Branding: What, why and how

Brand is one of the most critical parts of a modern organization's design. Brand implicitly tells the world who you are, what you stand for, and is often the deciding factor in whether your products and services win over others.

Intelligent and practical marketing advice. Read about pitch decks, sales psychology, infographic design and more.

What is a brand?

A brand is the sum of how people perceive your company. It's similar to how we perceive people: we have a mental note of the look, voice and values of each organization and an idea of how they relate (or do not relate) to ourselves. Brands are often described with adjectives that we'd use for people too: A brand can be playful, serious, mature, young, brash, offensive, comforting, fun, inspiring and much more.

Did anyone say fun? Old Spice GIF from GIFER

Why do brands matter?

Brands drive consumer behavior. Just as personalities lead us to want to hang out with (or avoid!) people, similarly brands are the tiebreaker between similar items. Many companies produce similar goods, such as cereals, clothing, drinks, and it is often our brand perception and loyalty that leads us to prefer one over another.

Brands also help imbue companies and their offerings with perception that may not match reality. Some brands are known for reliability, affordability, and any new product they launch automatically is assumed to also have those qualities. Of course, over time, the brand will shift (e.g. if a renowned car company kept releasing cars that break down, their brand would slowly degrade) to match reality.

Ferrari vs. Lamborghini

How does graphic design contribute to brand?

A brand is a collection of many assets:

  • written text
  • images
  • videos
  • consumer experiences
  • the actions of company leaders
  • web pages
  • advertisements
  • and anything else the company makes public

These all sum up in the public's mind to create the brand. Brands work well when these elements all work together. Brands fail when these elements give conflicting messages. For example, if a company writes in its literature that their values are to benefit society, but their executives are known to be corrupt, that company's brand will flounder and people will not trust it nor perceive it in the intended light.

Graphic design contributes to all the visual elements of the brand. For example:

  • Advertisements
  • Product design
  • Web pages
  • Emails
  • Case studies
  • Application UX and UI
  • Packaging
  • Events
  • Instruction manuals
  • Brochures
Brand assets for Mobius
Brand assets for Mobius - one of Spotify's internal teams

As creatures, humans are heavily visually orientated. We mostly use our eyes to tell the state of the world around us before we turn to other senses (we look before we touch, we look before we move, we look before we eat). Because of this, we take in highly sophisticated and subtle visual cues.

Color, illustration style, fonts, layout all affect how we experience any visual media. They can make it friendly or confusing. Familiar or scary. Uplifting or down-beat. Liberal or conservative. Visual design controls how we understand and remember visual media.

As well as giving personality to visual media, graphic design also helps make a brand recognizable. Using consistent colors, illustration style, logos, all make us instantly know that an image we've never seen before belongs to a company we know.

How do you tell if a brand is good?

Branding is a world full of subjectivity, and any major rebrand will carry much press disagreeing on whether the rebrand was done well or not. However, we believe there are some clear ways to judge your brand. Fundamentally, a brand exists to serve your organization's goals. These might be to sell more products, or to inspire a movement. Whatever those goals are, how well does your brand help you achieve them?

What is bbranding
Branding is showing the world what you're all about!

You can think about this in many ways, here are some questions to get you started:

  • When customers are asked, can they list your organization's values?
  • Do people positively or negatively perceive your organization?
  • Is your organization or its offerings top of mind for your target audience?
  • Does your brand feel up-to-date or tired to your target audience?
  • Do your employees and service providers struggle to follow your brand guidelines? Do they understand them?
  • Do you have the necessary supporting scaffolding (e.g. brand books, templates, brand guardians) to make your brand successful?
  • Do you feel that your brand is missing something? Does it mis-represent your marketing?

Often, marketing directors have an instinctive feeling for their brand's health. Its often their job to get the brand to where the organization needs it to be. If you feel that something is amiss, it's probably time to invest in improving your brand.

How do brands change as companies grow?

We typically see a brand maturity curve as companies grow. We've worked with companies of every size, from two person basement teams to some of the largest global household names. As companies mature, so do their brands. Typically, the brand lags behind the company (unless that company has a leader that really values and understands branding).

SketchDeck logo evolution
Gotta walk the talk, right? Our brand's evolution

We see the following "stages" of visual brand maturity, albeit a simplification:

  1. No brand / Accidental brand: The company founders are focused on getting off the ground, and any branding is simply random choices they made in presentation and web design tools.
  2. Skeleton brand: By this point the company has some real customers and has had a designer create a logo and basic font + color palette. Typically that's all there is to the brand - no brand book, no templates. The brand is often applied inconsistently, with every new material redefining the brand based on the feeling of its author
  3. First brand book: After some time, the company leadership feels the pains of their inconsistent visual look. They typically turn to a design company to help them conceive and build out a full brand book. This is a document that lists all the rules of the visual brand and includes examples of its application across many media.
  4. First brand team: To make a brand really flourish, it requires guardians. These are people that help make sure the organization is following the brand correctly, and also keep improving and evolving the brand as the company's needs change
  5. Multiple brands: Once an organization gets big enough, one brand no longer fits. Many companies such as Facebook and Google have "meta-brands" that lay out rules for creating a family of sub-brands that can all co-exist and still feel related. It's also common for smaller organizations to create sub-brands for big events and significant product features (e.g. Amazon vs Amazon Prime)
Spotify internal brands
DNA, Mobius and Roar: Spotify's internal brands

How do you improve a brand?

Iteratively! A brand is never a finished work, it's always in flux and prone to decay. Like a garden, a brand needs continual tending to remove the weeds and add new flowers. There are a few different ways to improve a brand, depending on where your brand currently is and what your needs are:

  • Create a fresh brand: Perhaps you lack any current coherent branding, or need a big departure to make something that fits your values and audience.
gVisor logo
New project, new brand: Google's gVisor
  • Create a brand book: Making a (newer) brand book is a good way to take stock of your current assets and brand guidelines and get them tidied up into one place for everyone to share.
Brand book
Brand book for Intricately
  • Evolve a brand asset: Taking a key brand asset (e.g. the company presentation template) and giving it a face-lift is a great, cost-effective way to bolster your brand. This quickly gets a large number of people delivering work to a newer visual standard.
  • Do a brand implementation: You might be in the common situation that you have some great brand guidelines, but nothing really follows them well. A fast way to rectify this is to bring in a design service to redesign your key assets (e.g. website, app, document templates, advertising) to follow your brand guidelines. Often this involves some fresh creativity as the designers envision how to turn the guidelines into assets.
Concept visualization for Kadacon
Branded concept visualizations for Kadacon
  • Do a brand refresh: This is halfway between a brand implementation and a re-brand. It's  a cost-effective way to inject fresh ideas and creativity into an ageing brand. The goal is to give a deep-clean to the existing brand guidelines, updating them where necessary (but also keeping what is good). Once that is done, the new rules are rolled out to all the key assets.

We've a lot of experience doing all the above for clients at all stages of brand maturity. Check out our portfolio and articles below to see more of our work and thinking around brands, and get in touch to see how we can help you.

Learn more about Branding design

#brand videos

Learn about another topic: