Branding TacticsContagious IdeasCONTAGIOUS IDEAS

What is brand identity?

A brand identity—also referred to as corporate or institutional identity,—helps consumers visually identify and differentiate a brand, as well as, creates a sense of community and cohesiveness across all types of communications and media.

It may seem strange to think of companies, institutions, causes, products and even services, as having personalities and separate identities,—this is their brand. The reality is that consumers interact with brands in a way that is similar to the way they engage with other people.

Brand identity is then the public persona that presents a consistent idea of what the business, institution, cause, product or service “stands for.” As a result, it is vital to carefully consider the identity you want to portray because it’s hard to change your brand identity once consumers become familiar with it.

First, you need to figure out your brand positioning or the place you will hold in the mind of the customer in relation to the competition and alternatives for your business, product or service. Creating a brand identity consistent with your brand position takes thoughtful understanding of human visual perception.

In the 1920’s, German and Austrian psychologists discovered that people tend to organize visual elements into patterns or unified wholes. This became known as Gestalt Theory, Gestalt visual perception factors prove that the whole of a brand identity is greater than the sum of its parts. Just as music is made up of individual notes, by arranging those notes in specific patterns you can create a memorable melody—that’s Gestalt.

The application of visual Gestalt theories to your knowledge of the target audience profile dramatically increases your ability to influence the emotional and behavioral responses of your customer. Your brand identity is comprised of the brandmark, colors, typefaces, tagline and other graphic elements used to represent your business, institution, cause, product or service.  The brandmark is the most important part of the brand identity because it is the key factor in visual differentiation and communication.

When designing a brandmark, it’s important to think big picture and have your brand positioning and strategy complete, because this will often be the first introduction of your brand for your customers. Brandmarks are as varied as the brands they represent. Here are 10 different classifications to help you understand the difference between them as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each type.

1. Logotypes
Logotypes—sometimes called logos or wordmarks—use a unique typeface or type treatment brand name to create a memorable identity. Logos are used when the brand name is short, direct, descriptive or distinctive enough to support the brand messaging and position without the support of visuals.

Advantages
• Easy to promote
• Memorable
• Distinctive

Disadvantages
• Tend to be difficult to reproduce at small sizes
• Won’t translate well for international commerce
• Horizontal logos don’t translate well to social media, which favors square formats

2. Lettermarks
Lettermarks—sometimes called letterforms—use the brand name’s initial or, initials, abbreviation or even acronym to create a unique identity. Like logos, lettermarks use unique typefaces and type treatments without the support of graphics to become a substitute for the brand’s full name.

Advantages
• Letters translate better visually than whole name
• Used to shorten long brand names
• Name no longer represents the brand

Disadvantages
• Often requires more promotion
• Won’t translate well for international commerce
• Can be confused with other brands

3. Symbols
Symbols—sometimes called iconic marks or icons—are brandmarks that employ simple, literal graphics and pictorial representations to portray the brand meaning or an attribute.  Often symbols start as combination marks using the brand name and over time the associated type is dropped as the icon builds recognition. Sometimes icons are created for use as a website favicon or for use in social media in addition to the primary brandmark.

Advantages
• Used to shorten long Brand names
• Name no longer represents the brand
• Icon for website favicon or social media

Disadvantages
• Often requires more promotion
• Potential cultural miscommunication
• Can be confused with other brand symbols

4. Combination Marks
Combination marks—sometimes called signatures or iconic logotypes—as the name implies, are brandmarks that use a symbol and wordmark together. Unlike the emblem, the combination mark is not contained within a badge design and can be used together and separately. They are ideal for small businesses and start-ups because they are flexible and communicate the brand message more clearly than other brandmarks.

Advantages
• Clearly communicate brand message
• Visually distinctive and unique
• Ease of copyright protection

Disadvantages
• Very complex Gestalt
• Strong need for graphic standards
• Temptation to include too much information

5. Letterform Symbols
Letterform symbols combine the lettermark and iconic mark to exemplify the brand name. These highly stylized symbols are distinctive enough to stand alone as a metaphor or literal representation of the brand message and meaning. However, like other marks, letterform symbols often begin using the brand name and as they build recognition over time, the supporting copy is dropped.

Advantages
• Used to shorten long brand names
• Name no longer represents the brand
• Icon for website favicon or social media

Disadvantages
• Often require more promotion
• Potential cultural miscommunication
• Can be confused with other brand symbols

6. Emblems
Emblems are also known as shields, seals, crests or badge-style marks because they are shaped like a badge or an insignia. Emblems employ simple graphics and typography in complex mixtures within the frame of the design. In addition, many emblems contain other information such as establishment date, location, product, service, cause or tagline.

Advantages
• Clearly communicate brand message
• Visually distinctive and unique
• Ease of copyright protection

Disadvantages
• Very complex Gestalt
• Often do not reduce well
• Temptation to include too much information

7. Pictographs
Pictographs—sometimes -called pictograms—are simplified graphic representations of objects, people, animals and even activities. For instance, each Olympics develops unique pictographs for sporting events as part their theme branding. Pictographs are used as public symbols for wayfinding, safety and transportation as well as in public spaces like zoos and parks because they can transcend language barriers.

Advantages
• Substitute for words
• Overcome language barriers
• Extension of brand identity

Disadvantages
• Confusion with other pictographs
• Confusion with other brandmarks
• Potential cultural miscommunication

8. Abstract Marks
Abstract marks or symbols work best for brands in which conceptual imagery is the most relevant way to present the brand message. In these cases there is just no pictorial way to convey the brand message or the use of literal elements will limit the meaning of the brand.

Advantages
• Pictorial graphics limit the brand message
• Conceptual ideas or analogies enhance the brand meaning
• The name no longer represents the brand

Disadvantages
• Often requires more promotion
• Potential cultural miscommunication
• Can be confused with other brand symbols

9. Mascots
Mascots or characters can be anything from animals to human figures to objects. Generally mascots are drawn like cartoons and illustrations and are often rendered like a caricature. Mascots were originally created because they were thought to bring good luck, which is why they are often associated with sports teams.

Advantages
• Give brands a personality
• Serve as a brand rallying point
• Create excitement and media exposure

Disadvantages
• Often require more promotion
• Confusion with other mascots
• Potential cultural miscommunication

10. Avatars
Avatars use a base brandmark as the starting point from which avatars or graphical representations are created that introduce different ideas and themes. An avatar is a continuously changing brand entity that temporary manifests into new forms. Avatars work best for personification of brands that they are the embodiment of constant evolution.

Advantages
• Unlimited segmentation possibilities
• Conceptual ideas or analogies enhance the brand meaning
• Always have something new to promote

Disadvantages
• Require ongoing creative effort
• Very complex brand management
• Confusing brand messages

The message you share and how you share it, creates a number of associations that make up the brand identity that your consumers recognize. A strong brand identity allows consumers to feel more comfortable interacting with your brand, as well as encourages them to be loyal to your brand because they know exactly what to expect. When a customer feels like your brand is part of who they are, you have done a good job developing your brand identity.

    Written by:  

    Al Bergeron is President and Chief Creative Officer at Bergeron Creative Studios, a nationally recognized award-winning branding firm, integrates physical, digital and social media with search marketing into a unified force that helps clients win.

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