Designers and marketing agencies will often tell you that your brand identity is much more than just a logo. And they are right. But you’ll often find the conversation stops there. It’s as if agencies and creatives expect you to accept their wisdom unchallenged. But we have to work a bit harder than that. So here’s my attempt at picking apart what your brand identity is, and why it is much more than a logo.

The beginnings of building a brand

Imagine you are in a bar. You aren’t drinking, so you say “can I have a Coke, please?” The fact that almost nobody asks for Pepsi or Rola-Cola isn’t an accident. Coca Cola is more or less the default option. And that is the result of a little over a century of consistent brand building and advertising.

This “defaulting” isn’t great news for brands who don’t stand out in customers minds. It suggests that people often mistake generic brands for market leaders. In other words the copycat or dull brand disappears.

So what is brand idenitity?

Think of your brand identity as a bit like choosing a uniform for work. Some people want to appear hip and down to earth, so they dress down. Others wear expensive clothes to give off an impression of wealth and exclusivity.

If you want to give a good impression, you could try doing that with an expensive dress, some classy heels and a designer handbag. But the designer handbag with your Sunday slouching wear sends a mixed message. So in a way, the logo is like a posh watch or a nice handbag. It may be a flagship part of the outfit. But it’s not an outfit on its own.

This explains why you need to use several elements in combination to build a brand successfully. The logo is just part of that. The other key to a good brand identity is to be distinct. Being distinct means building a unique voice among similar companies. For an example of this let’s look at a difficult place to build a unique brand; banking.

Different, or distinct?

If you think about banks, they are pretty boring and generally similar. Banks are a recipe for dullness. I’m yawning just thinking about them. Many of them use typical corporate cliches to appear like a safe pair of hands, and most of them just blend into the background.

But one company bucks all those trends. As you may know, I’m talking about “the unexpected bank” First Direct. Over the years, they have carved out a reputation for high quality, hassle free banking.

That work has given them the springboard for a completely distinct visual identity. Their no-nonsense black and white design supports their approach. And unlike their competitors, their advertising features a talking platypus with a northern accent. As a result, their brand sets them apart from everyone else.

And here’s one other, good example.

A flag in the sand

There’s probably no better example of a high profile, modern brand than Red Bull.

Many people now associate Red Bull with X-Sports and Formula 1. They have even created a media empire supporting musicians and film makers. And to be honest, I think Red Bull could stop making the fizzy drink altogether and the brand would survive, it’s that strong. Their brand represents youth, a certain hipness and living on the edge. All of which has very little to do with a fizzy drink of course.

So building a brand identity is about a whole bunch of different elements working in tandem. And some of those things aren’t anything to do with design. But the parts that are set you apart and tells a story about your company, or your history. A good brand identity explains why you are even here in the first place. It can make you distinct.

When you remove the product or service of your company; what remains is your brand. It is what it represents to your customer without the thing they are going to buy from you. As you can imagine, that is a whole range of different things. Whether it’s a typeface, a colour or a particular design style, these are the building blocks of your brand. Your logo is just a flag in the sand.

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