How to create a brand identity

At mark-making*, we’ve been creating new brand identities and revitalising others that have lost their way, for over 25 years. From breweries to banks, charities to tech companies, the process and the challenges are the same.

It’s not rocket science, but it is an exercise in craft and problem solving, requiring rigour and discipline, and more than a small dose of creativity, with the potential for transformative results. 

This post is intended to provide a practical overview of the fundamentals of creating an effective brand identity. Beginning with what exactly brand identity is, and why it’s important, you’ll also learn the key steps involved, typical outputs, and the potential pitfalls to avoid.

What is brand identity?

Brand identity is the tangible expression of a brand. A mix of assets – verbal, visual, and others that we’ll come on to – that work together as a system to convey how you wish your organisation or product to be perceived and help you stand out from your competition. 

Another way to think of it is as your desired brand story brought to life.

The key word here is desired, because however you might want to be perceived – perhaps as cutting-edge, professional, trustworthy and socially responsible – the reality is your brand is what others think when your organisation comes to mind. And rarely are the two perfectly aligned.

As opposed to brand identity, brand is the intangible emotional associations people have with your product or organisation. Or, as Jeff Bezos famously once said, ‘Your brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room’.

So, whilst it’s not possible to control what others think, creating a brand identity that reflects how you would like to be thought of, provides the opportunity to at least influence perceptions.

Why is brand identity important?

Or, if you happen to hold the purse strings, why bother investing in brand identity? 

Standing out from the crowd remains the perennial challenge for businesses. And in an increasingly competitive world, with consumers exposed to relentless brand messaging 24-7, it’s harder than ever. 

As part of the strategic bedrock for successful brand building, identity plays a vital role in addressing the challenge of cutting through the incessant noise.

Brand identity enables organisations to leverage the power of emotion, the basis upon which we all ultimately make decisions (whether we like to believe it or not), to engage and ultimately sell.

The purpose of brand building is to, over time, imbue a commodity (product or service) with meaning and emotional associations, in turn differentiating that commodity and creating significant value beyond its functional attributes.

To take household examples, Coca-Cola is considerably more than an odd-tasting, brown carbonated beverage, just as Apple is way more than the sum of its electronic know-how. These organisations exemplify what it is to be a brand and illustrate the extraordinary value that may be generated by investing in long-term brand building, alongside shorter-term tactical marketing. And their individual brand identities are very much part of that success.

These are global B2C giants of course, with reach and marketing budgets to match, but the principles behind brand identity and its role in effective brand building apply equally to SMEs and B2B.

So, what makes a good brand identity?

The most effective brand identities have three things in common. They’re meaningful, distinctive and consistent. 

Every creative asset, from your logo and colour palette, to the typefaces you choose and your approach to imagery, represents an opportunity to reflect and reinforce what your brand stands for and what makes it different. Careful consideration of every element, and how they work together as a brand language, will ensure your customers understand exactly what you have to offer, in turn making it easier for them to buy from you.

Meaning can often be at odds with distinctiveness, so the two must be carefully balanced. As well as being a tangible expression of who you are, your brand can’t afford to blend in.

Creating distinctiveness requires careful analysis of your competitors, understanding how they are visually and verbally articulating their position, and resisting the urge to fall in line with trends. 

‘Blands’ are increasingly commonplace, despite numerous studies demonstrating the commercial value of difference, whether in its ability to command a premium price or simply drive brand value over time. 

What’s more, just being perceived as different is enough, so striving for distinctiveness – creative ways in which to stand apart from competitors and be readily recognised as you – is key to successful branding.

Finally, don’t make it any more difficult for your audience to put your name to your brand than it needs to be. Manage this by creating rules and guidelines that ensure that in any given context – direct mail, poster, TV, print collateral etc – there is no room for confusion as to who the brand is. But also be careful not to restrict the potential for creativity. With an informed and well-crafted brand identity it’s perfectly possible to strike an effective balance.

The brand identity process

So where to start? The answer is not with a layout pad.

Remember brand identity is the expression of your brand. So, creating a brand identity process should start with absolute clarity around what your brand stands.

Whether that manifests as a classic positioning statement, a set of strategic imperatives, or something similarly simple and focused, it’s the foundation to creating an effective brand identity.

Getting to that point requires a robust process of brand discovery, assimilation and distillation. 

Armed with that clarity, now you can get creative.

Verbal Brand identity

Your brand voice – what you say and how you say it – is a huge and often overlooked aspect of brand identity that’s fundamental to driving brand distinctiveness and building awareness. Brand languages play as great a role, sometimes a greater one, as visual identity in helping brands stand out. 

A considered verbal identity platform (brought together in a comprehensive set of verbal identity guidelines) will enable anyone writing and talking on behalf of your brand to do so confidently, clearly and consistently. 

From brand names that capture the essence of your organisation, and straplines that tell your story in just a few words, to concise and inspiring narratives, practical message houses, and a well defined tone of voice, your verbal identity presents a huge opportunity to cut through the noise and be heard above your competitors.

Visual identity

Working alongside and amplifying the effectiveness of verbal identity, your visual branding should reflect and reinforce your positioning, communicating through distinctive assets (or brand ‘codes’) who you are and what you stand for. 

Brand design creative elements typically include your logo or brand mark, colour, type and typography, imagery, iconography. Collectively as a system, and individually, these elements present a valuable opportunity to say something about your brand, create associations and influence perceptions. 

Beyond words and pictures

Brand identity, although most readily associated with visual identity, isn’t restricted to language and imagery. The opportunity to express your brand and stand out extends to assets that play to other senses too, and is a strategy embraced by the most progressive brands.

Sonic branding takes advantage of sound. The Intel Inside jingle possibly being one of the most famous examples, and Netflix’s distinctive ‘Duh-duhhhnnn….’ is now instantly recognisable too.

Brand identity can leverage smell as well, otherwise known as scent branding. You can identify a Lush store from fragrance alone, and from a decent way off.

Key takeaways

Brand identity is a big subject and as made clear at the outset, this piece is very much written as a practical overview. Some key points to remember:

  • Brand is the emotional associations people make with a product or organisation
  • Brand identity is the tangible expression of what a product or organisation is all about
  • Brand identity presents the opportunity to stand out from competitors and bring the brand story to life in a way that will resonate most with customers
  • Creating a brand identity starts with defining the brand
  • The most effective brand identities are meaningful, distinctive and consistent
  • Brand identity doesn’t finish with words and visuals 

Like to know more?

Over the past 25 years we have created hundreds of brand identities and revitalised as much again. Here are just a few brand identity examples from very different sectors, for more visit our work page:

If you think we might be able to help you, just drop us a line and we’d be delighted to have a chat.

About Alastair

Founder and Creative Director

Ali co-founded mark-making* in 1995 after graduating from Lancaster University in Marketing & Visual Arts. Ali works closely with our clients to help bring clarity to their story, and oversees the wider mm* team to ensure it’s expressed effectively, with authenticity and coherence. Ali regularly speaks on the concept of Magnetic Brands, an approach to creating and building brands that embraces the power of being more human, in pursuit of both profit and positive impact. Ali leads mark-making’s work in helping ambitious organisations of all shapes and sizes build extraordinary and enduring appeal.