Infographic showing all the constituent parts of visual identity

What are brand, branding & visual identity?

Friday 27 March 2020

Visual identity is the sum of all the branding decisions that you can see.

What is a brand?

Brands are amorphous. They exist purely in the minds of your customers and your potential customers, whether they’re your severest critics or your biggest fans. Your brand is what they think of you.

I like to liken brands to people. We all form opinions about the people we meet, and we do it at incredible speed. Occasionally, for whatever reason, we end up with a negative impression of a person. That can be unfortunate, particularly if we share our thoughts with other people. Brands, like people, have reputations which they want to protect.

What is branding?

Branding is all the things that you do as a business which might influence your customers’ and potential customers’ opinion of your brand.

Continuing the person analogy, the way someone presents themselves achieves two things: it broadcasts who they are and what they stand for, and influences what other people think of them. That is branding.

Business branding takes many forms: what your brand says and how it says it, what your brand does and how it does it, and how your brand manifests itself visually (visual identity).

What is visual identity?

Visual identity is the sum of all the branding decisions that you can see. That might be colours, typefaces, style of illustrations, graphics or photographs, and the precise way you combine and apply these elements.

There are also valuable crossovers into other senses such as touch, which can perform a useful role in the creation of visual identities. Think about the texture of paper and various finishes such as foiling and varnishes – information that people often ‘receive’ through touch.

In terms of real-estate, a logo is just one tiny fragment of a visual identity. Yet there is a widespread misconception that simply adding your logo to a document makes it branded. And that rather misses the point. Because while your logo alone can’t instantly make something branded, combining the other pieces of the branding jigsaw (other than a logo), can.

Product packaging from Dorset Cereals, Marmite, and Yeo Valley Farm

Packaging from Dorset Cereals, Marmite, and Yeo Valley Family Farm

Dorset Cereals uses a very distinctive, almost exclusively typographic style in its product packaging. Combined with the uncoated board, which is an unusual choice of material in cereal packaging, a down-to-earth tone of voice, and the almost exclusive use of lowercase letters, it’s easy to recognise their products.

Marmite uses shape and colour to differentiate their product on the supermarket shelves. The dark brown rounded jar with its bright yellow lid would be easily recognisable even without the label on it. Riding on Marmite's coattails, the yellow and brown colour combination has been mimicked by Vegemite – one of Marmite's competitors.

And finally, Yeo Valley Family Farm uses a distinctive hand-drawn illustrative style. They also display some of their brand’s ethics on their packaging via their strapline ‘Supporting British Family Farms’.

These three brands use colour, materials, typography, text case, tone of voice, shape, illustrative style, and brand ethics alongside their logo. In all three instances, the logo could easily be removed and the branding impact would be just as strong. Although their logos are so well integrated into the overall design that in all three instances it’s not immediately obvious where the logo stops and the packaging design begins.

All of which raises two questions: should you be allocating more time and money to broader branding activities? And do you need a logo?

Like to chat about brand, branding or visual identity?

Don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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Photograph of Sarah Cowan

Hello! I’m Sarah, an independent typographic designer, helping businesses to communicate their unique selling points through printed marketing and communications.

I’ve been sharing my knowledge about design, typography, marketing, branding and printing since 2014. I hope you enjoy reading my blog.

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Sarah Cowan