Brand identity

Brand identity is how consumers recognise and perceive your products and services. It is how they distinguish you from competitors. Brand identity is a valuable asset for your business that drives marketing activation and impacts sales. This guide covers the brand choice funnel, the core elements of brand identity and how best to organise your brand assets.

Brand identity

How this guide raises your game.

  1. Learn the key questions you need 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 in to a brand book and style guide.

Before you begin to develop your brand identity, you should carry out market research and go through the segmentation, targeting and positioning process to create a clear picture of your target audience.

This picture will include who they are (demographics), when and where their needs arise (occasions) and the motivations and attitudes that drive their choices (psychographic).

When you understand these factors about your target audience, you start to see the world from their point of view. This consumer lead approach is an integral part of your marketing. 

But now, you need to build your brand with that consumer knowledge in mind so that you can achieve the business goal that you have set.

Put yourself in the mind of your target audience.

Why and how will they choose your products over your competitors?

The answer is to first understand how consumers make purchase decisions.  When consumers buy products, they go through a mental process to decide which products to buy.

In the marketing world, this process is called the brand choice funnel. 

Brand identity

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The brand choice funnel

Imagine this scenario.

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

Do you trust him?

What if we said, he was had on 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.

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 has made the association that he can be trusted. It has made the association that his request of you (your signature) will deliver something of value (the package). 

Your brand creates mental associations with consumers

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 are 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 then is the mental association that your consumers have with your product or services.

It is 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 that is essentially your goal when you create your brand identity. You want your target audience to choose your brand. 

Brand choice funnel

This idea of a purchase funnel or process is not new. It has its origins around 100 years ago as advertising and sales started to get more sophisticated in the early 20th century.

But, here’s the thing.

There is 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 and isn’t relevant in others.

You also have to consider that consumers can move around different parts of the funnel. It is not always a linear process.

Consider the situation where a consumer buys your product for the first time, and something goes wrong. Maybe it is faulty or does not meet expectations, In this case, you might need to build trust again.

Or if your competitors have been more persuasive about the benefits of their products, your customers might switch brands. Your consumers still trust you but you need to drive consideration again. 

So at each stage of the process, the consumer will have a key question in mind that you will need to answer.

Key questions in the mind of a consumer

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 then helps consumers to answer each of these questions. It helps them do this in a quicker and more effective way, that makes consumers more likely to choose your products. 

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 consumer’s attention.

When you have a strong brand identity, it might only take a colour or an image for consumers to recognise your brand, who it is and what it stands for.

Starbucks logo

If you see this Starbucks icon anywhere in the world, you know instantly what experience you are likely to get. This is because brands like Starbucks have taken the time to build a strong brand identity.

Let’s look then at how brand identity is built.

Brand identity starts from brand positioning

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

The definitions of the target audience, the frame of reference, the benefit, the reason why and the reason to believe form the bare bones of your brand. They support you to evaluate opportunities and set some priorities. 

But those alone are not enough to tell you HOW your brand can drive choice. For that you need to build up more of your brand identity. 

3 steps of the process - Segmentation - divide the total marketing, targeting - pick the most attractive, positioning - build your brand

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 consumers 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 consumers 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 get into the detailed steps, let’s remind ourselves where brand identity sits in the overall brand development process. 

Brand identity in the brand development process

The creation of 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 brand development process

And the process of segmentation, targeting and positioning will have focused you in on specific target audience segments. It will have started to define key elements of your brand like the benefit, the reason why and the reason to believe.

Brand identity is an important transition point in the brand development process. Here, you move from abstract concepts 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 decisions you make at the brand identity stage impact all of your future brand activations. This can include communications, digital marketing and e-Commerce  and many others. 

The two 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 exactly what these assets are 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

Brand identity asset classification - intangible - tangible - rules - playbook

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

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, the origin story of the brand can be used in certain situations, but does not 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 help bring consistency to your marketing activity. They increase the likelihood that consumers will remember your brand as they will 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 consumers react to it. Your brand needs to be responsive 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.

We’ll take each of these in turn.

Intangible assets / brand rules

These are elements that govern the way a brand thinks and acts.

They usually break into three key elements – brand essence, brand value and brand personality.

Brand essence

The brand essence is a central unifying brand word or short statement. It pulls together the many varied aspects of a brand and distils these into a single clear and coherent idea of what the brand stands for.

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

Note, the ‘brand essence’ is not necessarily the word or statement that appears in all communication and advertising. It is more the theme that links all the parts of the brand activity together.

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

Let’s take a couple of examples.

If we looked at the car category for example.

Let’s imagine we asked consumers which brand they thought had the strongest association with “safety” for example. We’d be pretty confident that Volvo would come out highly. Its brand essence has been part of the brand make-up for a long-time.

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

Mercedes logo

However, if we changed the word to “reliability”, we would expect a different result. 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 that Mercedes would be at the top of your list. That’s the essence that 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. 

Try to be different

Our major watch-out when you work on your brand essence is to make sure your essence is distinctly different from your competitors. Try to avoid generic statements. Many brands might claim their essence is “dare to be different” or “builds confidence” for example, but these are not unique. Your brand essence should be what makes your brand unique. 

You can read more about our experiences of brand essences as part of brand identity in this article post where we share some of our favourite examples. 

Brand values

Your brand values are more about the beliefs that your brand has. They govern how your brand operates when faced with opportunities and issues. How it thinks.

They operate in tandem with your brand essence, but are more related to the style of how you make decisions.

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 these values are articulated, they govern and define how you make decisions about the brand. They define the activities that will be carried out. 

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 “fashionable” if you are in the apparel industry? Maybe it’s “taste” if you are in the food industry? 

Most brands would have up to three core values. They will build a story around how the three values play off each other and work in harmony. 

Again. Try to be different.

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

It’s worthwhile to spend 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 then 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 approachable may be seen as a it dumbed-down by others. 

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 consumers 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 the segmentation and targeting phase. This helps create a good fit between the needs of the target audience and what the brand will stand for. 

Intangible assets / brand playbook

While your essence, values and personality will be applied across all elements of your marketing planning and activities, you will have other intangible assets on your brand 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 help reinforce the brand essence, values and personality. 

Man holding a lit lighbulb to symbolise the enlightenment that three-brains brings to marketing

These are quite often related to the reason why or reason to believe from the positioning statement, so facts like when the brand was founded, where it was founded and who founded it can 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 consumers? Maybe there’s a story behind how the company was formed or why it was formed that forms part of the culture or make-up of how the company operates now?

Icons and beliefs

Icons and beliefs can also be strong brand assets that help build associations with the brand.  Symbols that consumers recognise as coming from your brand are known as icons. They might for example be characters or celebrities that are used in your advertising for example. It could be an event or a partnership that your brand is strongly associated with. This 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 of these intangible brand assets apply, it is part of the job of marketing to choose when and where to deploy them to maximum effect in your marketing activity plans.

Tangible assets / brand rules

If intangible assets mainly live in the mind, you will also need to develop tangible assets that live more in the sensory world.

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 is in the brand name. And in the use of colours and logos. And in the development of a key visual and / or piece of audio. Like in this example from Marvel. Everything you see here would be in the brand rules. 

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.

Marvel logo

Step one – idea generation

Step one would be idea generation This is where you come up with a list of possibilities. To do this you would take a creative problem solving or brainstorming approach, which we outline in our skill guide on creative problem solving.

Step two – idea screen

Step two would then be to screen out or filter down these ideas. Here you would want to apply a number of criteria to reduce 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 three – market research

The final step would then be to carry out some market research with actual consumers. You want real consumers 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, it may be that you have 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.

Repetition matters

The important point to note is that you choose to make these assets mandatory so they are used repeatedly across all brand activation.

What this repetition does is it helps to reinforce and strengthen the association in the consumer’s mind. They are 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 that 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.

You should as part of your brand identity process look to identify what these are. You want to make sure they are 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 your marketing mix is set up. We cover these in much more detail in our brand activation guide, but put simply, these can include :-

Product

What are the features and benefits of your products that should be used consistently across all your marketing activity? 

Candy bars packaging

For examples, Does your product come in different sizes, different flavours or different colours for example? Do you have a range of products that meet different needs?

Here, you specify a list of ‘approved’ options that can be chosen from when you plan what activities you will actually carry out.

Price

Often overlooked, but your pricing strategy can be an important part of how consumers perceive your brand. If you are more expensive than consumers, they may perceive you as higher quality, but less good value.

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

Communication

We have a whole skill guide on the topic of marketing communication. But when it comes to brand identity, it’s probably the biggest and most common area of activity. Your advertising, media, public relations and digital marketing will create a whole raft of images, videos, icons, graphics, articles and stories that form part of your brand identity.

It’s important to keep track of these. You want to evolve and build on them in a way that grows and reinforces the brand identity in the minds of your target audience. 

Distribution

Where does your product or service actually sell? Does it exist in a physical environment like a retail store or is it delivered online?

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

You would not want your premium products to appear in bargain basement stores and vice versa you would not 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 have 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 that you can easily reference. This then is 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 is 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 will take some 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 slightly different templates we’ve seen work in many businesses. These can be helpful templates for you to organise all the brand assets that you have generated.

Brand wheel / brand onion

In this model, you start to compile your assets by starting 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. And then builds out into personality and the more tangible assets that you might 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 consumer point of view.

These statements build off each other to walk through the journey the consumer goes on when they interact with the brand. 

 

Brand identity wheel

This model also includes the option to identify certain attributes as “stretch” attributes. These are areas where you may not currently play, but have an aspiration or idea to grow the brand in that area.

Brand diamond

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

In the centre, there is the positioning statement including target audience, frame of reference, benefit, reason why and reason to believe. The essence, values and personality of the brand are also included 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.

 

Brand identity diamond

The tangible assets from the playbook are then depicted on the outer ring of the 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 purpose of the brand.

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 are actually quite similar in terms of the contents and how they lay out the sequence of the different brand assets. Which one you decide to use is really down to the nature of your business. 

Brand identity pyramid

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 book / style guide contents

Once you have this brand on a page, that serves as a useful cheat sheet to refer to.

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 will give guidance to anyone who creates something for your brand.

So for example, for logo usage, this document will specify the font, the colour and the dimensions of your logo. It will prescribe how the logo should be used in different 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 your brand identity is used

As you work through the other design elements like typography, colour, key visuals and copywriting guidelines, you set standards that go into all future briefs for marketing activity. 

This document becomes the reference manual for all your brand activation work. It is 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 use of the brand name, logos and colours.

When you create a social media page or post, it should refer back to the guidance given in the brand book so that you build up and reinforce the value over time. 

If you are 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 will help 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 that consumers will both remember and choose your brand.

That seems like a smart marketing goal to us. 

In conclusion

The strongest brands generally have the clearest and simplest brand identity. But the process to generate this clear and simple brand identity doesn’t happen over-night.

The identity needs to be crafted and many decisions taken to refine, polish and create something that will connect with consumers.

We’ve been in many a brand identity workshop 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’.

 

Brand identity asset classification examples

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

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

So it you are the brand owner, yes, do take the time to go through the process and allow your team to feel involved and to feel ownership of how the brand identity is created and developed. 

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

But, make sure you set a firm deadline for the final decision on the brand identity. And after that, there’s no meddling with the brand definitions until an agreed period has passed. Brands are built over time, through repeated use of their core brand assets. So, while you do not want to be inflexible or miss tactical opportunities, you should avoid too many changes to your brand assets as it can lead to confusion and wasted effort. 

Set a regular time to review how consumers 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 consumer, 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 have many years of experience as marketers building successful brands. This includes the creation of strong brand identities.  

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

Reach out to us and see how we can work with you to raise your game. 

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