Branding. It’s a hot subject. Everyone wants a trendy website and an ultra-modern, flat-design logo. (Let’s all agree to blame Apple for that.) But branding isn’t just your logo. It’s not even about your colors or your website.

OK, let’s clarify. Your colors and your logo are part of your branding, but they aren’t your brand. They’re just a few cogs in the branding wheel. Important cogs, yes, but they’re not the whole wheel.

Branding is all about making yourself recognizable to your people, whether those people are consumers, other businesses, or volunteers looking for a cause. And people develop opinions about you and your brand. Good opinions. Bad opinions. Lovely opinions.

This is probably old news. You know that your people will develop assumptions about you, so in response, you give yourself a brand identity to guide those assumptions. When you brand yourself, you’re saying, “This is how I want my people to perceive me. This is how I want them to feel when they see me. This is how I want them to remember me.”

The three pillars of branding

Yes, branding involves a lot of abstracts. But the good news? We can break the abstract concept of branding into three supporting pillars.

  • Brand equity
  • Visual identity
  • Verbal identity

Often, it’s easy to get caught up in the details of each one (reasons to believe, logo, tagline) and forget that they’re actually three parts of the same whole. Let’s step back and take a look at how they all fit together to create a brand.

1. Brand equity

Brand equity as how the customer views the business, rather than the (often assumed) monetary value of the brand. This means that brand equity is not a choice — because you can’t force people to view your business in a particular way — but rather a process of discovery. It involves research (a lot of research) into your people, your competition, and yourself. A few key research elements include: 

  • Brand differentiators: finding what makes you different than other brands
  • Key benefits: discovering how you make people’s lives better
  • Brand positioning: being different amid a sea of competition
  • Target consumer: finding who your people are and how you work for them

When you’re done with research, it’s time to refine the data and answer the following questions:

  • Who is your primary and secondary audiences. What are their tensions and motivations?
  • What’s the one core benefit that your brand brings your audience?
  • What reasons does your audience have to believe in your brand?

Once you’ve answered all these questions, you can create a reference document with your core benefit, reasons to believe, and target audience. This document will guide all communication with your people (employees, customers, clients) and begin shaping the next two pillars of your brand, visual identity and verbal identity.

2. Visual identity

This is what your brand looks like. It’s the part of the brand that everyone sees, and because it’s such an obvious part of branding, many people mistake it as the whole. But this is critical: your visual identity can’t make an impact unless it grows out of your brand equity. Through your equity research, you’ll discover what your target audience likes and wants — and how you can best respond.

This means your brand’s visual identity isn’t so much what you want, but what’s appealing to your target audience and different from the competition. There’s a balance here, of course. You don’t want to merely copy-paste your target audience into a brand — you want your brand to have a personality that emotionally resonates with the audience. Your visual identity is key to bridging your brand’s unique personality with the needs of your audience.

So, what’s all involved in a brand’s visual identity?

  • Logo: the face of your brand that inspires instant recognition
  • Colors: your brand’s primary and support pallets in Pantone, RGB, CMYK, and Hex
  • Typography: the typefaces of your brand, for both design and web use
  • Icons, illustrations, and patterns: these are detail elements that bring personality and flare to your brand
  • Photography: develop a library of stock images customized for your brand
  • Brand expressions: examples of your brand out in the “real” world, such as t-shirts, billboards, posters, and packaging

Your brand shouldn’t end here, though. Developing a visual identity without a verbal identity is like launching a website without words. It might look good, but it won’t say anything.

3. Verbal identity

This is what your brand sounds like. Many people miss this part of branding entirely or stop after writing the tagline. But if this happens, they leave their visual identity unbalanced and their target audience confused. Your visuals can’t do all the work for you.

Your verbal identity is the voice and tone of your brand, and this tone of voice depends largely on your audience. For example, if your target audience is busy, coffee-drinking college students, then you don’t want to sound like a corporate monolith. Or, if you’re talking to professionals, you don’t want to sound like a kindergarten teacher.

Think of it this way. If your brand was a person, what do you want them to sound like? What lingo does your brand use to communicate? Is your brand funny? Serious? Helpful? You’ll want your brand-persona to be a close enough match to your audience that they’ll connect naturally.

A few important parts of a verbal identity you shouldn’t miss:

  • Voice and tone: this involves how formally or casually the brand sounds, including how details like humor and emojis are used
  • Topics we love or avoid: taboo and favorite topics should be recorded here
  • Manual of style: this involves getting detailed with grammar and punctuation
  • Brand story: this is a close look at what you do and why you do it, written with the right voice and tone

Pro-tip: always create your verbal and visual identity at the same time — they’re different sides of the equity coin. Your voice needs to reflect your looks and your looks need to reflect your voice. To do this, get rid of the silo mentality. Build in time for designers and writers to collaborate, evaluate each other’s work, and build an even better solution.

Bringing it all together

Brand equity is not a lone wolf. It’s the research and strategy that guides your visual and verbal identity. Because while equity is how your audience perceives your brand, visual and verbal identity exist to shape and guide that perception down the right path. (Check out how Ope’s Cookies uses their visual and verbal identities to build a fun and down-to-earth brand experience.)

Once you’ve done the equity research and developed the visual and verbal identity, bring your writers and designers together to make a living, breathing (internal-facing) brand guide. This brand guide records and communicates all information, rules, and guidelines for the brand’s three pillars.

And the most important part? Get this brand guide into the hands and hearts of every single member of the company. This doesn’t just mean the copywriters and designers — it also means the CEO, customer service, project managers, and so on. The point? Your brand guide shapes the perception of all your people — externally and internally.

When you pull these three elements consistently through your internally and external content and messaging, you’ll see your brand come alive.

Not sure where to get started on your brand equity?

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