There is a lot of buzz around the word “branding” nowadays and, just like the words “user experience” or “customer experience”, I feel like it is a concept loosely interpreted by each company or group of individuals in a subjective manner.
So I thought that before I get ahead of myself and talk about complex matters and philosophical ideas about design, art, visual identity, culture and… the physics of the Universe (because I do love going off on tangents like that), I should first give it a shot at illuminating the whole “branding” and “branding identity” confusion.
A lot of people say that a brand starts with a logo, but in reality a brand starts way before that.”
I will not start with the absolute beginner stuff, like the difference between a logo and branding identity, because this subject has been touched many times by folks more notorious and veteran than me. Feel free to read this though if you are interested in the difference between a logo and a brand. I’ve seen even fellow designers confused about this, so it is a great place to start!
Instead, I will define how I perceive the natural steps of building a brand and the way that impacts your business and your “bottom line”.
A lot of people say that a brand starts with a logo, but in reality a brand starts way before that, when you first start having a seed in your mind that you might want to open a business or create a new product. What is that brilliant idea that doesn’t leave you alone to sleep at night? What are you trying to achieve or what problem are you trying to solve by building that product? And why? Why do you care? And why should anyone else care as well?
The answer to these questions will serve as the foundational building blocks of your story as a brand. It’s been beaten into people (at least at big agencies) for over a decade and a half now how important storytelling is in the whole image of a brand. And it really is! If you don’t know what your core values are and what you stand for, it will be hard to stay true to yourself and not bail ship when things get tough.
Next is naming your precious baby, aka your company, product, line etc.
Name has a powerful weight in the success and longevity of a brand. Some name brands are more memorable, while others are less. As a rule of thumb, people remember shorter and punchier names, that have a good flow and ring to them. Try to think of how the sound and the spelling of the name come together. Sometimes it is hard to remember or discover names that are hard to spell or you have no idea how to pronounce. And yes, it is memorable to have an exotic name (it is different so it sticks out), just don’t make it too complicated.
Think of brand names like: Nike, Puma, Fendi, Furla, Apple, Dell, The Ritz etc.
A few examples of brand names that could be better: Christian Louboutin – no offense bro, I LOVE your shoes, but people always misspell your name or have no idea how to pronounce it. I’ve also heard people confusing Louboutin with Louis Vuitton – true story!
And I get why use that name: it’s the name of the designer so you know right out of the bat that you are wearing a DESIGNER, it is french (which besides being sexy as hell – french is the language of love, heeelloooo – it is also synonymous with fashion) and serves as a reminder for the artist that “hey, it is MY name that everyone is raving about”.
But let’s get back to branding…
Now that you have all this, what shall you do with it?
Take it, put it in a bag and throw it in the trash! No, just kidding! Please don’t do that! The next step is to think of an overall image that you would like to portray. Is it edgy and rebellious? Is it rough and tough? Is it sophisticated or avant-garde? Is it elegant or futuristic? How would you like the world to perceive your brand? Think back to your core values and your why, and how well those two tie together.
Finally, we are reaching the phase when you are actually ready to think about a logo design, a preferred brand color and some typography choices. Again, the style should be in line with the overall story you tell yourself about your brand and the image you want to show off to the world. Don’t use bright yellow, green and red together if you are striving for elegance.
So we have a product/line/business idea, we have a story, we have an overall aesthetic feel and we have a logo and/or logo mark. Your identity is formed.
Time to get yourself out there!! If you plan on opening a physical store where you will showcase your product or whatever it is (flagship style store) make sure you coordinate with an interior designer and your creative director to design a store image that matches with your overall brand identity. A very important rule of branding is to not leave anything to chance. Remember that what sets a brand apart from the crowd is great attention to details.
An example of a brand that has the whole branding to the smallest details down is DIESEL. The reason why I love their stuff so much is because they have an incredibly strong message and they stand by their beliefs and their identity in everything that they do. From the carefully planned and decorated stores – shoutout to the DIESEL store in Boston, you are kicking ass! – to cool messages on the tags, a hidden fastening on a pair of jeans, or a strategically placed tear or stud on a graphical t-shirt. They think about EVERYTHING and that’s why their brand is rock solid!
Now a lot of brands do not need to worry about that step, because they are not planning to open a flagship store. But if you do happen to have a physical product which needs to get into people’s hands, please do not forget about two extremely important things: PACKAGING and SHIPPING PACKAGING.
If you ship in boxes, include at least your logo on the box, and if you use plastic bags, try to have them custom printed with – again – at least your logo, if not a dedicated graphic (preferred).
Next on the list is your presence in the digital world, starting with the website.
Since the rise of social media platforms, a lot of opinions have been floating around the question if there is even a need to have a website anymore in today’s age. But my opinion is that you definitely do!
Think about it this way: social media platforms come and go. Remember MySpace? Anyone? But your website is in YOUR control. A website is also infinitely more scalable, extendable and brand-able. Usually social media constrains you to use their format and your profile is still branded under the social media platform of your choice’s brand. When you make a Facebook page you have control over the content that you post, but that’s pretty much where that control ends, because at the end of the day it still says “Facebook” at the top of the page and it still has the white and blue Facebook colors, Facebook’s icons and Facebook’s layout.
A custom made, personalized, website is part of your identity. It is more than a business card, a showcase or a presentation, it’s a small universe that is all about your story, your message and what you can bring to the table. You can make it as complex or as simple as you want it, but you should never leave important information out. People have short attention spans these days, that’s why all the information presented must be coherent, compelling and accompanied by a lot of visual elements.
And since I mentioned social media earlier, here comes the question: “well Kay, since you told me that social media is constrictive and it changes all the time, should I even bother?” YES! You should definitely bother!
Just because social media platforms are ephemeral, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage with them. Not being active on social media is what I think kills a lot of older businesses. Let’s face it: we now live in a digital experience economy!
We now live in a digital experience economy.”
The thing about social media is that it brings a lot of people together, and a lot of these people have the potential to either become your customers, your fans, your collaborators or even your business partners. Plus, despite the constrictions, I think it forces people to become more creative about how they express themselves within those rules and how they can make themselves stand out.
Now, you don’t have to embark on every single social media platform there is out there if that’s not your thing. A lot of big brands like to cover all their bases and scoop up their brand name’s username basically everywhere, but I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary right out of the bat. Stick to the social media platforms where it is most likely for your target audience to congregate. Ask yourself: “Who am I really talking to? Men or women? Young or old? Do I express my story better through images, video, writing or a combination of all of them?”
As a side note:
it’s very important to secure your username on the platform. If your brand name’s for example Jack Daniels, than your Instagram handle should be @JackDaniels and the url: instagram.com/jackdaniels. It will be so much easier for your customers and fans to find you this way, as opposed to having a complicated username like @__**J4cK-Daniel$**___ (which nobody will remember and a lot of people will type wrongly).
I’m not going to get into much detail about how an effective branding for social media should look like because that’s another story for another day. However, I will mention to keep in mind your overall visual identity and align your content with that style.
ONESIXONE is a brand that has an effortlessly awesome branding, where all the elements just fall into the perfect place.
Visual coherence is an important part of the branding process because it establishes trust and recognition.”
What is left now?
Our branding journey is not over yet, because there are still many details to tighten up. Like, for example, business cards. Or brochures. Or newsletters. It goes without saying that all these should be designed to carry your brand identity and image across the board. Branding works very close with marketing, because both of them work hand in hand to convince the world of the importance and credibility of your brand. All of your communication methods should be branded.
Why visual coherence is such an important part of the branding process is because it establishes trust and recognition. If you use a visual that does not match your style, your message or your values, your target audience is going to be confused and alienated.
Think of a lawyer using Comic Sans (please Google it, you’ll have a laugh!) on their website, on their business cards or even in their emails. Or having a pink glittery unicorn as a logo mark. Would you trust him/her/it?
People are looking for experiences, not just simple products, and that’s why branding plays such an important role: it is the backbone and the skeleton that holds that unforgettable experience together.
Now you understand how not investing a carefully crafted branding identity can cost you clients and even your whole business.
And now let’s recap! What are the steps to building a brand identity?
- Brand story (the “why” of your business)
- Naming your brand
- Aesthetic style
- Logo, brand colors and typography
- Product packaging and/or store design (* ignore if you are a solely digital business)
- Digital strategy and design (website design, copywriting, social media, newsletters etc.)
- Communications and marketing assets design (both physical and digital)