Your Brand Is More Than A Logo
Written by Russell Shaw
Published on July 20, 2015
Last Edited on December 16, 2015
A brand identity is more than a logo. It is a promise, a guarantee, a story.
Contrary to popular belief, a brand doesn’t start with a logo to put on a business card or in the corner of a website. A brand is not just a visual identity. It is the entire voice of a company – the personality and tone, the message, and the interpretation by the listeners.
It’s the way a user feels when they interact with your brand at any touchpoint. It’s the playlist playing in the lobby when they are waiting on a meeting. It’s the outgoing voicemail message. It’s the tone of an email auto-responder. It’s the number of hashtags you tag an image with on Instagram. It’s the way complaints are dealt with on Twitter, the way the leader gives a speech at a conference, the way a business card feels to the touch, and the way an employee follows up to say “thank you.”
Once a consumer has a perception of your brand based on experiences and interactions, he or she associates those values back to your visual identity – the logo, the website, the photos, etc. These visual indicators of your brand fuel perception as well (they need to be carefully designed in order to stay consistent with that voice of the company), but they don’t craft the brand’s personality in a vacuum. Instead, over time, a logo becomes like a container for people’s perceptions, not the sole point of origin of those perceptions in and of itself. Michael Bierut (Pentagram), in an interview with The Creative Influence, talked about this, saying: “What people don't understand – what a lot of designers don't understand, to a certain degree... designers only make a vessel to hold things that have to be filled in over time.”
The Apple "byte" logo is a clever idea and a solid design. But we have grown to assign a value to the mark because of our affinity for the products and culture of the company. It's a good logo – but it's become great because of our perception of the brand as a whole.
Because of the value of the message behind the design, the design is enhanced as the promise of the content is shown to be true. No logo can be "iconic" on the day that the company opens its doors. It becomes "iconic" as the company proves itself to its customers; the logo becomes the face of that proof.
Michael Rock, of 2x4, said something a few years ago that I think relates to this idea: “… [W]ithout deep content, design is reduced to pure style, a bag of dubious tricks.”
Good design cannot fix bad content. Or shallow content. Or misrepresented content. Even if the design of a logo is excellent, if the company proves to be of poor quality or terrible service, over time, we will come to observe the brand's mark as being representative of something negative.
Your identity can only be as good as the story your brand is telling.
Branding, then, takes radical honesty when looking inward, listening to those outside, and responding strategically.
One strong image of this in action was given in Fast Company’s article “Why Your Personal Brand is Always Secondary,” saying: “We know that we shouldn’t put the cart before the horse… The real signal is the work itself, and the social signaling (i.e. the branding/messaging) is the echo.” Here, the author is writing primarily about the idea of your personal brand, but it’s a beautiful image that applies really to all types of branding: the brand’s identity should be the echo of the person’s or company’s work.
(A second image that I think illustrates this well also is from Harvard Business Review’s “Your Brand Is the Exhaust Fume of The Engine of Your Life.”)
We have to move away from the idea of “Let’s sit down and design a cool brand image” and instead ask the deeper questions: How do we define who we are? Who needs to know? How can we tell them? Why should they care? (These are the four questions Alina Wheeler identifies in her book “Designing Brand Identities” and I think they are the cornerstone to the branding process).
The horse before the cart, the engine before the fumes — great branding comes out of great companies who have taken the time to refine who they are first, who needs to know, and then investing in how to reach them with that message in a way that makes it matter. It takes being radically honest with yourself about how you define your brand, and also honest by listening to how others define it. Branding is all about interpretation – not just your perception of your message, but others’ perception of it too.
Visual identity design fits in by being in line with these perceptions. The design should be strong, unique, and own-able so that the personality of the brand is specific to the visual identity to fuel recognition. It should also be simple enough to be a good vessel of that message that others can fill in over time. And the design should have a level of empathy – a way to convey the emotional traits of the brand’s personality – to connect in a way that matters and sticks with the audience on a more personal level.
But while this is an important piece, remember that it’s not the only piece. Just taking care of your logo and website doesn’t mean you have taken care of building your brand.
Your story is bigger than a logo. Brand experiences exist in every interaction between you and your audience. Each is a new design opportunity to reinforce and support the perception of your story. Define that story – make it memorable; make it unique; make it emotional and empathetic; make it connect – and deliver it as a clear, consistent voice that others will share and pass on after you’re finished talking.
“Your logo is the container other people fill over time.”