Branding is everything. Yes, we absolutely are biased, but the stats don’t lie: When publicly traded companies apply design principles to their business and branding, they perform 200% better than the competition, according to a report from The Design Council.
Even if you’ve been in business for years, branding often remains a little fuzzy. What makes branding good or bad, forgettable or memorable? How do you know when to refresh your branding? Where do you even start?
That’s why we created this primer on branding. As a design agency, we’ve picked up a thing or two about branding and we’re happy to share our knowledge with you. In this article, you’ll learn about the primary elements of branding, why they matter, and how you can determine if it’s time for you to refresh your own branding.
What is branding?
People often use the terms “brand” and “branding” interchangeably, but there is a difference. Your brand is the public’s collective perception of your organization. It’s the value that people associate with your product. Your brand symbolizes an emotional connection between your company and your customers.
Meanwhile, your branding is the design system that’s made up of all the visual aspects of your brand, like logos and typography. Think of it as your visual toolkit. Your branding enables you to tell a story, control your brand, and forge those important emotional bonds.
Why do we care about branding?
You may already have ideas about why branding matters, but it can be hard to put them into words. Defining the benefits can help—it gives you a way to measure the effectiveness of your own branding. If your branding is missing the mark, it might be time for a refresh or total rebrand. Here are some key things that good branding can deliver for you.
Creates connection through story
Your branding gives your business identity and personality. It’s one way you share your company values and the story of your business. Plus, it allows you to create emotional connections with your customers, helping them bond with your brand.
Supports marketing efforts
Your branding provides tools and guidance for all of your marketing efforts so that you have one cohesive presence. It defines how you communicate and present information, including colors, fonts, messaging, and other elements you’ll use throughout all of your marketing.
Leads to sales
Branding is a major deciding factor for shoppers. Visual components of your packaging are a go-to comparison tool that helps people decide (often subconsciously) which product meets their needs and aligns with their values. That goes for people who know your brand and those who don’t. For example, if you’re shopping around the craft beer aisle looking for something new to try, you’ll rely almost entirely on branding to make a choice.
Plus, the more customers interact with your branding, the more brand recognition, trust, and loyalty you build—all of which lead to sales. Think of your favorite shampoo—you recognize its packaging without much thought and throw it in your cart because you already know and trust the brand.
Where do we see branding?
- Social media
- Email marketing
- Customer service channels (live chat, email communications)
- Sales tools
- Physical spaces
- External facing staff (uniforms, vehicles)
What elements make up a brand?
So, you’re telling a compelling story with your brand that makes people want to buy from you again and again. But… how are you telling this story? It all comes together through your collection of brand elements—your toolkit.
That single, signature graphic that represents your business as a whole. Think: Channel’s interlocking C’s, Audi’s rings, and so on. Feel free to take a logo deep dive with our guide here.
Your brand colors are one way you convey emotion to your customers and build connection and recognition. For example, red is attention-grabbing, energetic, and youthful. It’s not by chance that Target has gone all-in on red. More on color here.
Typography involves finding typefaces and ways to use them that align with your brand personality and feel ‘right’ to your audience. You can see examples of typography in logos, like Coca-Cola’s custom script that makes the brand seem like an old-school classic.
However, typography is an even bigger deal outside of your logo. For example, Rolling Stone magazine once used different typefaces in each article, making each feel like it had its own separate branding. The result? A magazine that lacked cohesion from section to section.
When design director Joe Hutchinson took over, he developed intentional rules for the magazine’s typography to create an overall classic, “newsy” look without appearing too stiff or dull. Now, the brand has a few set typefaces it uses for the text, sidebars, and display—ultimately making for a cohesive appearance that readers recognize and love. See more on typography in our guide here.
Brand illustrations are a narrative way that you can express your message and value while connecting with customers. They allow you to showcase subtle emotions or complex situations in a way that icons or words do not. In fact, the human brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster than written word.
Think: Red Bull’s early 2000s animated commercials, featuring simply illustrated characters with big noses sprouting wings.
A subset of illustration style is icon style. Icons are simple, clear, functional graphics that relay specific information. Consider them visual communicators. Done well, they strengthen brand recognition, snag attention, speed up comprehension, and relay a message. Think of any popular social media site—each has its own family of icons in the navigation menu that make for easy exploration.
The style of your photos should be consistent from photo to photo, across all channels. That includes elements like the subject matter, focal length, zoom, shadows, lighting, composition, and saturation. Brands often produce specific photography guidelines to ensure cohesion.
For example, Ben & Jerry’s photography style guide says this: “Single-ingredient silhouettes are used to engage with typography or to enhance the quality of ingredients. We use product close-ups and texture to highlight the premium nature of our product, taste appeal and authenticity.”
Your brand voice is how you speak in all of your brand communications. It helps you create a persona, whether that’s a professional expert or a sassy friend. Think about how Trader Joe’s comes across as quirky and helpful throughout all of its written messaging. Here’s a quote from one of its recent blog posts, “...let your neighborhood Trader Joe’s help you spread the love to everyone you wish to woo—with a spread of frosting, a swipe of cream cheese, or an Unexpected swoosh on a cheese board…”
When should you update your branding?
Are you changing your name?This is one of the more obvious scenarios. A name change will require, at a minimum, some kind of update to your branding. This might be as simple as changing out the name or as complex as a complete do-over. Sometimes, though, the new name provides an opportunity for that do-over that would otherwise feel daunting.
Is your branding inconsistent and confusing?Does the branding on your packaging match your website and social media? Varying designs can be confusing to customers, and it can even make them question the legitimacy of the brand. Remember, brand consistency equals loyalty and revenue. Maybe you’ve experimented with different branding ideas on different platforms. Each channel might look fine on its own, but when a customer is researching your brand and making a buying decision, a patchwork online presence can scare them off. If this sounds familiar, it’s time to review your branding and make some changes, depending on your unique situation.
Does your branding look unintentionally old-fashioned?Branding that has remained the same for years can start to look outdated. Design styles change over time, as do customer preferences, service mixes, leaders, and companies, making branding that was once great now completely unusable. If you don’t evaluate and update your brand once in a while, it can become visibly stale. Maybe you’re someone who hesitates to hand out your business card or direct people to your website. Sound familiar? It’s time to take action.
Are you changing audiences or expanding your product offering?If you’re serving a different audience, your branding needs to adapt to speak to a new set of people. Likewise, expanding your product offering may also require change. You’ll want to keep your brand updated as you evolve so that it reflects who you are and what you do. Let’s say you’re launching a more expensive product. You may need to elevate your branding with new visual components to increase the perceived value of your brand. Rebranding can help attract high-ticket customers who can afford your new offering.
Does your branding look like every other brand?Is your brand starting to look like every other company? This can happen occasionally, especially within a category, since each company is using color and typography to create the same kinds of emotional connections. Think of all the financial institutions that use the color blue and conservative type to inspire trust and security: Citi, Chase, Mass Mutual, Bank of America, Barclays… the list goes on. We’re not here to say they’re all doing it wrong, but wherever possible, your branding should help you stand out in smart and strategic ways. Reexamining your branding is an opportunity to take a step back, consider your goals and values, and then differentiate from the competition and the rest of your industry.
Are you undergoing a merger or acquisition?During any acquisition or merger, it’s important to consider how the brands fit together (or don’t) in the brand architecture. That could mean combining the two brands, making something completely new, dropping one brand, or deciding to maintain both brands as they already are. It all depends on your unique situation, which will require some intentional branding review. More insight on this topic here.
Who should handle branding?
Once you’ve decided it’s time to rebrand, you'll need to find the right help. You might be debating between giving the project to your in-house team or finding outside help. And even if you decide you in-house isn't the right route for you, working with an outside partner comes with some (maybe too many) options.
Your in-house marketing and/or design team handles all of the promotional activity that drives new leads and returning customers to your business. They’re likely already responsible for defining and managing your branding. They have a deep understanding of your core values, brand story, and brand voice.
The benefits of working with your in-house team are clear: they already know your brand and your customer. Plus, they’re on your payroll so there’s little added expense. However, this can also be a drawback: your marketing team may be too close to your brand to remain objective and provide a fresh perspective.
Your marketing team is also probably pretty swamped. They’re already tasked with creating content, researching and implementing SEO, drafting newsletters, and more. Putting a branding redesign on their plates may introduce competing priorities and disrupt your other marketing efforts.
Freelancer designers work on their own, often as generalists across several areas of design. They might be moonlighting, or they might run their business full-time. These folks usually seek out one-off projects or short-term contracts rather than ongoing work.
The most notable result of going with a freelancer is a (usually) lower price point. They’re not offering the expertise or capacity of a team of design experts, and they’re not covering all that overhead either, so you get a lower price tag.
Freelancers are often best suited for smaller projects since they don't usually seek out ongoing work. Since freelancers work on their own, they can become temporarily or permanently unavailable due to capacity limits, a day job, or getting hired by an agency full-time.
Creative design agencies range from small to large. Working with a bigger agency, you’ll likely have teams of people with hyper-specialized skills working on each aspect of your branding project. Meanwhile, smaller agencies mean smaller teams and a more personalized, hands-on approach to your project.
Regardless of agency size, you’ll get a larger pool of skilled designers working on your branding than you would with a freelancer. Agencies can also take on more complex projects and offer strategic planning beyond design that you might not get with freelancers. You’ll also get a valuable outside perspective from multiple experts in the field, rather than being limited by the (often unconscious) bias of your existing employees.
What’s more, design agencies have the capacity to build long-lasting working relationships. While your in-house marketing team might be at capacity and freelancers could have a waitlist, design agencies can take on projects at all times. Of course, design agencies can come at a higher cost than freelancers or existing employees—but you get long-term, ongoing value in return.
How do you choose a branding agency?
Branding plays a critical role in your success, so choosing the right agency can feel like a daunting task. Here are a few things to consider to make the best choice.
Do they get you?
As you decide between agencies, you’ll inevitably find yourself reviewing portfolio after portfolio. It is important to see that a branding agency is experienced and can deliver on its promises, but there’s something deeper you need to check for: compatibility.
Not only does the agency need to understand your mission and translate it into a visual design, but they also have to work well with you. Take a moment to review an agency’s communication style before committing. In initial talks, do they get you and your company?
And if you find yourself in a situation with very specific challenges (if you’re taking the helm from an earlier generation of leadership, for example), find out if they understand those challenges and have helped others work through them.
What’s their design process?
A design firm worth its salt will have a proven process to design compelling work that authentically conveys your brand identity. You don’t need to know all the nuts and bolts, but it’s important for you to understand the methodology. This gives you an idea of the thought process behind the finished product, as well as the experts who play a role.
How much do they involve you?
Your design firm should be in regular contact throughout the process. While you are handing off the project to someone else, your knowledge and expertise are crucial for your branding to be successful. Your design firm should be asking for your input.
At Chalkbox, for example, we include you in every step—from our earliest sketches to the finished work. We include you in the concept exploration phase to ensure that we incorporate all the essential components of your business.
What do other people have to say?
Referrals are the best starting point. If someone you trust refers an agency to you, it’s almost always worth a solid look.
Reviews can also be helpful guides, especially since anyone with a computer can bootstrap their own design business. Check out the agency’s website for success stories, but make sure to look at third-party sites for unbiased reviews. We’re pretty proud of ours—check out our Google reviews here.
How much value do you expect?
Done right, branding is an investment that will bring you value for years to come. Still, price is, understandably, a big factor in your search. Very small and/or new organizations may need to seek out low-price options. And very large organizations will filter for higher-price options to match the stakes.
So what about you? What are the stakes? Lower price comes with trade-offs. Bigger agencies come with different levels of service. Most of our readers are somewhere in the middle. When you work with a smaller agency, you’ll know exactly who you’re working with and what experience they bring to the table from the get-go.
What makes the Chalkbox Creative branding process so unique?
We’ll be transparent: you’ll get a similar process no matter what agency or freelancer you go with. They’ll ask you questions, create a concept, refine it, and provide the completed project.
Here’s the thing—your experience can be wildly different despite the similarities. Your experience and the final product will depend on how the agency handles the whole process. So, what makes the Chalkbox design process so successful?
Over our 18 years in business, we’ve proven time and time again that our methodology works. We develop a creative brief based on your unique needs after our discovery conversations. That brief guides our work as we create hundreds of thumbnail sketches, a process we call “thinking with our hands.” This lets us explore a wide range of ideas quickly.
Then, we share all of those concept sketches with you. Yep, even the bad ones (more on why we do things this way here.) This sidesteps the designer mysticism and lets us work peer-to-peer. It lets us share a laugh at some of our more ridiculous ideas. And it also creates an open dialogue that leads us to meaningful and effective design work.
Process aside, when you hire Chalkbox, you get a team that’s invested. We’re designing for your future. We want to support you as your business changes and grows. That’s why we dig deep into research, design, content, and collaboration.
What do you really get when you sign on for a brand design package from Chalkbox? Well, that depends on your business. But you tell us what you need, and we make sure we provide you with all the tools. That means some brand design packages are different from others.
Generally speaking, you can expect a thorough collection of logo art files in a variety of color models, arrangements, and formats. You’ll also receive a brand style guide covering all of your new branding and how to use it. Additionally, you get all the supporting graphics, typography, color, and brand elements you need for your rebrand or refresh.
You also get the expertise of our small but mighty team. We have decades of combined experience in illustration, design, printing, typography, color, strategy, communication, and planning.
Ready to design for your future?
Whether your branding feels stale or you want to reach a new audience, if you’re still reading, you must be ready to rework your branding. Reach out and let's chat.