Guide to Creating a Brand Identity
What is your brand identity? If you want your business to be successful, you need to be able to answer that question clearly—for yourself and for your customers.
Think about the most successful brands you know of. Whether you like them or not, they have a clear brand identity. They have a “look” that is easy to recognize. They have a way they sound in print and ads. They have values that they clearly communicate.
This isn’t an accident. A consistent brand identity helps you build recognition and trust. It guides decision-making and marketing. It attracts clients. A weak or poorly defined identity, on the other hand, creates confusion among both your employees and your customers.
If you don’t already have one, you need to create a brand identity.
What is a brand identity?
A brand identity is who you are as a brand—your mission, vision for the future, values, personality, and who your customers are. It’s how you want the world to see you, and what you think you’re in the world to do.
A critical part of your brand identity is your brand guide. A brand guide (sometimes called a brand style guide or brand identity guide) is a document that outlines how you communicate your brand identity to the world, both visually—with colors, fonts, images, and design—and linguistically—with written words and messaging.
A brand style guide is the physical compilation of all the elements of your brand identity, and an important reference for anyone that does work for your company that will be seen by the public, including marketing, sales, designers, the product team, and consultants or agencies.
How to create a brand identity
When it comes to building a brand identity, you probably aren’t starting from scratch. If your business is already up and running, you probably have a logo. You might have a website. And most importantly, there’s a reason you started this company. You likely have some idea of where you want to take it.
You might have spent time defining the elements of your brand identity, and now you need to organize it all into a brand style guide. Or maybe you’re just starting and haven’t thought about it much.
Wherever you are currently, here’s how to build a brand identity from start to finish.
Step 1: Define the key components
There are some key components of any brand identity that you need to clearly define before you can do anything else.
Everything else flows from these elements, so it’s important to think through them carefully. You may have already thought through some of these, and if so, that’s great. This process will go a little faster.
Here are the key components you need.
A mission statement is a short, often one-sentence statement about what your company aims to achieve. It’s your organizational “why.” A good mission statement is short and inspirational.
Here are a few examples of good mission statements from well-known companies.
Walmart: To save people money so they can live better.
SpaceX: The Company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.
Dairy Queen: To create positive memories for all who touch DQ.
Ideally, a good mission statement should describe why you and your team are excited to come to work each day. What inspires you?
A mission statement tells people why you exist. A vision statement, on the other hand, tells them where you want to go.
Here are vision statements for some of those same companies above:
Walmart: Be THE destination for customers to save money, no matter how they want to shop.
Dairy Queen: To be the world’s favorite quick-service restaurant.
Amazon: To be Earth’s most customer-centric company, where customers can find and discover anything they might want to buy online.
As you can see, vision statements are very aspirational. It’s your long-term goal. Where do you want to be in 10 or 20 years? What do you want your company’s legacy to be?
The next thing you need is a clear definition of who your customers are and what problem you solve for them. What specific need does your product or service meet?
If you’ve been in business for a bit, you should have a good idea of this. If you’re just starting out, you may need to do some market research. And remember, your target audience may change as your business evolves.
One mistake younger businesses often make is trying to do too many things. Less is more. It’s better to be very useful to a small group of customers than only slightly useful to a large group. If you think your target market is everyone, you haven’t honed your business enough.
One effective way of defining your target audience is to build customer personas. Customer personas are detailed descriptions of your target audience. Get creepy with the level of detail. What’s their name? What’s their job? Where do they live? What do they like to do on the weekends? Are they married?
Creating a highly-detailed picture of your ideal client will help you build better products and market them more effectively.
Yes, brands need a personality. How do you want people to describe yours?
To define that, think through what emotions you want your brand to evoke. How do you want people to perceive you?
For example, a graphic design firm might want to cultivate a personality that is spontaneous, creative, and quirky. An investment firm, on the other hand, might want to create a personality that is serious, dependable, and authoritative.
Think it through, and ask your team for input. Here’s one exercise you can do: make a list of the top five adjectives that describe your brand, and the top five adjectives that do not describe your brand.
Values drive decision making. Not only that, but customers are much more loyal—and willing to spend more—with brands who they feel share their values.
What is important enough that you’re willing to make economic sacrifices for it? Those are your core values.
For example, a news publication might decide that one of their core values is truth, so they run important stories even if it means losing ad revenue. A grocery store might decide that one of their core values is community, so they donate 10% of their profits to a scholarship endowment for local elementary school kids. A marketing firm might decide that one of their core values is authenticity, so they turn down projects where they aren’t given enough creative control.
For many companies, there is nothing they are willing to make economic sacrifices for, which just means that profit is their core value. Real values are shown in the actions your company takes, and your core values are a critical component of your identity. Taking the time to clearly define your values ahead of time can help guide you when it comes time to make important decisions
Step 2: Collect inspiration
Once you’ve defined these five key elements of your brand identity, it’s time to start collecting inspiration for how you want to communicate them. What fonts do you like? What writing tone sounds right? What colors best represent the brand?
Again, if you’ve already been doing business, you may have an idea of what you want things to look like. Start with what’s worked for you in the past. Collect examples of successful campaigns, emails, ads, and anything else that’s worked.
The next source of inspiration is obviously other brands. Perhaps you’ve been doing something for a while, but feel it could be improved. What are other brands you like doing? What are successful competitors doing?
Finally, use your imagination. If you have a vision for what you want your brand to become, find ways to give designers an idea of what you’re thinking. Start a Google Doc. Build a Pinterest board. Jot down notes.
Finally, don’t be afraid to get help. Talk to employees and partners, and think about hiring an agency who can guide you through the process
Step 3: Build your brand guide
Once you’ve defined your brand identity and collected inspiration for how you want to communicate it, the third and final step is to build your brand style guide.
There are seven main parts of a brand guide. Here are some things to think about with each of them.
Your brand story is a summary of the most important elements of your brand identity—mission, vision, audience, personality, and values. It sets the tone and context for everything else that’s going to be in your brand guide.
A very simple brand story could just list those elements in order, but that’s not much of a story. A much more effective approach is to weave those elements into a short, compelling narrative.
As a story, it needs to have a few key elements: a hero (your company), some conflict (the hero encounters an obstacle), and a resolution (the hero overcomes the obstacle).
Here’s an example of a great brand story from Warby Parker, a company that revolutionized the glasses industry.
It’s short, but it has all the elements of a great story.
A hero: Warby Parker
A conflict: Glasses are too expensive.
A resolution: By circumventing traditional channels, designing glasses in-house, and engaging with customers directly, we’re able to provide higher-quality, better-looking prescription eyewear at a fraction of the going price.
Notice how Warby Parker also weaves all the elements of their brand identity into this story.
Mission: We believe that buying glasses should be easy and fun. It should leave you happy and good-looking, with money in your pocket.
Vision: We also believe that everyone has the right to see…Almost one billion people worldwide lack access to glasses…
Target audience: It’s clearly implied—people who don’t want to spend a full paycheck on glasses.
Core values: Warby Parker partners with non-profits like VisionSpring to ensure that for every pair of glasses sold, a pair is distributed to someone in need.
A good brand story communicates your brand identity in a short, compelling, easy-to-understand way.
If you’re reading this, you probably already have a logo. Here’s what’s equally important: defining how that logo should be used. That’s what you need to do in this section of the brand style guide. As the image that people are most often going to associate with your brand, you want to make sure that your logo is represented properly.
Here are some elements to cover in this section:
- Size: List minimum size and proper proportions.
- Space: If your logo requires a certain amount of white space around it, give clear instructions.
- Colors: Show variations (reversed, in color, black and white) and when to use them.
- Usage: When is it appropriate to use your logo, and when should it not be used?
- Don’ts: It can be just as important to show how you don’t want your logo to be used.
Use clear images and examples to illustrate all of these elements.
This section provides examples and instructions on how to represent your brand through color.
Most brands have just a few main colors they use, and then some secondary colors that are complementary and used in special situations. It’s a good idea to have a least one light color for backgrounds, one dark color for text, and a third color that pops that can be used for accents. You can have more than three, but too many and your color identity stops being recognizable and starts being confusing.
Make sure to include the information needed to reproduce the colors you choose accurately.
- Color match: PANTONE name and number
- Print color: CMYK
- Digital color: RGB and HEX codes
Continuing with Uber’s online brand style guide, here is their color section.
This section is where you outline what fonts and font weights your brand uses in what situations. Some brands use only one typeface for all their needs. Other brands use several different typefaces depending on the situation.
You want a good designer to help you through this process, but one good rule is to make your main font different from your logo font (if you have one), since this will help it stand out better.
What kinds of photos, illustrations, and stock images are right for your brand?
A picture is worth a thousand words, so make sure to provide good examples, and articulate what it is about those images that makes it the right fit. If it’s a photo, what is the subject? The angle? Lighting, saturation, and aspect ratio?
You can use images that have performed well for your brand, or if you don’t have those yet, create an aspirational board based on images you’ve found from other sources.
Here is where you’ll also include guidelines for illustrations. What style should they be in? When do they get used? Is there a particular icon set your brand uses?
This section is where you define what you want your brand’s written communication to convey—and how writers should know if what they wrote fits. Refer back to your brand personality. What does it tell you about what your writing should sound like?
Check out Uber’s tone guidelines. Notice the use of adjectives that could just as easily have been used (and probably were) in their brand personality definition: “considerate,” “simple & direct,” and “consistent.”
As always, provide concrete examples of writing you feel meets the standard.
Additional brand collateral
Each brand is a little different, so in the last part of your style guide, include any sections you think are missing for your particular brand.
For example, if you’re a product company, you might want to include specific instructions on labels—sizing, colors, UPC code placement, etc. If you’re a digital company, you might want to include specific instructions on social media—what kinds of images to use, what hashtags, and topics to avoid posting commenting on.
Whatever the additions are, this brand guide is first and foremost for you, so make it meet your needs. What else does an employee, an agency, or a partner company need to know about how to represent your brand properly?
Plan for change
There you have it, your first brand style guide. Make sure to put it into a format that makes it easy to share and use—whether that’s a PDF, a website, or in print (probably a combination of several of these).
You’re done…for now. But be ready for it to change. Brands evolve, and their identity and style guides evolve along with them. Here’s one fun example of Apple’s logo through the years:
Your style guide is a living document. Use it, make adjustments as necessary, and revisit it every once in a while to make sure it evolves with your company.
Want some help?
Do you need a brand identity, but want some help creating one?
At Grow!, we have a small team of veteran creatives that specialize in building brand identities that inspire employees, attract customers, and drive sales. We’ll guide you through each step of the process, help you avoid common pitfalls, generate ideas, and handle the nitty-gritty. Get started here!
If that sounds helpful, we’d love to talk. You can get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 803-575-0710.