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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 that shape how you activate your brand. Learn the steps you need to create and implement your brand identity. 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.

There’s some key steps to go through before you start creating your brand identity.

First, you need segmentation research to understand different customer needs. You group customers into segments.

You need to work out 

  • who they are (demographics).
  • when and where their needs come up (occasions).
  • their motivations and attitudes (psychographics).

Then, you need to work out each segment’s attractiveness, so you can decide which ones to target.  

Finally, you create a positioning statement and map. This defines which target you’ll go for and how you plan to persuade them to choose your brand. 

Only once you’ve gone through each step of the segmentation, targeting and positioning process should you start on your brand identity. To do that, you first need to understand how customers interact with brands.

Let’s start with a little story. 

Brand identity

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An unexpected knock at the door

Imagine this scenario.

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 the start of the scenario.

If we asked you at the start, ‘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 that he can be trusted. It made the association that you’ll get something of value (the package) in return for meeting his request (your signature).

Your brand creates mental associations with customers

Now hold that same process in mind, and apply it to brands. Think about the adverts you see every day. Think about all the products you see on supermarket shelves. They’re the marketing equivalents of the stranger at the door. 

And brands and brand identity are the way your brain holds information about all those messages and products through mental associations linked to the brand. 

Your brand is the mental association customers have with your product or services.

It’s the mental shortcut that helps them move from the ‘stranger at the door’ to ‘someone you trust enough to give something and get something in return’.

This process has a few different names. Adoption curve or purchase funnel for example. But we prefer brand choice funnel because brand choice is the ultimate goal for your brand identity. You want customers to choose your brand. 

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 one single agreed model that works for every business and every category. Marketers argue all the time about which is the best model. 

Some models include trust, other’s 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 consider that customers can move around different parts of 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 re-build 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. Your brand helps your product to 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.

If you see a Starbucks logo anywhere in the world for example, you know instantly the customer experience you’ll get. This is because brands like Starbucks invest in building their brand identity.

It takes a long time to build a strong brand identity, but you have to start somewhere. And for us it starts with your positioning statement. 

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 need 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 or tone will you adopt to make the communication more believable? What tangible visual assets will you need to develop to support your ambition?

The brand identity process is about the collation and construction of the answers to these types of questions. It creates a usable and action-oriented guide for everyone who works on your brand. This guide ensures consistency across what your brand thinks, says and does.  

Your brand identity helps customers make the choice to trust, consider and try your brand when it creates the right mental association for them. 

Your brand identity becomes both the ‘rule-book’ and ‘play book’ for your brand. 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 three 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 really 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.

The first step is to define and build a series of brand ‘assets’. These assets can be either intangible or tangible assets. We’ll come on to these shortly.

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

The combination of these tangible / intangible and mandatory / flexible become the “rules” and “playbook” for your brand.

Brand identity asset classification examples

Brand rules and brand playbook

The fixed brand assets essentially become ‘rules’ for the brand that are applied in every situation. So typically, things like the name of the brand, the design of the logo or the brand colours are set in advance and apply across all activities. 

Flexible assets are open to be used, but do not have to be used in every situation. They become a playbook of options from which you or anyone who works on the brand can use.

For example, you can use the origin story of the brand in certain situations, but doesn’t have to be used in every situation. 

It’s important to find the right balance between mandatory items and flexible items. Mandatory items like logos and colours bring consistency to your marketing activity. They increase the chances customers will remember your brand as they’ll make associations with these fixed items through repeated exposure. 

But you also need to keep some parts of your marketing flexible. You need to be able to adjust your activity depending on how customers react to it. Your brand needs to respond to any changes in the market such as competitor moves or changes in distribution or media. 

When you mix intangible and tangible assets together with the fixed and flexible options, you can then categorise each asset into one of four boxes. 

(1) Intangible assets in the brand rules or (2) in the brand playbook.

(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. There’s usually 3 key ones you need – brand essence, brand values and brand personality.

Brand essence

The brand essence is a central unifying brand 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, the ‘brand essence’ isn’t necessarily the word or statement that appears in all communication and advertising. It’s more the theme that links all the parts of the brand activity together.

It’s important the essence is clear and agreed on. The essence informs many decisions about future marketing activity. It is the part of the brand most likely to be remembered by customers.

Let’s take a couple of examples.

Let’s say we look at the car category. And imagine we asked customers which brand they thought had the strongest association with “safety”.

We’d be confident Volvo would score highly. Its brand essence has been part of the brand for a very long time.

This association dates back to the fact they invented the modern seat-belt, and then made the technology freely available to all the other car companies.

However, if we changed the word to “reliability”, we’d expect a different result.

Volvo logo on a car bonner grille

We might see Volkswagen come up more highly for example. This is down to their long term use of the phrase “If only everything in life was as reliable as a Volkswagen” (see this famous example from the 1990s)

Or if we said “luxurious confidence“, there’s a good chance Mercedes would be at the top of your list. That’s the essence they’ve consistently used in all their advertising.

Can you see that as we said each brand here, associations went off in your brain about that brand? That’s the power of a strong brand essence. 

The biggest and most famous brands will have a core essence that runs through everything they do. But there’s no reason any other brand can’t follow the same practice and have the same ambition. 

Your brand essence makes you different

Our major watch-out when you work on brand essence is to make sure it’s distinctly different from your competitors.

Try to 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 makes your brand unique.

Read more about brand essences in this article where we share some of our favourite examples. 

Also check out our article on why being different helps build your competitive advantage in e-Commerce

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’re often part of the culture that shapes your business. 

They operate in tandem with your brand essence, but are more related 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’ll  depend on the nature of your brand and the category it operates in.

These values might be social or cultural related for example. Companies who make products that are environmentally-friendly, or pursue a particular social cause will often include these in the values statement within the brand.

When you decide on these values, they govern and define how you make decisions about the brand. They shape the activities you’ll do, and how you’ll do them. 

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?

Most brands would have up to three core values. They build a brand story around how the values work together. 

Try to be different (again)

Similarly to brand essence, our watch out here is to make sure the mix of values makes your brand unique. Many brands will use “innovative”, “quality” or “customer focussed” for example as their values. But these are generic.

Take the time to find more ownable and unique terms. How will your brand be innovative for example? Maybe it’s more “risk taking” or “push boundaries”? These would be more unique ways to express innovation.

How would your brand be better “quality” than competitors? Maybe it’s the ingredients you source? Or the process you follow? Or the training you give staff. But again, push hard to find more ownable ways to express “quality”.

Brand personality

The final intangible asset which sits in your brand rules is your brand personality. 

This defines how your brand will do things. And by association what you want consumers to think of how your brand acts.

For example, does it aim to be clever or approachable? Brands that aim to be clever can alienate some people.  But brands that are too approachable may be seen as a dumbed-down. 

Does it aim to be fashionable or traditional? Brands that aim to be fashionable may lose older audiences. But conversely, brands that aim to be more traditional may struggle to attract younger audiences. 

Some brands might choose to be more spiritual while others might be more pragmatic and down to earth.

Think about the types of customers you want to attract. What type of personality traits might appeal to them?

You want to make a connection between YOUR brand personality and the personality profile of your target audience. 

Often, these personality options are chosen 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 that 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 that 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, or uses a specific process or delivers a specific service to customers? Or maybe there’s a story behind why or how the company was formed that shapes the culture of how it operates now?

Icons and beliefs

Icons and beliefs can also be strong brand assets that help build mental associations. 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 brand icons 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 areas where you find these assets 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 to develop a brand name would usually involve three stages.

Step 1 - idea generation

The first step is idea generation. This is where you come up with a list of possibilities. To do this you take a creative problem solving or brainstorming approach. (see also our guide to creative thinking).

Step 2 - idea screen

The second step is to screen down these ideas. Here you apply a number of screening criteria to filter down the options and develop a shortlist of the best options.

Here, you would score or rank ideas on memorability, uniqueness and meaningfulness. But you would also run legal and copyright checks that the name didn’t already exist. Or that that it had some other restriction that meant it couldn’t be used. e.g. maybe it means something offensive or silly in another language? Or it had a cultural connotation you weren’t aware of? This has happened in the past to many brands. 

Step 3 - market research

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

We talk about other tangible brand assets like colour and logo in other skill guides we have, so we won’t go into depth on them here.

And finally, often you’ve a core visual or sound that also represents your brand and should be part of your brand rules. Think 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.

What this repetition does is help to reinforce and strengthen 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 of Coca-Cola and the red can colour for example. That’s used in millions of pieces of marketing activity.

Think about any major brand – Apple, McDonalds, Starbucks. You can see they have certain ‘rules’ that apply across everything they do in marketing. The way their logo appears, the colours they use, the style of their brand 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 the features and benefits of your products that should be used consistently across all your marketing activity? 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?

Here, you specify a list of ‘approved’ options to chose 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.

Communication

We’e 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

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 and decided on all of these assets, your next job is to organise them in a way that makes them easy to use and reference.

This is typically a two step process where firstly you collate the key elements into a ‘brand on a page’ summary you can easily reference. This is then placed into a longer document called a brand book or style guide. This document defines in much more detail the specific guidelines for each asset in your brand identity.

Brand on a page

There’s no single format to organise all the key elements of your brand identity on a page that will work for every brand and business context.

It takes trial and error to find the best way to organise all your assets in a meaningful and helpful way.

But, we wanted to share three templates we’ve seen work in many businesses. These can be helpful templates for you to organise all the brand assets you’ve generated.

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 point of view.

These statements build off each other to walk through the journey the customer goes on when 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 go 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 the story of your brand. 

As you can see from these three different options, they’re quite similar in terms of the contents and how they lay out the sequence of the different brand assets. 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 three 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 would typically build out a brand book or style guide for your brand. This document would go into detail with all the specifications. It’ll guide anyone who creates 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 should in different sized spaces. 

Brand identity book contents

How should the logo appear if the space available is square (like on an Instagram page) versus how should it appear if the space available is long and narrow (like 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?

The brand book and style guide sets out the answers to these types of questions.

Where you use brand identity

As you work through the other design elements like typography, colour, visuals and copywriting, you set standards that go into all future marketing 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 guidance given in the brand book in terms of, for example, the brand name, logos and colours.

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 you’re building or updating your website, the visuals, the copy and the style should all refer back to the guidance in the brand book. 

However, you should also use the brand book as a reference tool for your brand identity when you work with partners. So, how your brand might appear in a retail trade catalogue for example. Or how it might appear on an industry website. 

No matter which part of the marketing mix, the brand identity helps you communicate to everyone involved in the creation of activity, how it should be done and what flexibility they have to be creative. 

The brand identity process helps you create customer-focussed and consistent delivery of activity across all of 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 the process to get to this clarity and engagement  takes time. It takes time to build your brand identity. 

You need to craft the identity and make many decisions to refine, polish and create something that connects with your target customers.

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

Our experience is that the process of pulling together these core statements about the brand is a great team building exercise. It feels ‘important’. It’s also a great exercise for building consistency in brand activation.

Brand identity

However, the subjective debates can be incredibly draining to all involved.

So it you’re the brand owner, yes, do take the time to go through the process. Let the team feel involved  and part of the process of creating the brand identity.

But only up to a point.

Follow the process but once it's done, move on

Make sure you set firm deadlines for the final decision on the brand identity.

And after that, there’s no meddling with the brand identity definitions until an agreed period has passed. You build brands over time, with repeated use of their core brand assets. So, while you don’t want to be inflexible or miss tactical opportunities, do avoid too many changes to your brand assets as it can lead to confusion and wasted effort. 

Set a regular time to review how customers perceive your brand identity every six to twelve months. But make sure the focus of your efforts are on the activity and the connection with the customer. Because that’s what generates sales. 

Our skill guide on brand activation covers this topic in more depth. 

Three-brains and brand identity

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

We’ve many years of experience as marketers building successful brands, including creating strong brand identities.  

We offer coaching and consulting services to listen to your marketing challenges and get you to successful and pragmatic answers quickly.

Contact us to find out how we can work with you to raise your brand identity game. 

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