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Brand identity

Why read this? : Brand identity is how customers recognise who you are and distinguish you from competitors. It’s a set of tangible and intangible assets which shape how you activate your brand. Learn the steps you need to create and use these assets for maximum impact. Read this to learn the best ways to build a brilliant brand identity.

Brand identity

How this guide raises your game :-

  1. Learn the key questions to answer at each stage of the brand choice funnel.
  2. Understand which brand assets you need, how to classify them and where and when to use them.
  3. Understand how to organise your assets into a ‘brand on a page’ and a brand book and style guide.

Brand identity is normally done after you’ve gone through the segmentation, targeting and positioning process. This process gives you the building blocks you need to start building your identity. 

Your segmentation research has grouped customers into segments based on their needs and decision-making. You’ve worked out each segment’s attractiveness and decided which to target. Then, you’ve created a positioning which outlines how you’ll go after those customers. 

Brand identity is then one of the ways you bring your positioning to life. To understand how that works, let’s start with a little story. 

Brand identity

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An unexpected knock at the door

Imagine this happens.

There’s an unexpected knock at your door. You open it and there’s a man you’ve never seen before.

Do you trust him?

What if we said, he was wearing a uniform from a courier company you recognise?

You trust him a little more now, right? And now you’re curious why he’s at the door.

He has a package you need to sign for.

A subscription model box branded with three-brains on a doorstep

So you sign for it, no big deal, right?

Now go back to before the scenario. If we asked you, ‘Would you give details of your signature over to a stranger who turned up on your doorstep?’, the answer would probably be no.

But in the space of a few seconds, your brain made the association he can be trusted. It made the association you’ll get something of value (the package) in return for meeting his request (your signature).

Your brand creates mental associations with customers

Now keep that process in mind, and apply it to brands. Think about the advertising campaigns you see every day. All the products you see in shops and online. They’re the marketing equivalents of the stranger at the door. 

Brand identity is how your brain holds information about all those messages and products. You have mental associations with brands. It’s what tells you a brand can be trusted and is relevant to you. Your brand is the mental association customers have with your product or services. It’s the mental shortcut which helps them move from the ‘stranger at the door’ to ‘someone you trust enough to give something and get something in return’. The brand holds a space in the customer’s mind. (See our why brands matter article for more on this).  

How this happens is via a process called the brand choice funnel (sometimes also called an adoption curve or purchase funnel). Let’s now look at that more closely.

Brand choice funnel

This idea of a purchase funnel or process isn’t new. It originated around 100 years ago as advertising and sales started to get more sophisticated in the early 20th century.

But, here’s the thing.

There’s still no single agreed model which works for every business and every category. Marketers argue all the time about which is the best model. 

Some models include trust, others don’t.

Awareness comes up in most models, but how it’s measured can be different. For example, is it any awareness, prompted awareness or spontaneous awareness?

The brand choice funnel - trust - aware - consider - trial - loyalty - repeat purchase

Consideration is sometimes called interest, desire or engagement.

Trial is sometimes called out as a specific stage, and sometimes not.

And loyalty or repeat purchase crops up in some models and categories, but isn’t relevant in others.

You also have to bear in mind customers can move up and down the funnel. It isn’t always a linear process. Consider the situation where a customer buys your product for the first time, and something goes wrong. Maybe it’s faulty or doesn’t meet expectations, They complain to your customer service team. In this case, you might need to rebuild trust.

Or if your competitors have been more persuasive about their product benefits, your customers might switch brands. They still trust you, but you need to drive consideration again. 

So at each stage of the process, the customer will have a key question you’ll need to answer.

Key questions in the mind of a customer

Why should I listen to you? (trust)

Who are you? (awareness)

Why should I care? (consideration)

Why should I try you? (trial)

And finally, why should I buy you again? (loyalty).

Your brand identity helps customers answer these questions. It helps your product stand out and be more memorable amongst the at least half a million other brands out there, which also want to grab the customer’s attention.

Green Starbucks logo on a concrete wall background

When you have a strong brand identity, it might only take your brand colours or your logo for customers to recognise your brand. To know who you are and what you stand for.

For example, if you see a Starbucks logo anywhere in the world, you know instantly the customer experience you’ll get. This is because strong brands invest to build their brand identity. (See also our logo evaluation article for more on Starbucks). Building a strong brand identity takes a long time, but you have to start somewhere. That’s usually your positioning. 

Brand identity starts from brand positioning

The positioning statement that comes from the segmentation, targeting and positioning process forces you to make choices about WHO your audience is, and WHY they should choose you.

The terms in the positioning statement – the target audience, the frame of reference, the benefit, the reason why and the reason to believe – come together to form the skeleton of your brand.

They help you evaluate opportunities and set priorities. 

But you need more to work out HOW your brand will drive choice. For that, you have to flesh out the rest of your brand identity beyond the bare bones of the positioning. 

Brand identity is HOW your brand drives choice

To create your brand identity you need to answer questions about HOW your brand will operate. How will it deliver against the brand positioning?

What values and personality does your brand need so customers believe your reason why and reason to believe? How will your brand communicate the benefit? What style and tone will you use to make the communication more believable? What tangible visual assets will you need to develop to support your ambition?

The brand identity process helps you answer these types of questions. It creates an action-focused guide for everyone who works on your brand. This guide drives consistency across what your brand thinks, says and does.  

Your brand identity helps customers trust, consider and try your brand if it creates the right mental association for them. It becomes your brand’s ‘rule book’ and ‘playbook’. This governs how you communicate, how you innovate and how you sell the brand to your target audience. 

Pretty important then, right? 

But before we go further, let’s remind ourselves where brand identity sits in the brand development process. 

Brand identity in the brand development process

Creating your brand identity is a critical part of the brand development process.

It comes after 3 previous steps. 

Your analysis of the market has identified opportunities.

Your definition of the brand goal sets the direction and gives clarity to what you want to achieve.

The segmentation, targeting and positioning process will have researched segments and then chosen a target audience. It’ll have started to define key brand elements like the benefit, the reason why and the reason to believe.

Flow diagram showing the 5 steps of the brand development process - analyse your market, build your brand goal, segment, target and position, build your brand identity, brand activation

Brand identity is an important transition point in the brand development process. Here, you move from abstract concepts and ideas to more tangible and action-oriented decisions.

You generate visible and tangible assets that you can see, hear, touch, taste and even smell. It’s when your brand fully comes to life. 

The marketing decisions you make at the brand identity stage impact all of your future brand activation. This can include communications, digital marketing and e-Commerce amongst others. 

The 2 key steps of brand identity development

So with your positioning statement in mind, you now need to build out HOW your brand will deliver the benefit to the target audience.

First step is to define and build your brand ‘assets’. These are a mix of intangible and tangible assets. We’ll come on to these shortly.

The next step is to decide which of these brand assets will be fixed and mandatory, and which will be flexible and more open

These all combine to become the “rules” and “playbook” for your brand’s identity. 

Brand identity asset classification examples

Brand rules and brand playbook

Fixed assets become ‘rules’ for the brand applied in every situation. For example, the brand name, the logo design and brand colours are used in the same consistent way in all your activities. 

Flexible assets become options only used in certain situations. They become a playbook to choose from depending on the context. For example, you can use the brand’s origin story in certain situations but don’t have to tell it in every situation. 

You aim to find the right balance between mandatory items and flexible items. Mandatory items like logos and colours drive consistency. They increase the chances customers will remember your brand as they’ll make stronger associations because of the repeated exposure. 

But sometimes, your brand identity also needs to be flexible. You have to be able to adjust activity depending on how customers react. Your brand also has to respond to market changes, such as competitor moves or changes in media or trade channels. 

So you end up with 4 areas in your brand identity. (1) Intangible assets in the brand rules or (2) in the brand playbook. And (3) Tangible assets in the brand rules or (4) in the brand playbook.

Intangible assets / brand rules

These are elements that govern the way a brand thinks and acts. The 3 key ones are your brand’s :-

  • essence.
  • values.
  • personality.

Brand essence

The brand essence is a central unifying word or short statement. It condenses the different aspects of a brand into a single clear and coherent idea of what the brand stands for.

It’s also sometimes called “brand mantra” or the “single unifying truth”.

Note, that the ‘brand essence’ doesn’t necessarily appear in your communication and advertising. It’s more the theme that links all the parts of the brand activity together.

You should make sure your essence is actionable and memorable. It shapes many decisions about what you do. And it summarises what customers are most likely to remember about your brand.

Brand essence examples

Let’s look at some examples.

Let’s start with cars. Imagine we asked customers which brand they most associated with “safety”.

We would safely (!) bet, that Volvo would score highly. Safety has been key to its brand essence for a long time.

This dates back to the fact they invented the modern seatbelt and then made the technology freely available to all the other car companies.

However, change the word to “reliability”, and you’d expect a different result, right?

Volvo logo on a car bonner grille

We’d reliably (!) expect Volkswagen to score highly, for example. This is down to their long-term slogan of “If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen” (e.g. this famous ad from the 1990s)

And if we said “luxurious confidence“, it’s a sure thing Mercedes would be near the top of your list. That’s the essence which historically underpins all their advertising. (See also our logo evaluation article for a look at how they use their logo to reinforce this). 

These are all good examples of how a brand’s essence triggers immediate associations in your mind. Strong brands have an essence that runs through everything they do.

Your brand essence makes you different

The key watch-out when creating your brand essence is to make sure it’s distinctly different from your competitors.

Make sure you avoid generic statements. Many brands claim essences like “dare to be different” or “builds confidence” for example, so they’re not different.

Your brand essence has to make your brand unique.

Check out more examples of this in our brand essence article. Plus, why being unique and different matters so much in our articles on branding and on competitive advantage.

Red tulip in a field of yellow tulips showing the impact of standing out and looking different

Brand values

Your brand values are more about the beliefs your brand has. They govern how your brand operates when faced with opportunities and issues. How it thinks. They become part of the culture that shapes your business. They work alongside your brand essence but relate more to the style of how you make marketing decisions. And how you recover from marketing mistakes

There are no hard and fast rules to what your values should be. They depend on your brand and category context. For example, these values might be social or cultural related. Companies that make environmentally-friendly products, or pursue a specific social cause will often include these in the brand’s values statement.

The values might also be more style-oriented. Are there one or two characteristics that you want your brand to stand for? Maybe it’s “trendy” if you’re in the fashion industry? Maybe it’s “tasty” if you’re in the food industry?

Once chosen, your values govern and define how you make decisions about the brand. They shape the activities you’ll do, and how you’ll do them. Most brands would have 3-5 core values. They use these to help build their brand story

Try to be different (again)

Again, the challenge is to make sure your values make your brand unique. For example, many brands use “innovative”, “quality” or “customer-focussed” as values. But these don’t make those brands unique.

Look for more ownable and unique terms. How will your brand be innovative, for example? Maybe it’s more “risk-taking”? or “pushes boundaries”? These would be more unique ways to express innovation.

Or, how would your brand be better “quality”? Maybe your ingredients? Or your processes? Or your staff training? Again, all examples of more ownable ways to express “quality”.

Brand personality

The final intangible asset in your brand rules is your brand personality. This outlines how your brand will do things, which drives how customers will perceive your brand. 

Some examples :-

  • do you want to be clever or approachable? Trying to be too clever can alienate some people. But trying to be too approachable and people might not take you seriously.
  • do you want to be fashionable or traditional? Brands trying to be fashionable can put off older audiences. But conversely, brands that stay traditional can struggle to attract younger customers.
  • do you want to be more spiritual or more down to earth? Those will appeal to very different types of customers. 

You have to look carefully at your target audience and build your brand personality around what’s most likely to appeal to them. Often, these are based on attributes identified during segmentation research. This helps create a good fit between the needs of the target audience and what the brand stands for.

Intangible assets / brand playbook

While your essence, values and personality apply across all elements of your marketing planning and activities, you’ll have other intangible brand assets which are more optional than mandatory. 

These are still important assets that create value for your brand. But typically, they rely on context for where and how you use them.

Facts

So for example, these could be specific facts about your brand which reinforce the essence, values and personality.

Close up of a man's hands holding a light bulb that's illuminated

These often relate to the reason why or reason to believe from the positioning statement. For example,  facts like when the brand was founded, where it was founded and who founded it, often become part of the brand assets.

Truths

Similarly, there may be specific truths about the brand that make it stand out from others. Maybe it’s the only company that uses a certain ingredient and / or process or that delivers a specific service to customers. Or there’s a compelling brand origin story that shapes the culture of how it operates now?

Icons and beliefs

Your brand assets can also include icons and beliefs. Icons are symbols customers recognise as coming from your brand. They might be characters or celebrities you used in your advertising, for example. It could be an event or a partnership your brand is strongly associated with (Don’t confuse these with navigation icons you use in website design though).

These can also then be associated with beliefs, in how your brand does things. Maybe your brand is associated with fair trade? Or being environmentally friendly?

Whichever intangible brand assets apply, it’s marketing’s job to choose when and where to use them in brand activation.

Tangible assets / brand rules

If intangible assets mainly live in the mind, you also need to develop tangible assets that appeal to people’s senses. 

That is, they appeal to one or more of the five core senses of sight, sound, touch, taste or smell.

The most common, like in this Marvel example, are :-

  • the brand name.
  • the use of colours and logos. 
  • and in the development of a key visual and / or piece of audio.

You can see all of these tangible assets in this example from Marvel. 

Red and White Marvel logo on a black background

Your brand name should encapsulate who you are and what you stand for. It is how consumers will find you and refer to you. Your brand name needs to be memorable, unique and meaningful. The process of developing a brand name usually has 3 steps :-

Step 1 - idea generation

The first step is idea generation. You make a long list of possibilities with a creative problem-solving or brainstorming approach. (See also our creative thinking guide).

Step 2 - idea screen

The second step is applying screening criteria to filter down the options to get to a shortlist of the best options.

For example, you’d score ideas on memorability, uniqueness and meaningfulness. But you’d also run legal and copyright checks to make sure the name didn’t already exist. Or that some other restriction meant it couldn’t be used. e.g. maybe it means something offensive or silly in another language. Or has a cultural connotation you weren’t aware of.

Step 3 - market research

The final step is market research with actual customers. You want them to tell you about the appeal and attractiveness of your brand name.

You’d also test how the brand name fits with your colour palette and logo design choices. Plus any core visual or sound that also represents your brand and is part of your brand rules. For example, the shape of the Coca-Cola bottle or the Intel Inside sound effect.

You need to use these consistently and repeatedly to make them “stick”. 

Neon sign with a question mark inside a square at the end of a dark corridor

Repetition matters

The key point is you make these assets mandatory, so they’re used repeatedly across all brand activation.

This repetition helps reinforce the association in the customer’s mind. They’re more likely to recognise that asset as ‘belonging’ to the brand. Think about the logo script font and red colour of Coca-Cola, for example. That’s used in millions of pieces of marketing activity.

All great brands have ‘rules’ that apply to everything they do in marketing. The way their logo appears, the colours they use, and their brand’s style is consistent and instantly recognisable.

As part of your brand identity process, you should identify what these are. You want to make sure they’re applied consistently across your marketing activities.

Tangible assets / brand playbook

The final part of your brand identity and assets are then the tangible outputs of your marketing activity.

These can usually be classified by the way the 4ps of your marketing mix is set up. We cover these in detail in our brand activation guide, but in short, these can include :-

Product

What are your product’s features and benefits that should be used consistently across all your marketing activities? What does it do for customers and how do they know why that should matter to them?

Overhead shot of a load of red coloured snacks including Doritos and Skittles

For example, does your product come in different sizes, different flavours or different colours? Do you have a range of products that meet different needs? What does your packaging look like, and what role does it need to play?

Here, you specify a list of ‘approved’ options to choose from when you plan activities.

Price

Often overlooked, but your pricing strategy can be an important part of how customers perceive your brand. If you’re more expensive then customers, perceive you as higher quality, but less good on value.

Do you have a sales promotion strategy where you offer price discounts or extra-value items to particular groups of customers? These price choices are brand assets that should be documented and consistent.

Promotion (communication)

We have a whole skill guide section on marketing communication. But when it comes to brand identity, it’s usually the biggest and most common area of activity.

Your advertising, media, public relations and digital marketing will create images, videos, icons, graphics, articles and stories that go into your brand identity.

Make sure you keep track of these.

You want to evolve and build on them in a way that grows and reinforces the brand identity for your target audience.

It’s how they’ll see your brand identity come to life.

Young boy in a yellow jersey showing loudly into a microphone

Place (distribution)

Where do customers actually buy your product? Do they go to a physical store, an online retailer, or do you even run your own online store to sell direct? Maybe you set up a subscription model for your most loyal customers

Where and when customers will see and choose to consume your products is also part of your brand identity.

You wouldn’t want your premium products to appear in bargain basement stores. And vice versa, you wouldn’t want your value range to appear in high-end stores. These are all also important parts of your brand identity to consider. 

How and where your brand identity is used

Once you’ve created all these assets, your next job is to organise them so they’re easy to find and use.

There are usually 2 steps. First, you collate key elements into a ‘brand on a page’ summary you can easily reference. You then build a longer version in a brand book or style guide. This detailed document defines the specific guidelines for each asset in your brand identity.

Brand on a page

No single format to organise your brand on a page works for every brand and business context. It takes trial and error to find the best way to organise all your brand identity assets in a way that works for you.

But 3 templates we’ve seen work well to organise brand assets include a brand :-

  • wheel.
  • diamond.
  • pyramid.

Brand wheel

In this model, you start in the centre of the wheel and work out layer by layer. It puts the essence and values at the heart of the brand identity. Then you go into personality and the more tangible assets you create. 

It doesn’t specifically call out the target audience but instead uses the outer ring of “How it makes me feel” and “What it says about me” to tell the story of the brand from the customer’s point of view.

These statements build off each other to walk through the customer’s journey as they interact with the brand. This model also includes the option to identify “stretch” attributes. These are areas where you don’t currently play but would like to. 

Brand identity wheel showing elements of brand identity including essence, values, personality, and benefits

Brand diamond

This model similarly starts at the centre. But it contains more elements than the brand wheel.

In the centre, there’s the positioning statement including target audience, frame of reference, benefit, reason why and reason to believe. You also include the essence, values and personality of the brand in this core layer.

The model then expands out to capture the core tangible assets which are in the brand ‘rules’. These are the design elements including the brand name, colours, icons, key visuals or audio and the headline selling message which should be used with the brand.

The tangible assets from the playbook are then set out on the outer ring of the diamond.

Brand identity diamond

Brand pyramid

This model differs slightly in that rather than going from the centre out, it starts at the bottom. It then builds up towards the brand purpose.

Each element interacts with the element directly above and below it so that you have more of a sequential process to tell your brand’s story. 

As you can see from these examples, the models can be quite similar in terms of the contents and it’s often more in the layout that they differ. Which one you use is down to which one works best for your brand. 

There’s no one correct way to do it. But these templates should give you some idea about how you might lay out your own brand assets.

Brand identity pyramid

Brand book / style guide contents

Once you have this brand on a page, you use it as a cheat sheet reference to answer any questions about the brand identity and how to use brand assets. You’d reference it in briefs for example. 

But it’s not specific enough to give all the direction needed when you move to the next stage which is brand activation. 

For this, you typically build out a brand book or style guide. This document goes into detail with all the specifications. It guides anyone who has to create something for your brand.

For example, with logo usage, it’ll specify the font, the colour and the dimensions of your logo. It’ll define how to use the logo in different-sized spaces. 

Brand identity book contents

How should the logo appear if the space available is square (e.g. on an Instagram page) versus if the space is long and narrow (e.g. on a website navigation bar). Can the logo be split up or used with other design elements? Can it be used with other colours? What if your design has to be in black and white? (See also our logo evaluation article for more on this). 

The brand book and style guide answers these types of questions. 

Where you use brand identity

As you work through the other design elements like typography, colour, and copywriting, you set standards that go into your briefs.

This document becomes the reference manual for all your brand activation work. It’s mostly (but not exclusively) used when developing new communications.

For example, when you write an advertising brief, the advert you create should be consistent with the brand name, logos and colours detailed in the brand book.

When you create a social media page or post, refer back to the guidance given in the brand book so you build up and reinforce the consistent use of assets over time.

Three columns with twelve rows of the three-brains logo - one logo has had the colour altered so it stands out from the other 35 logos

If updating your website, the visuals, the copy and the style should all refer back to the brand book. 

However, you should also refer to the brand book when you work with partners. So, how your brand might appear in a catalogue, for example. Or how it appears on an online retailer website. 

No matter which part of the marketing mix, the brand identity helps you communicate how it should be done and what flexibility people have to be creative. 

The brand identity process helps you create customer-focused and consistent activity delivery across all your marketing efforts. And it increases the chances customers will both remember and choose your brand.

That seems like a smart marketing goal to us. 

Conclusion - Brand identity

Strong brands have a clear and engaging brand identity. But it takes time to reach that clarity and engagement.

You make many decisions along the way to create and refine an identity that connects with customers.

We’ve been in many brand identity workshops where there are long arguments over whether ‘brave’ or ‘courageous’ is a better word for the personality. Or whether ‘relaxed’ or ‘laid-back’ is better for ‘how it makes me feel’.

This process of building the brand is a good team building exercise. It feels ‘important’. It helps build consistency in brand activation.

Brand identity

However, the subjective debates can be very draining. So if you’re the brand owner, by all means, involve your team. But only up to a point. Follow the process but set a firm deadline for the final identity. And once it’s done, move on. 

After that, no meddling with it until your next scheduled review. You build brands over time, with consistent use of brand assets. Unless something goes wrong or there’s a tactical opportunity that’s too good to miss, you stick with your brand identity. As per our brand activation guide, you should review how customers perceive your brand identity every 6-12 months. But make sure you focus on the activity and the customer connection. Because that generates sales, and that’s what you want, right?

Three-Brains and brand identity

Need help building your brand identity? Confused by the different agencies and what they say they can offer? 

The Three-Brains teams have many years of experience building strong and successful brand identities. Get in touch to find out how our coaching and consulting services can help you build strong brands that customers love.

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