Successful brands distinguish themselves in the face of direct competition. Think of Dunkin vs. Krispy Kreme, McDonald’s vs. Burger King, or Apple vs. Microsoft. There’s almost no way to mistake one for the other, even though they sell essentially the same things. That’s because each has a distinct identity, which connects with consumers and leaves a lasting impression. Here’s a closer look at what goes into a strong brand identity.
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What is brand identity?
Brand identity is the specific design and messaging a company uses, including logo, color scheme, typography, voice, and tone. If you sell physical products, brand identity can also include tangible elements, such as the appearance and materials used in your packaging.
Think of your own identity as an individual—it’s what makes you you. Similarly, brand identity is the set of traits that characterizes a particular company, and makes it distinct from any other company.
Brand identity is determined through the branding process, which is ongoing work you do to define and continuously refine your brand identity. This involves making careful choices about all of the ingredients that go into your brand identity, like color, type, and voice.
Is your brand identity the same thing as your brand? Not exactly. Your brand is how the world perceives your company, product, or service. This will be influenced by your identity and how you present your company, but ultimately, customer perception defines your brand.
6 elements of brand identity
- Color scheme
- Voice and tone
A brand’s identity comprises many components. Visual elements are often top of mind when thinking about brand identity, but aspects like voice and values are equally important.
A well-crafted logo can live for decades and transcend language and cultural barriers—you don’t need to see the word Nike to know who made a shoe with a swoosh on it. It’s essentially the shorthand for your brand, which is why a lot of work goes into logo design.
Logos are often pictorial marks or word marks (logotype), and there are pros and cons to both. You also might want to develop a combination logo that involves both a symbol and a typographical rendering of the company name.
2. Color scheme
Colors are a key component of your brand, and can visually distinguish you from competitors instantly. They also can influence customers’ perception and decision-making thanks to color psychology. For instance, people might associate red or pink with love and yellow or orange with joy.
Consider what you want to convey with a color palette for your brand. Aim for harmony rather than competition among the colors you choose.
Your brand's typography is your choice of typeface and font, and the guidelines that govern how you use them. Most brands pick two typefaces—if you have more than two, your design could end up cluttered or confusing. Some typefaces are free to use, while others require a license. You can also have a designer create a custom font for you.
4. Voice and tone
Voice and tone are how you convey your brand personality and attitude in writing. If your visuals are what make your brand look like you, your voice and tone are what make your brand sound like you. Consider Tushy, which unapologetically speaks about your derriere. It’s a topic most companies—and people—shy away from. But Tushy leans into it with joy and humor.
If you make physical products—and especially if you ship those products to customers—your product packaging is also part of your brand identity. Packaging should align visually with your identity, bearing your brand’s logo and using your brand colors and typefaces where possible. Any written content on or in your packaging should reflect your brand voice. Even the packing material can serve as a branding opportunity.
Consider a company like Zero Waste Cartel, which sells sustainable cleaning, bath, beauty, and kitchen products. The company forgoes plastic in its packaging for biodegradable or reusable materials and requires customers to purchase certain products (like toothbrushes) in bulk. The choices reflect the company’s commitment to sustainability and align with its target customers’ values.
Brand imagery encompasses photography, iconography, and illustration. Think of how the background images and product images on your website can affect your brand. Silk & Willow, an online ribbon, linen, and paper boutique, does this with its many plant-focused imagery. The images beautifully present the company’s products and reflect its “inspired by nature” tagline.
How to develop a strong brand identity in 6 steps
- Define what you stand for
- Choose a name
- Embark on the branding process
- Do a gut check with your audience
- Create your brand assets
- Put your brand guidelines in writing
1. Define what you stand for
When starting from scratch, first focus on the company’s mission, vision, values, and target market. You can use these as a sounding board when developing your brand identity.
2. Choose a name
If you don’t have a business name yet, the Shopify business name generator can help you brainstorm ideas. Read our guide to how to come up with a brand name if choosing a name is too overwhelming for you.
3. Embark on the branding process
Developing a brand strategy takes time and deep thought. You’ll make conscious decisions about every element of your brand identity.
4. Do a gut check with your audience
To be successful, your brand needs to connect with your target audience. Show your developing brand work to trusted collaborators or even a focus group made up of people from your target market to make sure your brand is resonant with them.
5. Create your brand assets
As you develop your brand identity and create brand assets, Shopify’s free logo, slogan, and business card makers can help. There are also other free tools, such as Coolors to explore color schemes and Fontpair for finding fonts that work well together.
6. Put your brand guidelines in writingOnce you develop the elements of your brand identity, you can create your brand guidelines for how you present your company to the public, as well as a style guide. These often come together in a single document or set of standards that your employees can reference when making decisions.
Brand identity FAQ
How can a brand identity help differentiate your business from competitors?
Your brand’s identity determines the unique look and feel of the brand. Think of Apple’s brand image. Now think of any other smartphone or computer brand. Your impression of Apple is likely very different from its competitors, even though they make similar products.
Can a brand identity be updated or changed over time?
Brand identity isn’t meant to be static—it’s meant to evolve over time. Many organizations rebrand as they grow and their target market shifts or expands. However, starting with a brand identity that can scale with your business can help you avoid the need to rebrand often.
How can a brand identity impact customer loyalty and trust?
A brand identity can help create a consistent and memorable experience for customers. If you also have a great product and customer service, buyers might start to trust your brand, make repeat purchases, recommend your company, and post favorable online reviews.
What are some common mistakes to avoid when developing a brand identity?
Don’t rush into the process. Avoid inconsistent imagery and messaging. Think through what you want your brand to represent, and then create a brand identity that reflects that. Use and enforce brand guidelines to avoid confusing consumers or muddying your brand voice.