As a small business owner and wearer of all the hats, our net can be cast so wide that it’s easy to overlook the fundamentals of branding in favour of getting our message out there and driving sales. But with so many new businesses popping up every day, taking the time to work strategically on the creative foundations of our branding is more important than ever if we want to stand out from the crowd.
You’re bound to have heard someone say your logo is not your brand – and it’s true. But they rarely go on to tell you what branding actually is. And just knowing your business success rests on more than a clever logo or eye-catching colour palette isn’t enough.
Below, I outline the creative elements required to build yourself a cohesive brand identity, together with tips on nailing them first time.
Brand identity: it’s not just a pretty face
Various definitions of ‘branding’ and ‘brand identity’ have been bandied about over the years. But one thing I’m sure everyone would agree on is that it’s about more than just good looks. Several well-considered, strategic elements need to work together to shape our audience’s perception and build a compelling brand. There’s the product or service itself, of course; but what about the story behind the business? Its personality? The words and visuals used to emotionally connect with the right people and help them understand our offering?
Think of Nike’s “Just Do It” tagline. It’s a motivational message that also clearly sums up their values and persona, and is consistently woven throughout the company’s marketing collateral. By tapping into the minds and emotions of its customers, Nike’s creative strategy goes far deeper than simply adding their infamous ‘tick’ onto everything. They carefully select the right words and visuals to resonate with people who will ultimately buy their products and, hopefully, remain loyal followers of the brand.
Put simply, how we communicate with our audiences – both verbally and visually – massively shapes how our business is perceived. And perception is ultimately what makes or breaks a brand.
Here’s the secret ‘5 Vs’ formula I use to help my clients build a fully-rounded and meaningful brand identity:
Vision + Values + Voice + Visuals = Brand Vibe
Setting the mood
As with any part of an effective brand strategy, the creative begins with a clearly defined core message; the mission, vision and values of the company, product or service in question. These are the foundations around which we must build our creative – not just to ensure alignment with the core brand messaging, but to clearly express what the brand is all about and how it wants to make people feel. Its essence, if you like.
One way I’d recommend for you to guide consistency in the look and feel of your brand is to define a visual mood around your core values and messaging. Moodboarding is a great way to distil your brand foundations into a creative direction (Pinterest is my personal fave for this stage of the process). This can then be used to guide all the other creative brand elements down the line, like social media posts and print graphics, for example.
How to use Pinterest to extract your brand essence
Taking the core values, mission, brand personality, value proposition, and customer persona as your starting point, brainstorm 10-15 individual words that best describe the brand and how it makes people feel (or how you want it to make people feel).
Then, create a Pinterest board, adding two or three pins for each of the brand words you’ve come up with. Try to include a mix of photography, graphics, typography, words, colour palettes, patterns, and anything else that catches your eye.
Once you have created your board, start rearranging the pins into groups: those that work really well together, those that speak loudest to you, those that evoke a particular emotion or feel – however you like. Once you’ve had a good play around, select the 6-9 pins you feel work best together to express the brand feel you are going for. You can then either add them to a new Pinterest board, or upload them into a template in Canva or a photo collage app to produce your final moodboard.
If you’re a perfectionist like me, you’ll probably want to shuffle the images around until you’ve got a composition you’re happy with. If not, it’s good to go!
Now you have a visual cue to guide the rest of the brand identity and creative elements, and help maintain consistency when creating marketing collateral in the future.
Articulate your messaging
The art of using the right words to convey a brand’s value proposition to its potential customers is fundamental in how they perceive the brand. What and how brands communicate with their prospects and customers helps them form opinions about whether they like or trust them, if they’re going to buy, and how long they will remain loyal to the company.
“In the war for customers’ hearts, messaging leads the charge.”
– LEE FREDERIKSEN, PH.D., HINGE MARKETING
The most successful brand messaging is shaped from one core brand message that has been crafted around the values, mission and vision of the brand – as well as its positioning, value proposition and differentiators.
Help keep core messaging consistent and build a distinctive voice and vocabulary, by creating a bank of brand words that can be incorporated across marketing copy.
Find your brand voice
For a truly cohesive brand identity, voice and tonality need to be completely aligned with the brand personality, core messaging and creative elements. It’s not just about choosing the right words to convey your message. How you say them has a huge impact on your audience’s perception of you.
Defining and consistently using a distinctive brand voice across marketing materials is crucial if you want to become recognisable, create emotional connections with your target audience, and provide joined-up customer experiences. Done well, the same brand voice will be used across every single touch-point – from your ‘Thank You’ pop-ups and ‘Error 404’ web page, to the inside of your mail-order packaging.
Taglines: they’re grrreat!
A tagline (or slogan, for the old-schoolers amongst us!) can become as recognisable as the logo itself – especially if it’s quotable. By conveying additional information such as brand values (e.g. “Just Do It.”) or value proposition (e.g. “Eat Fresh”), taglines help give context to the logo and let the customer know what to expect. These few select words can provide a powerful opportunity for brands to differentiate themselves from the competition. So this is one area where I would recommend investing in an experienced copywriter to help you.
Brand colours matter
Our choice of brand colours also plays a crucial role both in the audience’s perception and recognition of the company. Different colours can be used to convey specific values and personality traits, both through their conscious associations, and their subliminal effect on our emotions. There’s been a lot of research into the psychology of colour over the years, and the science is certainly worth considering when selecting the palette to represent your business. But cultural associations and our own experiences are just as vital to choosing the right colours for our branding.
Take red, for instance. Colour psychology says it’s the hue of danger, blood, fire, love. But that’s not necessarily true of the brands that use it in their identities. When you think about Coca-Cola, Virgin, Netflix or YouTube, what does red say to you then? Bold, youthful, passionate, exciting? And if our brand values are none of these things, would we choose to use red in our own branding? Probably not.
Shape up your brand visuals
Similar to colour, shape can be used to express brand values and personality traits. Not only within the logo, but also in other design elements like background patterns, fonts, photography, graphics, and even products. There’s a great article on the psychology of shapes in branding and logos over on Fabrik’s website if you’re keen to learn more on this.
Tell your brand story through imagery
Now, this is where that moodboard we talked about really comes in handy. Visual imagery is what really brings the brand to life and therefore has a significant impact on audience perception. The photography, patterns, illustrations, video and graphics we choose each help to convey a feeling, an emotion, a story, and build the bigger picture of a brand. Our job is to make sure that every single visual element we use is aligned with the brand’s vision, core messaging, and personality.
Considerations like colour, light and shade, setting, composition, and of course subject matter, will all affect how successful an image is for the brand. And maintaining a consistent style of imagery across your website, social pages, emails, packaging and print collateral serves two purposes: 1) it quite literally illustrates what the brand is all about, and; 2) it helps build instant recognition and brand recall, keeping your business top of mind.
Choose typography carefully
Selecting the right name, words and brand voice is one thing; how these words look is another. Our choice of typeface can completely alter the perception of a message and who’s communicating it (much like the use of shape and other graphic elements in branding). The fonts used by a brand should not only be consistent across textual elements but truly reflect the brand’s personality and values. For example, a natural skincare brand with clean, eco-friendly values would be best using a simple sans serif typeface than, say, a fussy gothic font, to reflect its value proposition and communicate the right vibe.
Typefaces are usually defined as part of the overall visual identity design package, alongside logos, brand colours, imagery style and brand patterns. Brand font pairings usually comprise one ‘body text’ font for blocks of content – which needs to remain readable at smaller point sizes – and then a complementary header or title font. Generally, no more than two to three core font families are specified, one of which may or may not match the logotype design.
Last but not least, it’s your logo design
We’ve already established that a logo does not constitute a brand, but it is arguably the most universal – and memorable – element of your brand identity. Generally used across every asset, a good logo communicates who you are, encapsulates your brand essence, and drives recognition.
In the digital age, however, a single logo is not enough. Brand identity designers will usually provide you with a suite of logotypes, including a primary logo, secondary logo and submarks, formatted in different layouts and resolutions for use across social profiles, websites and printed materials.
In a nutshell
We’ve barely scratched the surface of creative branding, but if there is one common thread that runs through all of these elements, it’s consistency. Without that, our audience can feel confused, disconnected and fail to recognise us.
For every creative element, we also really need to think about what matters to our audience. Whatever we do, and however we communicate, the most important thing is that it is relevant to our potential customers.
“The goal of a brand is to be noticed, remembered and desired.”
– LEE FREDERIKSEN, PH.D., HINGE MARKETING
Ultimately, we must dive deeper than eye-catching photography, beautiful fonts and clever captions. A compelling creative strategy requires both style and substance. There needs to be science and logic behind the choices we make for our branding to do its job successfully. Every creative decision should be as conscious and intentional as any other branding decision, not made purely because we like it.
After all, it’s not really about us. It’s about our customers.