips, check out our checklist of everything to include in your visual identity.

STEP 8: Build Your 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.

HOW TO DO IT

Include clear, easy-to-follow guidelines for every part of the brand identity, including examples and use-cases. Also include practical detail, denoting as much information as needed to help your designer replicate the brand identity successfully. For more direction, follow our guide to creating 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. 

data visualization

How to Keep Your Brand Identity Strong

Designing a successful brand identity takes a lot of work and collaboration. To keep your team on the same page and empower them to do the best job possible, make sure they are:

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 help you get your brand on the right track. 

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Comments

  • Guru says:

    Hey! Amazing content. Curated and on point.

  • Daniel Gaskell says:

    your online resources are amazing, honest and the want to help is apparent. heros!

  • Naval says:

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  • Christoffer Kristiansen says:

    Hey! I would love to discuss some branding identity with you guys, hope i hear from you 🙂 Im usually a generous guy!

  • welcome agency says:

    Brilliant detailed article. Thanks for sharing a helpful tips for creative design for a brand..
    we are Creative Production design agency at Los Angeles welcoming community of trailblazing visionaries and creators. We are committed to delivering the highest-quality content, designed to captivate and inspire your target audience.

  • Ferdaus Amzah says:

    Super detailed article! I think we’ve got at least 70% of them right.
    The challenge is to have foresight to how people might use the brand identity guide and assets and be able to create something that stands the test of time.

    I hope the identities we’ve created at neuentity.com can last. Open to feedback if you guys have any,.

  • Alexander says:

    This is so incredibly helpful! I’m a young creative redesigning a brand I created when I was 16, and I love how you’ve made such a massive process bite-sized. Thanks!

  • Sowaimah says:

    I love this! Thanks so much for sharing. Branding is definitely not a work in the park and I’m struggling with my own as a one-person start up. The article was informative and I appreciate the links for more resources.

    • Katy French says:

      Great to hear. Best of luck in your business, and make sure to subscribe to our newsletter since we have non-stop tips for you 😉

  • Amit Saini says:

    Thanks a lot for sharing deep knowledge and resources about brand strategy and brand identity design. It helped me understand brand from the scratch.

  • Fernanda says:

    Thank you soooooo much for all the free content available on your website!!

  • Olivia Jackson says:

    This is actually one of the best articles I have come across when it comes to brand identity. Thanks for making it informative. This article really gave me some important tips.

  • sam says:

    This is a kind of book I would buy , if it were published. You guys delivered it.

  • alexandra says:

    I am absolutely inspired by the way you make things so clear and doable.

  • Tina says:

    Thank you so much for this information, it’s very helpful!!!

  • Chuka says:

    Great article Nate. Thanks…

  • Pierce Fabreverg says:

    Awesome and well written article. The examples and elements are good and valuable for all brand identity designs. Speaking of awesome, check out this website https://a2designlab.com/, they do a lot of unique and insight branding.

  • Bamise says:

    Omg! This has to be the most comprehensive article on the web! It was absolutlely helpful and very well written. Simple to understand and so insightful. It was everything I needed and more. Thank you! Great Job Column 5

    • Katy French says:

      Thanks so much, Bamise! We try to create exactly the things we wish we had when we were starting out 🙂

  • Ivan says:

    Hi,

    My name is Ivan. I just started a clothing brand called Whatever Label (www.whateverlabel.com) & @whateverlabel (instagram).

    I finding difficulties establishing my brand guidelines given that I want to focus on skateboardes and surfers. I think the target audience is broad and there are a lot of brands out there already. The thing is that, I would like to avoid the term fashion brand or any fashion trend.

    Therefore, in terms of defining our competiton, I like to resonate with those “free spirit” & “rebel” brands that I have around where I live (Bali).

    My question is; do you think i should define my brand guidelines based on the competitors I have around? or should i focus on any world brand that has similar values?

    thanks,
    ivan

  • Kate says:

    The article is worthy of applause.
    I also want to draw your attention to choosing the right brand name. Here is an article https://gapsystudio.com/services/branding/ that says the following about the name: The correct name should reflect the vision and ideal position of a particular brand. The name should also indicate the level of creativity and uniqueness in order to emphasize it and give your business or company the right personality.
    Everything revolves around uniqueness!

  • Amusan Ruth Ayomide says:

    This was really helpful and inspiring…thanks

  • jahir sanchez says:

    Nice article
    i just here to ask.
    Where do i have to put the brand positioning?
    I now brand positioning is about how the market look a brand and mission is about how the core team perceives the company.

    I would appreciate your comments.

  • jasmine says:

    Thanks a lot for really helpful informations !!!!!!!!I. Im impress ….

  • SArah says:

    Very helpful information, Thank you so much

  • Connor Fyfe says:

    Such an informative read! If you’re looking for to find a solid YouTube video on the subject, I found this step by step video very helpful when learning how to build a brand from start to finish. The main thing I found extremely useful, is that there is a free branding template in the description that helps you get started: https://youtu.be/r4WPjBFtOzs

    Also the YT channel The Futur has some great content as well.

  • JOe says:

    WOW….It is very resourceful article. Thanks for your clear guidance.

  • Chante'nevi Smith says:

    Invaluable info!! Just at the perfect time. Thanks so much!

  • Osorio says:

    great post – very informative – Thanks for Sharing – it was a great help how you broke each section down … Thanks again

  • Stephany ben says:

    Great post! Developing a strong brand strategy enables you to identify and refine your core client profiles, then target marketing to the appropriate niche markets. Knowing your target markets also allows you to hone key messaging that strikes a cord with their specific needs. When we talk about ‘brand’ we aren’t just talking about your logo. Your brand is the sum of all your business represents. It’s your logo, tagline, photography, font, colours, language, and your business’s general vibe. It’s how your business as a whole is presented to your target market. At Chilli, we are incredibly invested in building our client’s brands, as this is the ONLY single asset that will carry it’s worth across platforms and tactics.

  • Donny says:

    What a quality article! Thanks for sharing.

  • Herries says:

    Great and complete discussion. It guides a good design direction for many new brands.

  • Marlene says:

    A very informative read.
    Thanks a lot Nate

  • MARY MAGDALENE says:

    Katy French!!!
    This is so perfect. Thanks a lot.

  • Sarah says:

    Thank you for this! Such a great place for me to start with my small business.

  • Creative logo says:

    I truly love this article for the direct yet supportive guide on visual character! Very straightforward however brimming with astonishing and valuable data. Much obliged!
    Feel free to visit here:
    Creative Logo Design

  • Simisola Omotoso says:

    This was very detailed and informational. Now, I couldn’t wait to get started on this.

  • joshua ibemgbo says:

    What an intriguing read. Amazing content for a Graphic designer looking to initiate a brand identity. Thank you

  • Deepa Joshi says:

    Thank you so much for this, simple and concise.

    Deepa Joshi

  • william says:

    Well done.
    What a great read – thanks for making it clear and simple and powerful. I’ve had to try and explain this so many times and this article has been a huge relief and will also serve as a great tool for other.
    Thanks!

  • bRUNA says:

    I really appreciate every article on this web page. It helps a lot and it’s written in the language that anyone can understand. Thanks for your effort and time.

  • John says:

    Great post – very useful!!

    It rare to find useful articles of such worth.

    P.S I have noticed a spelling error within the first paragraph of the Typography section. Should it be ‘your brand identity…’ instead of ‘you brand identity…’? Sorry. It’s the designer in me.

  • M says:

    I genuinely love this article for the straightforward but helpful guide on visual identity! Quite simple but full of amazing and useful information. Thanks!

  • benjamín conde says:

    Amazing article! (also the blog aesthetics are perfect)

  • Kay says:

    Hello Nate & Column5 folks, I represent a tiny (but impactful !!!) Aussie NFP and we are working with some special young people to create a social food enterprise. We are starting with purpose and brand development (as you do). This content is so amazing, I was hoping to gain permission to use it (with due accreditation of course), for educational purposes only. You can check us out @BigFeedAU on Twitter & Insty to see how we roll. Our mothership charity is http://www.childrensfoodeducation.org.au, looking forward to your thoughts.

  • Simeon Taiwo says:

    This is a great content. I’ve learned so much. Thanks a great deal for sharing.

  • anNa says:

    What an ass! To use someone else’s blog to sell your company services. Great job on your article, by the way. I always knew there was a lot to branding (much more than I’d care to do), but you guys mad so many of the parts easy to comprehend. Thank you for the step-by-step. And, I’ve bookmarked you guys. I can’t wait to work with you.

  • chris daniells says:

    Great blog. However, I’d like to mention that once your brand identity has been created, you should always analyze and refine the brand identity accordingly. Track, target and test new strategies and tactics to know what works best. At Om Infosolutions, we have a number of clients that have approached us for revamping their brand identity, which has proven to work really well then.

  • Tasha says:

    This is a great, very comprehensive and perfect in volume piece of content. Not to mention it’s providing so much value with only the lightest of implications of selling the service. Loved it!

    • Katy French says:

      Thanks, Tasha. We’re just trying help people build better brands and great content. 🙂

  • Wes williams says:

    Very thorough and clear summation.

    All I would add is to consider size and simplicity in logo design. A company logo may be used in ways you can foresee — signs in offices and on letterhead are a given, but they may also be printed on small give-away items at conventions or as a tiny icon next to a browser’s URL. The larger or more complicated a logo, the worse it can look in those situations.

  • effangwa says:

    very resourceful

  • helen Arias says:

    Comprehensive and easy to follow.

  • Aayam Agency says:

    Very useful guide to create a power brand identity. Fantastic and informative article. I appreciate it.

  • Chris says:

    is there a way to choose a good color palette? i always find myself stuck when picking color combinations

    • Nate Butler says:

      It’s always good to consider what message you are trying to convey visually, but if you ever want to chat, we’re here to help.

  • Kelly says:

    the images for each step are super helpful. i work visually so they’re always appreciated

  • Joe says:

    there’s so many things to consider that I’ve never even thought about. there’s a lot I guess I still need to learn

  • Tina says:

    thank you for always putting together fantastic guides. they’re invaluable to me

  • Jeff says:

    this is a great article. i’ll be using this in the future as a quick guide