The human brain. It’s a landscape of electrical currents and imagination. If you’ve ever seen one of those cards with the ink blot on them you know what I’m talking about.
The psychologist holds up a white card. On it is a silhouette of a shape. It’s not an obvious shape but there’s something there to see. We can each look at it and assign a different meaning to it. A smashed bug, two people hugging, a race car, a nightmare.
There’s no telling what ol’ Hermann Rorschach intended the image to be but in the blink of an eye, we decide what it means to us.
There is no form of communication quite like visual communication. It’s powerful and it’s quick. Our brains are capable of assigning meaning to a visual message in nanoseconds.
We are exposed to a lot of visual information every day, every click, every scroll. Our brain has processes to help us process information quickly. Our brain creates shortcuts, called schemas, to help us not get overwhelmed. Schemas help us organize and interpret information based on previous experiences or knowledge.
Take color for example; we all have subconscious feelings about color. We already have an experience that includes a certain color or symbol or image and our brain has assigned information attached to it. When we see a color or shape or pattern, we quickly assign meaning to it.
So as a brand, we have this incredible communication system at our disposal. Colors, photos and fonts oh my! Endless visual elements, courtesy of Canva, to use at our disposal!
“A logo and a palette of my favorite colors are all I need to make a brand!” – said no real business owner ever.
The Complete Brand
We have all heard by now that a logo is not your brand. There is more to branding than colors and visuals. But they do play a significant part in the complete brand.
As a business owner, part of your business plan will include your brand strategy. While your business plan outlines how you run your business, your brand strategy is how you connect with your audience. Your complete brand is how your audience understands your brand and how they relate to it. It is the journey you take them on to get them to know, like and trust you.
So it’s easy to see that just a logo isn’t up to that task! There are several aspects to the complete brand that take your customers on this journey.
Once you understand that the complete brand is made up of interconnected elements that support each other, you can better understand the role that visual elements play.
Your Complete Brand is made up of Brand Substance elements such as your values, purpose and commitment. Your Market Position plays a big role in every aspect of your customer experience. It is where you define who your audience is and what they need. Your Positioning Strategy also includes elements like how you help them, the benefits you provide, your competition landscape and how you do it better.
The Brand Expression elements are where we start to see the audience facing assets such as your brand personality, your brand name and tagline, your messaging framework and communication strategy. This is also where your Visual Expression lives and within that is your Brand Identity System.
Just like every other part of your brand, your visuals are created as part of an overall strategy – mainly to make an impression and communicate a message to the right people.
Your brand strategy, position and personality will heavily influence your brand identity system. The logo, typography and color palette have major roles to play and they need to align with your core message. Just as importantly, they need to be cohesive and remain consistent across touchpoints in order to make an impact.
The purpose of your brand identity system is to appeal to your audience visually and to assist them in quickly assigning meaning to your brand.
The big players in your brand identity system are:
Logo: sets the tone for how your brand will be experienced
Typography: sets the style of the brand
Color pallet: sets the mood of your brand
Image/Photo style: evokes emotion from your audience
Patterns/Graphics/Icons: are flexible elements that can add texture, fill in space and adds to the cohesiveness of the visual brand experience.
The main goal of your visual identity system is to visually communicate the aspects of your brand that you might not be able to put into words. Aspects such as mood, emotions and how the experience might feel.
For example, color has psychological meaning attached to it. We associate certain emotions or desires based on what we know about a color. Red is a very powerful color. It can mean hot, danger, powerful, sexy or energetic. We associate blue with feeling calm, fresh and intelligent. Green makes us feel connected to the earth, wealthy or envious.
Brands use color theory in their brand identity system to evoke a desired mood in their audience. None of this is accidental. We use our market positioning strategy and audience profile to determine how we want our audience to feel when they associate with our brand. It’s part of how we position our brand in the minds of our audience. (Much like how our brand name does.)
Our goal with Brand Expression is to get the audience to feel something for our brand. Emotion creates connection which turns into a relationship which turns into trust and leads to a sale. It’s a journey. And it’s strategic.
Finding Strategy for your Brand Visuals
As I mentioned in the beginning of the article, each element of the complete brand supports the others. They are the building blocks to developing a strong brand identity system.
1. Know your audience.
This is the first step to anything you will do with your brand. You have to not just know who your audience is, but you have to include them in every step. Choosing colors or fonts simply based on them being your favorite will not do your brand any good. You have to choose them for your audience. Step into their shoes and experience your brand from their point of view. What do they need? How do they need to experience your brand in order to trust it? What are they going through and why do they need you? How do they feel? And how do you need them to feel?
2. Know your brand.
Your brand identity system needs to be built on strategy. Otherwise it will fall short on what it’s designed to do: communicate with your audience. You need to have clarity on what your business is about and why it exists. What are your core values and what does your business stand for, and against? Uncover your brand personality. How does your brand present itself and what characteristics of your brand personality can your audience relate to and connect with?
Know your positioning strategy and what you need your audience to know about it. How are you better than the competition? What can you offer that they can’t? What benefits do you bring to the table?
What word would you use to describe your brand? How would customers describe your brand? Use these keywords to help in building your brand visual identity system.
3. Amplify your core elements
One goal of brand visuals is to quickly grab the audience’s attention and to help them quickly assign meaning.
We have fractions of a second to connect with our audience. By amplifying our visual characteristics, we make sure we get seen. As a brand we need to lead with the characteristics that hold the most meaning and communicate the strongest aspect of our brand message. And we need to understand underlying psychological attachments that certain characteristics embody.
Take all the aspects of your brand story that you need your audience to know about you. This includes your values, your personality, your benefits, etc. As you sit down to develop each element of your visual brand, take those foundational characteristics into consideration.
- What shape should your logo be? Round, sharp edges, square, abstract? What message does that shape convey?
- Are the edges smooth, rough, sharp, gritty, faded? How could those characteristics be interpreted? Does it align with your brand?
- What about typography? Is it playful, fancy, symmetrical, bold, creative, messy, bubbly? Do the fonts reflect the style of your brand?
- What does your image/photo style say about your brand? Is it fun and fresh? Dark and moody? Cinematic and edgy? What emotions does it evoke? Does it align with your brand’s strategy?
- What mood do you want associated with your brand? How does your color palette support that part of your strategy?
When your visuals are supported by strategy, they convey important cues and positive qualities about your brand. These qualities can be hard to put into words but can have profound psychological impact on your audience. For example, if your identity is clean and colorful, it can relay a message that your company is innovative and forward-thinking.
Just like your content and communication strategy, your visual strategy should have a cumulative effect across touchpoints. Meaning, no matter where your audience experiences your brand, it should feel familiar and cohesive. Your brand should feel the same whether it’s in an email or in your store.
Consistency in Brand Visual Identity
Brand identity shapes your audience’s perception of your brand. So if they are getting a different story at each touchpoint, they will get confused and you will lose their trust.
Every touchpoint should deliver a different piece of the same story. This is why clarity on your brand’s core message is important. Your brand identity system amplify your brand story through visuals. It’s how you get their attention quickly. Using the right elements in your visuals, gets the right message across quickly to the right people.
Starting to come together now?
No element of your brand operates independently. If you create content, imagery or a behavior out in left field, you are going to lose your audience. If your brand acts without strategy, it’s wasted energy. And a missed opportunity to connect and build a relationship with your audience.
Touchpoints exist in many places in the brand experience: website, social media, email, store fronts, business cards, packaging, shopping bags, client gifts and even in-person networking events. These are all places that potential customers interact with your brand. Each of these touchpoints is an opportunity to make an impression and to create a memorable experience for your brand. It’s also an opportunity to communicate a message about your brand.
Your audience needs to pick up bite-sized pieces of your brand story throughout their experience with you. If it’s too hard to put the pieces together, they will dismiss you or they will never get the message you intended and you will lose your positioning in their minds. (That means they won’t give you their money!)
Consistency across touchpoints is an important part of your visual strategy. Achieve this by creating a visual expression based on strategy. Use the elements of your complete brand as a foundation for building your visual elements. Each visual element is an opportunity to send a message about your brand. Make sure it’s saying the right thing!
Create a set of brand guidelines that defines the typography you use and how to use it. Fonts achieve different effects in print than they do on the web. Make sure they are formatted appropriately for each type of medium so that they retain their effect, appeal and meaning.
Create a versatile color pallet with colors that offer contrast for text and complementary colors for visual appeal.
Brand photos and images are big players in evoking emotion from your audience. You can hire a brand photographer to create custom brand photos for your or have your brand designer curate stock photos that are on-brand for the story you need to tell.
Use programs like Canva to create templates that are ready for you to use in Instagram and in your emails!
Visual cues, such as logos, colors, patterns, photo style and graphic elements create meaning in our brains and we use them to make decisions. It’s much easier to remember a face than it is a name! That is the power of visual cues! (Just the other day I was at the library and for the life of me I couldn’t remember the title of the book I wanted to find. But I could see the book cover in my mind. I described it to the librarian and she knew exactly what book I was talking about! #librariansarethecoolest)
We know right away if we want to get to know a brand better or not. We can tell just by their website design if they are a good fit for us. I can tell by a brand’s photos if I can relate to them or not. And so can your audience.
When we build our brand on strategy, something magical takes place. Instead of everyone seeing something different in the ink blot, we shape what they see. Our visual elements strategically deliver a story more memorable than our words. And in doing so, create a more powerful meaning.