This article covers everything you need to know to design a world class brand - the kind of brand that immediately communicates a unique message to your customers, resulting in a deep emotional connection to your products and the ability to shape the message your company most wants to communicate.

It covers:

  1. Researching your customers, competition and market
  2. Adding your own values to the brand
  3. Creating a unique brand identity
  4. Expressing your brand using a unique design
  5. Choosing your brand's copywriting style and voice
  6. Maintaining brand consistency

Ready?


Prelude: What's in a brand?

A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another

Seth Godin

Creating a powerful brand that differentiates your product or company in the market is one of the few ways a company can create a serious and maintainable competitive advantage. Done correctly, the brand you create will grow to become a significant portion of the overall value of your company, particularly when the product or service you offer can be copied easily by others.

Truly great brands can be identified by their color, by their shape, by their followers and by they message alone. Try out the following exercises.

Can you identify the unique colour used by each brand below?

Brand colours are recognisable on their own

What about shapes?

Great brands are easily identified by just their shapes:
Logo silhouettes

And lastly - values

Match the following 6 brands with the single word you feel most closely represents them:
Brand values for major companies

All these companies charge a premium for their products because they have created a strong brand connection that customers can understand and gravitate towards.

We're about to do the same for your company.

Are you ready to decide what words, shapes and values you want people to associate with your brand? It starts with doing the right research.


Step 1: Research

Designing a brand without performing any market research is like climbing Mount Everest without an oxygen tank - you might make it most of the way up, but you'll never be able to say that you've reached the top if the world. All research starts with a goal.

blocked on mount Everest

Your goal is to understand what customers and competitors are in your market so you can create a brand that stands apart from the competition while engaging with your customers at an emotional level.

Research your customers

You should be starting with at least some idea about who you expect to buy your product. Will you be targeting millennials with an interest in punk rock revival bands? How about avid middle age sports fans, or online game fanatics? Narrow down your audience and divide them into different groups as much as possible.

You may be forced to make some assumptions about your audience if you don't yet have a product in the market. This is fine - your best guess is all you have at the moment - but avoiding all forms of customer research could easily see your brand being developed for the wrong audience (or even worse, developing the "wrong" product).

  • Get a number of potential customers to talk to about your product (read how to get participants for your user research for more information on how to get users to talk to)
  • Learn about their disposable income, interests, age, gender, values, purchasing habits, problems and how they currently solve them - everything you need to learn to convince that user to buy your product
  • Use a number of different approaches to your customer research - combining quantitative and qualitative data to understand who your customers are and what types of brands they will react to
  • Create personas that can be reused in the rest of the design process and future market research
Research the competition

  • Find out who is competing for the same customers that your are. Use Google or walk down the street - it doesn't matter how - but go to wherever your competitors are and see what they are offering.
  • Looks for the details of their products and how they present them:
    • the colors they use in their logos and promotional materials
    • their typography (the fonts they use - blocky and bold, classic and restrained, childish and handwritten...)
    • their use of imagery (pictures, cartoons, videos, animations?)
    • their marketing approach (do they constantly offer discounts or do they present themselves as a premium brand? Do they have a bad boy attitude, or are they pleasant and inviting?)
    • check out online reviews and feedback about your competitors to see if you can craft a message that targets your competitor's weaknesses.
    • gather any other information you can find about them and how it might affects your future customer's decisions about who to buy from
  • Identify where they are strong and where you feel their offerings have weaknesses that you might be able to exploit (you can verify whether you are right about this later when validating your product idea).
  • Consider not only your direct competitors, but those who sell unrelated products which target the same disposable income your customers can spend (e.g. McDonalds and Weight Watchers often compete for the same users)
  • Identify trends and styles that all your competitors have in common (e.g. similar company names or marketing and advertising strategies). These can indicate there is a good niche which is working already, or offer a way to differentiate yourself in a crowded marketplace

To conclude, perform a SWOT analysis of yourselves v.s. your competition, detailing their strengths and weaknesses. It will help to summarise the various ways you could create a unique brand that will separate your from your competitors.

Put the first two pieces together

You now have some idea of who wants your product and how you can tell a unique story that is different to your competitor's. That story should resonates with your customers while separating yourself from your competition, thus creating a loyal customer connection that is far harder to break than any feature in a product or item on a menu - the main goal of creating your brand.

We now turn our attention to your story and how well you tell it - the part of your brand which can only be created by understanding your own personal values.


Step 2: Identifying your own values

The greatest brands come from the personalities of those that create them - aspects that are selected, filtered, tailored and amplified to suit the market they compete in.

Without such a personal connection, a brand is simply the lip service your give to the marketing team. When you try to get people excited, you will lack the power and conviction necessary to show your passion for what you are doing - which quickly becomes obvious to everyone around you. The better option is to have your entire company DNA built around the values you share.

Word cloud of values

Later on, your brand will become self-fulfilling. The people inspired by your brand will choose to follow you and even want to work with you - completing the circle. But to start with - the first brand champion - the first person who truly believes in what you are saying - has to be you.

What excites you to do what you do?
  • Is your primary motivation to make the world a better place?
  • Do you long for the freedom and flexibility just to be creative?
  • Do you simply want to make a shitload of money?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
What do you value?
  • What would you do if you had everything you needed in the world?
  • What would be your ideal job?
  • What do you sacrifice first - work, sleep, friends, family or fitness?
What lines would you not cross?
  • Do you skirt on the edge of the law, or do you dutifully respect it?
  • Would you be prepared to sell a product you know is harmful?
  • Would you jump out a plane without a parachute, trusting someone would be able to catch you in time?


Guess what beverage is drunk at the start of this video?
What do you do better than anyone else?

You personally are unlikely to have a skill that nobody else in the world currently has and couldn't learn. Your company however has a unique DNA that can help it stand out in your market:

  • Does your company have an abnormally large design team (Apple), long, technical hiring processes (Google) or have a culture of training, learning, or risk taking?
  • If you look at your CEO's calendar - what types of meetings are the most common? This is always a strong indicator of where the focus of the company and it's culture lies.
  • Did the founders all write code back in the day (Geek cred), or did they hustle for sales? Old habits die hard!
  • What unique differences can your team bring to the market that will set you out as different?

Now that you understand the role you need to play in championing your own brand, you likely have a set of attributes you want to embedded in it. It's time to bring together your market, your customers and your personal convictions about how you want to be seen in the world!


Part 3: Creating a unique brand identity

Once you have all these ideas in one place, you are ready to start brainstorming the brand that you want to build. Your most powerful brand is the intersection of who you are, what your customers care about, and what can differentiate you from your competition. The closer you get to all three, the easier it is to set yourself apart and dominate your space.

Venn diagram of Your company's values and customer emotional needs

Summarise how your brand is going to feel
  • Who is going to buy your product?
  • What word(s) do you most want to have associated with your brand?
  • What emotion(s) do you want people to experience when using your brand?
  • What is your founding story? How does it tie in with your brand?
  • What will your customers say when they talk about your product?
  • Why would a customer recommend you?

When you answer these, you finally understand the brand you wish to communicate - the hardest part of the job is done.

Write a positioning statement

For (Your customer)

Who (statement of need or opportunity)

Your (product name) is a (product category)

That (statement of key benefit)

Unlike (competing alternative)

Which (is different for this reason)

Choose a name

Now, finally, you are ready to choose a name.

It's a critical point - one that is very difficult to roll back from later. That's why we've been putting so much thought and effort into thinking about how your brand will be positioned first.

Chances are you have been thinking of lots of potential names, with variations and preferred candidates already. Maybe you started with the perfect name, and the rest of the brand vision has grown out of it. If so, it's now time to step back and ensure your brand name still matches your objectives. Any hint of cognitive dissonance will create an uneasy feeling in your users, potentially damaging future success in a way that is very hard to identify or understand.

Key traits of a good brand name:
  • It’s memorable
  • It’s unique in your space
  • It's available to register
  • It can be spelt easily by a layperson not familiar with the brand
  • It's a made up name, or subtly alludes to what the product does
  • It's not a description of a feature or benefit
  • The words and even internal parts of the words in the brand name all feel "right"
  • The name doesn't translate poorly to other languages

Good examples include “Hailo” for taxis, “Intercom” for talking with customers or “Teamwork” managing teams. Poor choices include "Word Perfect", "Jenny's Café" and "Battle Game".

Deciding a name:
  • Brainstorm 20-30 potential names
  • Filter out ones you can't own (see below) or are too similar to competitors
  • Test a range of them with future potential customers to see which ones resonate best with them
  • Avoid dashes or other punctuation (and especially in your domain!)
Check you can own the trademark for your name
  • Check there are no registered trademarks for the name owned by other companies which compete in the same space. Generic words can't be trademarked - try a trademark search to confirm.
Register your online presence
  • Get the .com address if available. This isn’t as important as it once might have been, but it is nonetheless still an important step in helping people find your product.
  • Consider registering domains with obvious typos too and redirecting them (e.g. try Gooogle.com or yahooo.com).
  • Register Social media profiles relevant to your brand name for Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, Pinterest, Snapchat etc - anywhere you expect to be able to communicate with a significant number of potential future customers.
  • Consider services like Rebrandly to maintain your brand identity when sharing links to other content on the web.
Make sure people can find you

Until your domain ranks in Google for searches for your brand, set up simple Adwords campaigns for searches relating to you. This should only cost you a few dollars a month, and will make sure anyone who is looking for you will find you.

Create a design brief

Before handing over to visual designers to help create the visual layer of the brand, consider summarising all the above research and decisions into a single document to help the design team translate the name, values and market into a single place. This document (a design brief) will help ensure the look and feel of the product is in line with all the decisions made to date.


Part 4: Create your visual identity


So far, you've been pretty busy.

You've decided on a brand name and you know who you want to sell your product to. You've reflected on which of your own values you most want to communicate through your brand, and you know who your competitors are. You have a unique angle that sets you apart, putting you in the driving seat.

Now, finally, it's time to create some graphics, making your brand immediately recognisable whenever it is seen.

Summarising all your decisions into a design brief is next step so designers can start to build the visual identity that matches your visio.

Your design brief, combined with a deep understanding of psychology and behavioural economics in the hands of a skilled brand designer will paint this picture for you.

Your logo is a symbol of the deeper emotional tie between your products and your users. It is the summary of all the aspects of your brand in visual form, and there is a process for getting there.
Fluid UI logo variations 1

  1. Explore lots of possible ideas - Pen and paper are your best friends here. Start with lots of ideas and variations. Find inspiration from any number of logo design sites
  2. Get second opinions from sites like Fiverr where you can get lots of different logo concepts from lots of different creatives for relatively cheap (the better your design brief, the better the results).
  3. Filter down to a small number of leading candidates
  4. Get feedback and test them with users. Ask them how the logo speaks to them. Take off your rose tinted glasses - ask them what type of product they feel it might represent.
  5. Draw them as high fidelity vector images
A good logo has 5 traits:
  • Simple It's not too complex a design. People should be able to learn and understand when the brand is being represented by the outline alone.
  • Memorable It gives people an "ooh - I get it" moment or otherwise sticks in people's minds
  • Timeless It's not overly based on short term trends in design or language
  • Versatile It needs to work in all the environments it will be displayed - from 16px x 16px icons all the way up to high resolution on banner stands and on conference screens
  • Appropriate The name is suitable for the audience and product it represents
Choose your brand's colours

Color, and in particular, the psychological effects of the colors you choose will impact the brand you want to create. Are you mysterious, exciting, formal, calm or fun? Your choices here will reinforce this aspect of your brand.

Brand colour

Pick the right fonts to augment your identity

The choice of font you use on your website, in your printed marketing, in your tagline and in all other places (the typography) serve to reinforce your brand values.

Different fonts exude different character and no matter what emotion you want your brand to convey, there is a font (or font combination) that will match it and subtly work to reinforce your guiding message.

Fonts

Recent advances in browsers and the huge range of freely licensed fonts available from Google fonts, make it easier (and cheaper) than ever to pick the right font and have used consistently across your entire brand - something you should insist on once your brand is in place.

A great set of rules for choosing fonts is available here.

Decide on iconography

Communicating your message is difficult at the best of times and even harder without some nice visuals to break up large walls of text and bring excitement to your copywriting.

Iconography

You can reuse an existing icon sets (like material design icons) or create your own custom icon set that meets the needs of your brand, giving you a design edge - as long as you are prepared to make the additional investment in terms of time and money.

Visual consistency is key, so whatever path you go down you need to stick with - mixing and matching different iconography and styles will quickly disconnect the different parts of the visual side of your brand and reduce its overall coherence.

Choose how you use other supporting visuals

  • Will you make frequent use of photography? Should you do a photo shoot to build up a library of your own stock photography, or are you happy using stock photo websites and generic imagery?
    • Do you use specific angles, background colours or lighting to tie in with your brand look and feel?
    • Do you feature people, animals, your product, landscapes or all of the above?
    • What emotions are people expressing when photographed experiencing your brand? Are they looking at the camera, at each other, or away into the distance?
  • Do hand drawn images make it into your brand?
    • What art style is it? Pencil? Artist's brush? Cartoon?
    • Are the images complex or simple?
    • Can you replicate the style over all of your brand?
  • Will you use video?
    • Will you feature people and/or animations (Red Bull)?
    • Will you use professional production quality with actors or handycam and "fly by pants" acting?
    • Will you feature yourself or other actors?
    • How will you handle voiceovers?

Step 5: Finding your voice

Along with your visual assets, the style of writing (tone of voice) you use to communicate your message will reflect and reinforce the brand you are building. Will your brand be:

  • Funny or serious? Does your brand approach life in a light hearted manner, sharing jokes on Twitter - or is it above all that?
  • Formal or casual? Do you communicate in near legal prose, using titles and salutations, or do you greet people with a "Howdy, y'all" in your messages?
  • Respectful or irreverent? Do you enjoy a witty dig at the world around you or do you treat it with a heavy dose of respect?
  • Enthusiastic or factual? Do you jump into the middle of conversations, sharing your excitement about the latest, greatest next thing, or do you carefully and methodically research answers to reinforce your authority?
Other important aspects when writing copy for your brand
  • Sell benefits, not features - focus on talking about what the customer will experience and how it wil make their lives better rather than talking about yourself and your product / features.
Understanding some of the technical aspects of writing
  • Use a style guide (such as the Chicago Manual of Style) as a guideline for formatting all your text and ensuring its consistency.
  • Consider the age and reading ability of the audience you are writing for. Use a readability analyzer to find out whether your writing is suitable for your customers.
  • If you are not a native speaker of the language you are writing in (or even if you are), consider using spellchecking tools like grammarly to make sure your copy is accurate.

Step 6: Maintaining brand consistency

Picture showing desktop and mobile prototype

No matter what decisions you make, the most important thing it to choose your style and stick with it - consistency within your story and consistency within your visuals are critical for creating a consistent brand message.

While you might feel you are communicating the same message over and over - this is what you need to do. Most of your customers haven't heard of you yet, and those who have will be seeing your brand on far fewer occasions than you think.

When they do, they need to see the same message everywhere they encounter it.

Create brand usage guidelines

A brand usage guideline document can be shared and reused many times across your team and even made available to the public (see Linked In's brand guidelines or Google's Visual Asset Guidelines as examples). There are almost 100 more at logodesignlove.

Create a design system

A design system is a series of UI "template" components and rules that can be reused across your digital product portfolio - meaning you can maintain a level of consistency in how design adheres to your brand as you scale (it also has the benefit of speeding up product development).

Educate from the beginning

Incorporate an understanding of your brand and values (via your documents above) into your onboarding process. If your brand is already strong, your corporate culture will inherently reflect your brand values and you wont have too much difficulty here.

Educate continuously

Reinforce the importance of your brand values to your team on a continuous basis and set up reviews to capture customer communications where the brand values haven't been adhered to. Always be improving how your team understands and uses the brand to communicate with your customers.

Appoint a brand champion (or enforcer)

Appoint a brand champion who is responsible for making sure that the brand guidelines are adhered to across the organisation. Make sure that they are empowered to change and educate your team when the brand is not being adhered to.

Final thoughts

Your brand is like a virtual sheep dog - when he takes the wrong direction, your flock runs the risk of scattering. But when he works his magic properly, your customers stick together and move as one in your direction.

Cute sheep dog

Over time, some decisions you’ve made will become tired and need refreshing, particularly as different visual and communication styles come in and out of fashion.

Other decisions you have made may not have not hit the emotional chord you set out to achieve at the start of your brand creation journey, leading to the need to iterate and evolve your original thinking.

Finally, you may find that your original customers have changed, or that a new and unplanned customer base is proving lucrative - and could be even more so with an updated look and feel.

It then becomes time to begin the process of evolving your brand to catch up with the new opportunities that present themselves to you.

Good luck and if this has been of value please share using the buttons below for others to benefit too!

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