Visual expression of brands and why it matters

Brands and their identities can be leveraged to powerful effect to drive awareness, reputation and market share. Mark Rollinson sets out his five-stage process to create and manage a great visual expression for a brand.

Mankind has thought in visual terms since the dawn of time. We painted long before we could read and write. You only have to think of the power of ancient cave paintings in bringing a long forgotten world to life to realise the power of visual expression. Art has been highly prized right down through the centuries because it connects with us at an emotional level bringing about incredibly strong reactions and feelings.

Think for a moment about the number of people through the centuries that have given their lives for a cause represented by a flag, heraldry, totem, icon or idol and you really begin to appreciate the power of visual expression to speak to the very core of mankind. A company’s brand can exploit these reactions by creating a unique visual expression of what it stands for, why it’s different and where it comes from. Think of any brand you admire and I’m willing to bet you are already thinking in visual terms - either the way the product looks, the colour, the packaging, the advertising, the environment it’s sold in and even the logo.

Well that seems clear enough, what’s hard about that? The truth is, nothing. Great branding can be executed by anyone with common sense. Fortunately for our business, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of it about, so here are my common sense tips for creating and managing a great visual expression of a brand.

Step 1: Brand strategy

The first step has got nothing to do with type, colours and pictures, so put your paint brush down for a moment. Before we can create the visual expression of a brand we need some solid foundations. Your brand must have a reason to exist; a belief in what it stands for and a unique and differentiated point of view. If you can believe with total conviction what your brand stands for and who you want to talk to, you will be able to convince people to work with you to achieve your goals and your customers to buy your product or service.

If you don’t have true conviction then you will never persuade anyone else to think the same as you. Your brand strategy should go beyond your vision, mission, values and core appeal and paint a picture of your brands personality and create your brand positioning. This is the space you want your brand to occupy in the minds of your target audiences. How do you want them to think, feel and act when they interact with your brand?

Step 2: Communicating your vision

Now we can begin to bring the brand to life visually. This will take a great deal of care. We need to express the brand in terms that are sympathetic with our brand positioning and personality. We need to think about our target audiences. What do the people I want to talk to like, think or do? It’s a great idea to create mood boards at this stage. Cut out images, patterns, colours even typefaces that you feel match your brand personality and positioning and that will appeal to your target. Use metaphors, ask yourself "if my brand was an animal, what would it be?"

Then think about the characteristics and traits that make your brand like that particular animal. Once equipped with these visual cues you can either create the brand yourself or create a powerful design brief for your design team that will communicate clearly the type of brand that will capture your business in a way that is unique and different. The old adage still holds true: shit in, shit out. So take your time and do your groundwork thoroughly.

Step 3: Creating your brand toolbox

A brand is expressed visually through a number of different elements all working together. Most common brands include a logotype, typography, colour, pattern and imagery.

Logotype - This is the most easily identified part of your brand. Done well it should work as a visual shorthand for; your promises and what your audiences can expect your brand to deliver.

Colour - The days of owning your own unique colour are past. All the key ones have been claimed long ago. While you will certainly have a primary colour or colours, these days we think in terms of colour palettes. This allows you to talk to different people in colours that appeal to them while still retaining consistency.

Typography - There are literally thousands of typefaces all evoking different feelings and personalities. The choice of typeface for your logotype and for your communications is an incredible powerful factor in determining your brand’s personality. Try to ensure you select a font that is unusual for your logo or create a unique one but choose a font that is widely available for your communications particularly online so that it doesn’t default to something hideous.

Imagery - Your brand should last a lot longer than one set of images so make sure you choose a style that can evolve with time and also consider mixing photography with illustration to add more flexibility. Do you want your imagery to be literal or symbolic? Would metaphors communicate what your brand is about? Or perhaps a reportage style will imbue your brand with truth and energy?

Step 4: Be consistent

Implement your brand with ruthless consistency. You must ensure that whatever the medium, your brand is conveyed with style and flair but also in a way that leverages the brand’s positioning and personality. By creating a confident expectation among your target audiences that when they interact with your brand they will be comfortable and recognise the familiar brand environment, you will build brand faith and trust.

The best way to ensure you are consistent is to create brand guidelines. Don’t create a straitjacket, good brand guidelines are a creative springboard that allow your agencies to understand the marrow of your brand quickly so that they can produce brilliant creative work that is on brand. Try to have as few rules as possible and make them simple. The more complex your identity system is, the quicker it will fall apart.

Step 5: Stay the course

Brands are built overtime. Avoid the temptation to chop and change. Great brands evolve with time but remain true to their original conception.

Mark Rollinson is group creative director of All About Brands and chief executive of Brand Faith.

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