“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Great advice for first graders. For scaling businesses? Not so much.
Whether you’re competing for attention on Google, in ads, at a trade show, or on your own website, potential customers are judging your company by its cover. We call that your brand.
Do your visuals resonate with the customers you’re trying to reach? Does your messaging communicate the value of your products and services? Do your visuals and messaging cooperate and amplify each other, or clash and cause dissonance and confusion?
When great visuals and a great story go together, that’s when the magic happens. But that requires nailing the fundamentals on two different, but related kinds of documentation: Brand identity and visual identity.
What’s the difference? Where should you start?
Visual identity vs. brand identity: It’s a square rectangle thing
Visual identity and brand identity are similar sounding terms, but there are important differences.
Your company’s visual identity is a set of cohesive design elements and guidelines. These elements and guidelines are created intentionally in order to give your brand a signature look and feel and influence the perceptions and behaviors of your audience.
The elements and guidelines that make up a visual identity usually include:
- Brand colors
- Patterns and graphics
- Photo treatments
- Icon styles
Brand identity is a broader term that includes, but is not limited to, visuals. Everything discussed above falls into brand identity, but a brand identity that doesn’t also include non-visual elements and guidelines is not complete.
These non-visual elements are often referred to as brand voice or brand messaging. For simplicity, we’ll call them your brand story. These elements and guidelines define your brand’s positioning, personality, and how you should talk about your products, services, and industry.
A complete brand identity usually includes things like:
- Mission statement
- Elevator pitch
- Product/service names, definitions, and hierarchy
- Key value propositions
- Writing style guidelines
- Brand voice guidelines
When applied consistently to all of the assets (e.g., web pages, mailers, videos, emails) that come from your company, a strong brand identity will make your materials instantly recognizable and set you apart from your competition.
For customers that are moving through the buyer’s journey, a strong brand identity creates a cohesive experience that reduces friction.
Which comes first?
Many companies pursue visual identity work independently of the larger brand identity. Why?
When it comes to certain types of projects, having complete visual identity documentation is imperative. Brand story documentation, on the other hand, is viewed as a nice-to-have.
Take a website, for example. Trying to design a website without an established visual identity is hard. A designer can make decisions on their own about fonts, colors, photo treatments, etc., but there’s no guarantee your website will look and feel the same from page to page — and it definitely won’t match the rest of your materials.
Non-visual brand elements, meanwhile, can be implied. A passionate stakeholder will usually have an idea of their company’s mission, value propositions, and product hierarchy, and a smart copywriter can translate this information to a web page.
The problem is, many teams are satisfied to leave it at that. They might use their visual identity for future materials, but they continue to operate without a completely established brand story.
In some cases, they use their website copy in place of brand story guidelines, treating it as a source of truth — when the truth is, it probably wasn’t created with the level of consideration and insight required to guide an entire brand.
Do I need both?
We believe that for marketing to be successful long term, you need both a visual identity and a comprehensive brand identity that includes your brand story.
Visual and non-visual brand elements and guidelines should complement each other. Ideally, they should be created together, by teams in close collaboration. At the very least, the visual identity should be updated in conjunction with the establishment of brand story documentation.
It’s easy to tell when this hasn’t happened. How many times have you encountered a website with imagery and copy that seem like they came from completely two different companies?
Dissonance between brand elements creates friction in the buyer’s journey. So how can you avoid it?
Brand identity green flags
Here’s how to tell if a brand identity is going to serve you long-term:
The visual identity supports your brand story (and vice versa) — The visual identity was created (or updated) in collaboration with the team responsible for brand voice and messaging.
Your brand was built for your audience, not for you — When it comes to brand exercises and workshops, it’s important to separate personal preference from the real goal: what’s going to work best for your audience? Brand decisions should be made with supporting evidence from market research and/or competitive analysis.
Your brand was built for your audience, not for everyone — A brand that appeals to everyone doesn’t exist. Don’t be afraid to make bold decisions that can help influence your ideal customers, even if it means doing things a little differently than the status quo.
The brand identity enables consistency and flexibility — The best brand identity documentation includes just enough information to ensure every asset has your signature look, feel, and messaging, but not so many rules and regulations that it makes exciting creative work impossible.
The brand identity is created, not collated — Some companies seek a shortcut to establishing a brand identity by simply documenting the elements they already have. That’s a surefire way to end up with a boring, disjointed brand.
Create your ideal brand identity
Creating a defined, documented brand identity enables your company’s personality to shine through in every asset. It also ensures continuity between teams, and protects knowledge when employees move on.
You can definitely create brand identity documentation internally. But for a smooth process that helps eliminate bias and guarantees a useful end result, it’s best to ask for help from a third party.
Contact us to learn how we can help you define your visual identity and brand story.