How a Visual Identity Builds Brand Equity


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Solving for B°
How a Visual Identity Builds Brand Equity

When thinking about a brand, the first thing that comes to mind is typically its logo, colors or mark. Brand visual identities carry an immense amount of importance for building equity and becoming recognizable. In this episode, Chris, Cynthia, Doug and David discuss the building blocks of visual identities and why they matter.

Episode Outline

*This transcript has been edited for readability.

Chris Wilks: Hi, and welcome to the Solving for B podcast. I'm your host, Chris Wilks. And on today's episode, we're talking about visual identities. What is a visual identity, and why is it important to your brand? To help me discuss this topic, I'm joined by director of brand experience, Cynthia Stipeche.

Cynthia Stipeche: Hey there, Chris.

Chris: Creative director, Doug Timmermeyer.

Doug Timmermeyer: Hello there. Thanks for having me.

Chris: And creative director, David Lerch.

David Lerch: Hi, Chris.

Chris: Hey guys. Thanks for joining us today.

What is a Visual Identity?

Chris: So I want to start by defining what a visual identity is, because I think a lot of people, including me, are a little unclear and maybe conflate visual identities with the brand as a whole. So help us out and tell us a little bit about visual identity. What does it consist of? And how is it different than a brand?

Cynthia: Yeah. I'll start this off by giving a very general definition. It's basically all the imagery and the graphical information that makes up the visual aspect of your brand. When we say that,  we're talking about not just colors or your logo. It's also the way you look on video, illustration styles, photography. So it extends to a lot of different areas.

David: Yeah, and a big part of that is just the strategic aspect of how we build that, and conduct the brand assessment. We really learn as much as we can about the client first. And that helps inform us to create these visual identities. And like Cynthia said, the logo is a big part of it, colors and fonts, photography, illustration style. All of those go into it.

Chris: So let me ask you this. To the lay person, if they said, "Well, that sounds like a brand to me." How would you draw a distinction between the two?

Cynthia: I think that maybe a good way to look at this is that, for example, individuals have their own personal brand. You sound a certain way. You look a certain way. You dress a certain way. And it's something that you see if you think about it even in history, you look at pyramids or statues of Ramses or whatever. I mean, that's truly a brand. This is who we are. This is what we stand for.

You get this grandiose feeling beyond just what people say or how they act. The way you look has to pair up with that image that you're projecting. Not just visually, but also the idea of it.

Doug: Yeah. I was just going to add on top of that that the two are related. The visual component, the visual identity, is a piece of the brand. It goes into the overall brand for whomever that company is. To me, your reputation comes into the room before you do. That's part of your brand.

But when you walk in the room, your visual identity, or the suit you're wearing, the clothes that you're wearing, whether it's business casual, or you come in wearing sweatpants. It's those things that add personality to the overall brand. And so that's one way I like to think of it.

Chris: Yeah. So a visual identity is a component of the brand. It's anything that you can perceive with your eyes that represents that brand. Is that accurate to say?

Cynthia: Absolutely.

David: Yes. Exactly.

Why Do Visual Identities Matter?

Chris: Great. So let's talk about why it's important to have a visual identity. What's the purpose? What's the goal of having a visual identity? Why do people need to have one?

Cynthia: Well, as we know, there's a lot of competition out there. There's a lot of people fighting for the same space, whether these are individuals who are on social media or large corporations. So it's important to stand out and be distinct in a marketplace.

David: Right. It really helps visually communicate who you are, as far as to the marketplace. I mean, a lot of those things communicate through the colors that are being chosen or represented about your brand. You can communicate a lot visually, like Doug said, when that brand first walks in the room.

Doug: Yeah. The key thing about this visual identity is that it helps identify you in a marketplace. And our brain, with the way we process, is always looking for something that it recognizes. And so the quicker your brain identifies a company or a brand or whatever, it automatically starts bringing in all these other elements to it. So it's just a quicker way to help identify a company.

Cynthia: So for example, I was recently driving on the freeway. There's just hundreds of thousands of cars zipping up and around the Houston area. And I saw a project. A client of ours, one of our clients, an ice cream company, drive by.

Out of this sea of just gray and white trucks and everything out there on the road, this bright blue truck goes zipping by and it looks like it has sprinkles on it. And I'm like, "We designed that." The beautiful thing about the brand is, is that seeing a logo on the truck, seeing the colors, seeing the messaging, and everything else that stands out in rush hour traffic. And to me, that's the brand traveling through the city.

And that's what you're looking for: this highly recognizable visual design. In this case, it's a truck wrap. And you instantly look at it and think, "I want to look at that." So I love seeing that. And that's what we're really going for. It's the noise, traffic, everything. You want to stand out.

Chris: Yeah. And one of the things I would say too is, it stood out to me. I imagine you didn't even have to see the logo, right? You saw the sprinkles. And you saw the color. And you were like, "I know that." And I guess that's the purpose of a visual identity, right?

Doug, going back to what you were saying, a strong visual identity is reducing that cognitive load of someone to have to jump through hoops. Immediately, once you notice that color or that symbol or that logo even, then all of a sudden that triggers something in your brain where you think, "Okay. Here's all the experiences and emotions I've ever had with that sort of brand."

Doug: That's the goal, right? That's the dream for any company.

David: Definitely. And a lot of times, like you said, Chris, I mean, sometimes all you have is the logo to represent that company. So that logo needs to be the essence of what that company stands for. There may be a sea of logos that they see in terms of their competing with their other clients. But their brand really needs to stand out beyond everybody else.

Cynthia: Right. Which definitely touches on uniqueness and just being intentional with how you design and develop your logo and the entire visual identity. You definitely don't want to invest a lot of money into something like this, like branding, and then come out looking like your competitor.

Chris: Yeah. That makes sense. So what happens if you don't have a visual identity? Or maybe even an accurate visual identity. Maybe you have a visual identity, but it doesn't necessarily represent who you are or doesn't accurately communicate who you are. What are some of the consequences that you might face if you don't have a visual identity?

Cynthia: Definitely confusion. We work with a lot of B2B businesses. And sometimes I think there might be some questions like, "Well, how much do we have to invest in our brand? Does it really matter for our business sector?"

But I think competition's gotten even tighter and tougher. In most markets, if you don't stand out, if you don't differentiate, if you don't highlight what makes you unique and different in your marketplace, you're really missing out. And that applies not just to B2C type of businesses, but definitely to B2B. So you don't want to just blend in with the masses.

Doug: Yeah. I agree with Cynthia. And I would just add that consistency is key. A consistent visual identity makes standing out a lot easier, because with all the noise that we have in the world, you've only got seconds to grab somebody's attention these days.

So if you have a consistent, not boring, but consistent visual identity, you can grab somebody's attention real quick. And that way you're not having to reeducate them about you each time they come into contact with you, whether it's a truck driving down the road, or it's a website, or digital social experience. It's that consistency that helps people recognize you.

Chris: Yeah. And I think that Doug, you mentioned this the other day: That consistency, I think, allows you to build brand equity. And without that consistent visual identity, you're not able to build that equity because people aren't connecting those disparate parts of your brand. So having a visual identity sounds like it's a way to help you build that equity with your target market, ideally.

Doug: Yeah. David touched on that just a little bit earlier when he says, "Sometimes all you have is a logo as an identifier." And when we think about companies like Nike, for example, they don't have to put their name with that swoosh anymore. That's because they've had a consistent brand. And they've taken the time over decades to build.

Again, this is where identity and brand work together. They've spent decades working up brand equity to where that icon now represents everything for them. That swoosh is everything for them.

Cynthia: Yeah. And they've achieved that consistency of the brand and not gone astray. I think in larger organizations, and even in small ones, if you don't provide standards and guides, things can go astray. I think it's very important whenever we rebrand a company or develop a brand, that we provide guidelines, standards and style guides. And educate the client on how to use their brand.

With those guidelines, they can then educate their own internal teams on how to create any type of materials that are required in-house. Or they might hand off those documents to other vendors. So part of that is the stuff that happens in the background that gets you to the point where you can finally just see the ribbon from a CocaCola logo and recognize it. Drop it on a page and you get it. It's because people have been following the standards for the brand.

David: Right. Yeah. I mean, a company is almost like an orchestra, where everybody's playing from the same sheet music. So everybody's all aligned and coming to the market together.

How Do You Create a Visual Identity?

Chris: So let's jump into how you create a visual identity. What are some considerations whenever you're creating a visual identity that's hopefully going to be used by your company for years to come?

Cynthia: At BrandExtract, we always go through a really deep research process ahead of putting any color, stroke, mark or anything on paper, or start working on the computer. We dig in to basically what makes your company unique. How do you speak about yourself? And then once we've established your brand strategy for the most part, we start to dive into the visual representation of that.

You see a lot of these things pop up online where they're like, "Hey, get a brand with three logos for 500 bucks." Or something like that. We're not like that. Everything is rooted in the research and in the strategy for the brand.

Chris: I think if you don't start with strategy, you run the risk of a disconnect between who you actually are, what your brand promise is and what you're visually signaling to the market. I mean, would you agree with that?

David: Right. I mean, all the visuals and colors have meaning. And so you want to make sure all those meanings align with that strategy. I mean, there's a lot psychology involved in the colors. And so when you're picking the color, you really have to go back to what we're trying to communicate from a strategy standpoint.

Doug: Yeah. It's really having those conversations with the client, the executive team, and whoever the stakeholders are. And asking, what are we looking to be? Who do you think you are right now? Who do you want to be? And what kind of personality do you want?

And then going back to what David said, if you're looking at colors, who are your competitors? And where do they sit in the market with what they do? Do we need to go in the complete opposite direction to help them stand out? It's thinking those things through. Even the type faces. How are you going to differentiate? It's taking a look at all these different pieces that go together that make the identity.

Cynthia: And I think it's also important that we do a lot of research and target audience and personas and who it is that we're talking to. And a lot of times the stakeholders within the company and leadership need to have a connection with the brand and contribute. But we're really developing a brand that's going to resonate with their target audience. So we're balancing it with making them unique and differentiate them from their competitors.

Yeah. That's a conversation sometimes that's difficult to have with a client where you have to let them know, "Look, we're doing this. But it's not necessarily for you. It's for your customers." And those are the things that we have to balance when we're looking at everything.

Chris: That research and that purpose overrides personal preference, right?

Doug: Yep.

Common Mistakes in Brand Design

Chris: So what are some potential pitfalls or common things that are overlooked when you're developing a brand, or maybe even common mistakes you see when you're developing a visual identity?

Cynthia: There's a couple of things. First, having a visual identity or brand standards that don't extend beyond the basics. We need the name. We need the mark. We need the colors. We need the typography. And then we need visual, like the photography style. Sometimes it stops there.

And a big mistake is not looking at all the different ways the brand could be used visually. Motion is huge. And as we know, today video and motion are some of the top ways that customers engage with brands.

So you could hand off your standards guide to an outside firm or internally, and they could develop their own project to create some type of digital medium. And it may not fit the brand, because they're building it as they go along. So that's a bumpy thing that could happen if you haven't really thought through your visual identity.

David: Yeah. To add on to Cynthia, motion is so important these days that in brand standards, we're starting to really develop that and look at how the brand is expressed from a motion standpoint beyond all the basics of fonts and colors and so forth. You're seeing that being expressed even in the brand standards of what we develop for our clients.

Cynthia: And I would say another one as well is illustration or photography styles, if they aren't clearly outlined and explained. It's like with photography, a lot of people might be like, "Well, I'll go pull some images off of some type of a stock house or something online." And it may not match the brand.

And maybe the same thing with illustrations. Like an illustration style hasn't been set up. Same thing with animations or 3D graphics. The way you represent products in 3D.

How to Measure a Strong Visual Identity

Chris: So how do you know if you've created a successful or strong visual identity? Or do you? I mean, are there any indicators?

David: Yeah. I think one of them is just internally, when you see the company internally embrace it. When the company store that has a lot of branded materials. And all of a sudden if that takes off and people are really wanting that t-shirt with the logo on it or the tote bag or something.

I think that you definitely need to get the internal audience excited about it. But then externally also, you can gauge that of course by analytics and so forth, of how people are clicking on posts that they see with the brand identity and how it's being embraced in the marketplace.

Doug: It's also difficult as somebody that has designed identities and logos. I can look at stuff that I've done in the past and I just look at it and I'm like, "Oof, I could do that better." Or I come back to it and I'm like, "Man, I really got that one." It's a little subjective sometimes. So it depends on your audience.

And I think one of the things that is helpful is what we do with our brand guidelines. When we create these guidelines for our clients, we're telling them also why this is important. Why their visual identity is important for them and their company moving forward. Because it's so easy if you're working internally.

And I've seen companies that are like, "I'm so tired of always using blue and red." But those are your colors. And these are why it's important. Brand guidelines prevent people from going rogue. Because sometimes people just want to create their own stuff. And I get that. That is totally understandable and it's to be expected. But part of our job is to help set up these guides so that they can move forward with it.

And we always look to see, "Are we building the flexibility in there so it's not so rigid that you can't take on other things and adapt to it?" I love seeing somebody else take something that I've worked on and expand on it in a way that I didn't even think of. And I'm like, "Oh, my God. That looks great. I wish I would've thought of that or I wish I would've done that." I love seeing something like that.

Chris: Yeah. I think that the evolution part of it to me is important because it shouldn't be a one and done proposition. Now, you should have your visual identity like standards and you should try to adhere to that. But market conditions change. Your business changes. I mean, all these sorts of things happen. So I'm glad you talked about the flexibility that needs to be considered or addressed whenever you're developing this sorts of thing. That's important stuff.

Visual Identities That Stand the Test of Time

So we're getting toward the end here, but what are some of your favorite visual identities? You don't have to list a laundry list of them. But if you have maybe one or two that you really like that you think people have really executed well, what are some of your favorite visual identities and why?

Cynthia: I'll name off a few. This is mostly because I grew up with this brand in my house, but General Electric. That mark has just stood out for God knows how many decades long. And it is still out there and relevant in the marketplace.  I know GE's stumbled on some difficult times. But I do remember being a child and my dad receiving material in the mail or picking up stuff at the employee store with the logos and the patches on there.

Another one that just speaks technology and big picture stuff is the Salesforce identity. I love that as well. I love the color, even the illustration styles. It's really thought out. And when you're walking even past a large sign on the building, you just get that feeling of Salesforce expertise that they provide.

Chris: Cool. Doug, what about you?

Doug: I was just going to say that for me, I've always been partial to Target. That identity, I've done my homework on that one before. It started off with an additional ring. And over time it simplified even more. I love the simplicity of its one color. Its simple geometric shape. It reinforces its name. I mean, it's so simple and it's iconic. And when you see it, you just know it.

And they own that red also. Everything just works together. And again, it had decades to build up its brand equity and everything else. And it's adapted a little bit over time, which is great. But it's just one of my personal favorites.

David: Yeah. And how we've talked about evolving a brand, it's one of those brands because it was so iconic and designed so well that you could just expand on it. And they've done such a great job over time of just evolving that brand. But while still staying true to who they are and to that original Target logo.

I guess for me, CBS logo has been one of those, like the General Electric identity, where it's stood the test of time. It's the CBS eye. It's just one of those that's been around for so long, but it still, still feels very fresh. And again, it's one of those marks that you can evolve and it has evolved. But it's still stayed true to who it is.

Doug: Yeah. Any logo that was designed by Paul Rand, I'm going to take a look at that identity for sure. They weren't all winners. I have to admit that. But that man had some of the most iconic identities ever in the history of corporate identity.

Real quick. Can I ask you, Chris, do you have a favorite identity that you're like, "I've always loved this mark." Or anything like that? I'm just curious.

Chris: Man, that's a good question. I mean, you guys know me, the Disney guy. I really like Disney. But I was thinking as you guys were talking, from a visual identity standpoint, I piggyback on what David said. But I like logos that are really flexible and that can do certain things.

There's certain ad campaigns where the logo transforms into something else and evolves. And that sort of thing really stands out to me, because I like that evolution. I like the creativity that's behind it. So I always think higher of brands that have something like that. 

Cynthia: I love that, because great brands inspire people, but also when they inspire creativity, then you've really just...

Chris: Yeah. That's going back to, how do you know you've been successful? Is if you can inspire creativity, with your visual identity, inspires someone to maybe be more creative or it sparks something from them, then maybe that's a sign that you've done a good job.

All right guys. Look, this was really helpful. Really insightful. So I really appreciate the time. Thank you, and we'll see you guys next time.

Doug: Thank you. This was a lot of fun.

Cynthia: Yeah. Thank you.

David: Thanks, Chris.