Visual Identity – How to make yours relevant and effective

‘Brand’, ‘brand strategy’, ‘brand identity’ and ‘visual identity’ are just a few of the many words and phrases associated with the concept of branding. You’d be forgiven for getting a little confused about it all. 

This article looks at how to make your visual identity relevant and effective. To do that, we first need to define what it is, and how it fits in with your brand and brand identity. 

What is a company's brand?

The word ‘brand’ is an intangible business concept.  It refers to the qualities and reputation of a company and the feelings and thoughts it evokes in those who come into contact with it. 

Brands are therefore concepts which live in the minds of the people who experience them. 

A brand which evokes positive feelings such as trust, identification and inclusion with its target market, is a company’s most valuable asset. An effective brand will also have feelings and thoughts with which it is uniquely associated. This differentiates it from its competitors.

How is a brand different from brand identity?

Brand identity is the tangible aspect of the brand. It is its outward representation in the form of attributes that can be perceived by the five senses, such as colours, shapes, sounds, tastes, smell and feel. 

For instance, when we think of a company like Coca Cola, the thoughts and emotions that are evoked might be sharing, holidays, happiness, and Christmas. These feelings and thoughts are the essence of the Coca Cola brand. 

The colour red, the shape of its bottle, the taste, the fizz, the slogan, the music and its iconic logotype are components of its very strong brand identity.

Visual identity for Coca Cola includes its logotype and specific red colour

What is a brand strategy?

Every company should have a brand strategy. This is a long term plan to develop the brand. This shouldn’t be confused with plans to develop the company in a physical way, such as with new products for example. It means specifically developing the brand, which as we discussed before, is an intangible concept referring to the qualities and reputation of a company and how it is perceived. 

A brand strategy is a long-term plan to reach the goals you have for your brand. For this you need to be clear on what your brand is now, and what you want it to be in the future. 

When developing a brand strategy, questions which should be explored are:

Who is the audience?

What type of person is most likely to be interested in your products and services? Can you imagine them in detail?

What is the tone of voice of the brand?

Is it formal, informal, humorous, serious, playful, irreverent?

What is its message?

What exactly is your brand trying to communicate? What is it that you do? How is it different from other brands? How can it help your customers? 

What are the brand values and purpose?

What qualities do you value and place at the centre of your brand? You might include for example, integrity, trustworthiness, professionalism, quality, or inclusivity. Which particular values are the most important to your brand? 

What is its personality?

What human characteristics might you attribute to your brand? What personality traits would be most likely to elicit a positive emotional response from your target market?

Who are its competitors?

Who are your competitors? Are they direct or indirect competitors?

Direct competition is a company that offers the same product or service as you.

Indirect competition is a company whose products or services are different from yours, but may satisfy the same need.

For instance, a pizza fast food restaurant is in direct competition with another pizza restaurant, but is in indirect competition with a burger fast food restaurant.

How does your brand stand out from this competition?

It is only after the brand and brand strategy is fully explored and understood, that the process of designing a visual identity can begin. The visual identity should be designed in a way which fully supports the brand strategy. 

What is visual identity?

Visual identity is part of brand identity, but it refers to the visual aspects of brand identity. 

This includes of course the logo, but it also refers to fonts, colours, shapes, photography styles, icons, patterns and other visual assets. These might be used on any physical items associated with the company, such as its website, stationery, packaging, vehicles, uniforms, and store fittings.

The visual identity of BMW includes their classic logo

The logo

The logo is the linchpin of the visual identity but by no means all of it. This previous post explores exactly what makes a good logo.

Fonts

Fonts should be carefully chosen to accurately represent the image of your brand. For instance, if your brand is a very traditional brand with traditional values, you might want to have an old style serif font as one of your fonts. This might align more coherently with a traditional image. A  brand aiming to present a more modern image might lean towards sans serif fonts.

Readability is crucial, so fonts should be chosen that work well in any situation in which they might be used. For instance, a font which works well on the side of a van, must also be readable on a website.

It’s best not to have too many fonts as part of your visual identity. Generally, two or three will be enough.  

Colours

Colours are enormously powerful in projecting an image and eliciting an emotional response. Chosen carefully, they can be a potent asset to your brand identity. 

If we think of Coca Cola again, they are strongly associated with a certain shade of red, which helps strengthen the message of happiness, holidays and Christmas, but also excitement and a sense of liveliness. Choose your brand colours carefully to make sure you’re making the most of the power of colour. 

Photography

Good photography can help tell the story of your brand. It should also be consistent and recognisable as part of your brand identity. For instance, if your brand aims to elicit calmness and minimalism, make sure your photography reflects this.

Other visual assets

Illustrations and other assets such as icons, shapes and patterns should be consistent with each other, and with the brand identity in style and colour.

What makes an effective visual identity?

Your visual identity should consistently reflect the company’s personality in order to build a solid brand. Inconsistency confuses the customer, and the message of your brand becomes less clear. For instance, if your company aims to be perceived as traditional and serious, it wouldn’t make sense to use bright colours and a playful font.

In order to provide visual consistency across the brand, the company should have a style guide. This is a document that sets out all the visual assets of the company and how they should be used.

It can include:

The style guide provides specific rules to which anyone in the company can refer when working on or with the visual assets. This ensures consistency throughout the company and a stronger brand identity.

As an example, the Church of England has a simple but clear style guide which can be seen here

Why does visual identity matter?

Visual identity is the main means of conveying the essence of a brand to the public. To get it right strengthens the message and the brand. To get it wrong causes confusion and a weaker brand.

Visuals are so powerful because:

How to get it right