Brand marketing can be confusing. Marketing leaders are often left to reconcile the diverse perspectives within their companies.
That’s where marketing leaders like John Russ (Coinbase), Martina Tam (Brightwheel), and Joanna Lord (Reforge) use the Brand Marketing Wheel to develop a complete understanding of a company’s brand marketing.
This wheel has three clear components: brand identity, brand distribution, and brand governance.
In this guide — which comes from our Marketing Strategy program — we’ll review how brand strategy informs brand identity by inspiring a company’s look and feel in a way that’s consistent with the strategic direction the company is headed in.
What Is Brand Identity?
As a spoke on the brand marketing wheel, brand identity should be rooted in brand strategy. This means you’ve made choices around the value you bring to the world and who you want to resonate with. Your brand identity is how you manifest those choices.
According to our program collaborator Martina Tam, “Brand identity is how you express yourself — your look, your sound, your feel — in a clear, consistent, and distinctive way.”
Brand Identity Definition
Brand identity is one of the elements of the Brand Marketing Wheel framework that activates the brand strategy. It focuses on the tangible elements that reinforce a brand at every touchpoint. This includes a company’s brand personality, the visual, verbal, and expressive fundamentals, brand assets, and brand guidelines.
These elements are used as a vehicle to distinguish a brand from competitors. Marketing leaders can use the word game and attitudinal ranges as open ended discovery processes to develop strong brand personalities.
We’ll walk through all parts of this definition throughout this guide to brand identity.
The 4 Parts of Brand Identity
We can get even more specific, and comprehensively describe brand identity as a progression across four levels of building blocks.
1. Brand Personality
The first building block is brand personality, which comes from brand strategy. A brand’s personality is the bedrock of its identity. It’s how your brand would sound, feel, think, and behave if it were to walk into a room as a person. Without brand personality, we wouldn’t know what emotional, intellectual, and behavioral patterns the brand should emanate over time.
2. Expressive Fundamentals
The second building block is your expressive fundamentals. Expressive fundamentals are the visual, verbal, and expressive components of brand identity. They include things like color palette, font and typography, form and shape, imagery principles, and tone of voice.
You can get very specific when describing these. For example, tone of voice is the way in which a company writes and speaks. It’s not just about the words chosen, but the order, rhythm, and pace of diction as well. You should even go as far as indicating examples of tone or words that should not be used.
Similarly, imagery principles should encompass the rules that guide what images are and aren’t appropriate, including the usage of filters and stock photos, and even parameters for what should be depicted in creative materials.
These expressive fundamentals as standalone elements are not consumer facing. Brand assets, on the other hand, are consumer facing.
3. Brand Assets
This brings us to our third building block: Brand assets. Brand assets bring together either all or parts of the second building block to create consumer-facing assets that represent the brand. This includes logos, illustrations, photography, iconography, taglines, and CTAs.
One brand asset that is easy to overlook is user experience, because it’s more often associated with product work than marketing work.
But how an individual interacts with, and experiences, a product, system, or service influences how that person perceives a brand in terms of utility, ease of use, efficiency, and many other factors. When the user experience doesn’t match the brand promise, it creates inconsistency for customers and users, which muddies the perception of your brand identity.
4. Brand Guidelines
We now arrive at the final building block: brand guidelines. These guidelines tie all of the elements of your brand identity together, by ensuring consistency across the three preceding building blocks.
While a comprehensive brand identity includes all four building blocks, not all tech companies fully reach this last step. It’s common for many tech companies, especially earlier stage companies, to solidify their expressive fundamentals and start to build brand assets, but to hold off on developing brand guidelines.
This is usually a direct result of either limited bandwidth or a lack of prioritization, but it’s unwise to over-index on the tangible aspects of brand identity, like the color palette or the logo, while undervaluing their deployment. These companies can still technically have a brand identity, but operating without brand guidelines inhibits a company’s ability to scale that brand identity.
In the absence of brand guidelines, teams can start to have slower creative development processes, because they have to go through multiple cycles of iteration on a brand asset. Materials that are actually off-brand will end up being shipped and surfaced to consumers, because there are no brand guidelines to rein them in and keep the brand identity consistent, which is detrimental to the brand.
4 Brand Identity Examples
Now that we know the four parts of a brand identity, let’s review some examples of each block. We have collected some examples from Google, Medium, and more to really illustrate the importance of each part.
Company: Imperfect Foods
Imperfect Foods is a subscription service that delivers produce and pantry staples directly to the doorstep of customers. The company was founded in 2015 with a mission to reduce food waste and build a better food system for everyone.
But imagine if customers received their groceries in non-recyclable packing, dropped off by deliverers who drove away in gas-guzzling vehicles. The inconsistency between the go to market experience and the customer experience could create a dissonance that would cause customers to question their belief in the company’s mission.
Fortunately, this is not the reality with Imperfect Foods. In fact, the company has made a public commitment to be a net-zero carbon company by 2030.
Sometimes the user experience and go-to-market experience are consistent, but companies can still miss the mark with user experience when developing brand assets. Here we can think about Google as another example of brand personality and identity.
In 2020 Google reimagined G Suite, a set of online productivity and collaboration tools for businesses, including the likes of Gmail, Drive, Docs, and Meet. G Suite became Google Workspace, and with the new name came a new set of logos for each tool.
While Google’s intent was to unify the visual language of the various apps in its suite, Google replaced familiar, recognizable icons with colorful versions that are difficult to distinguish. In fact a post went viral on Reddit for calling this challenge out shortly after the new logos came out. In the months following, discourse continued to surface online about how the logos lack accessibility.
The inclusion of user experience when thinking about brand identity points to an even broader concept, which is that brand identity is ever-evolving, and companies should consider all of its key touchpoints with customers.
Since the brand experience is the sum total of all touchpoints with the customer to form a subliminal connection with your brand, there could be utility in sparking other senses, like smell, touch, hearing, and taste.
Company: Virgin Atlantic
Virgin Atlantic’s brand assets, for example, intentionally include cool, calming music that plays for customers while they’re on hold, purple mood lighting inside the aircrafts, and a lounge-like ambiance in their terminal decor.
Consider Medium, an online publishing platform which connects readers with writers across a breadth of topics. In the company’s brand guidelines, you’ll find emphasis on both typography and color, as well as details on symbol usage.
The Brand Identity Trap
It’s important to strive to build your brand identity with all four blocks early on. Brand personality should come first, but investing across the expressive fundamentals, brand assets, and brand guidelines as your brand identity matures over time is just as important.
Altogether, these building blocks serve as a vehicle to make a brand more recognizable and distinguishable from competitors. Brand identity also evolves over time because your brand strategy is likely to change as the company deepens its customer relationships and looks to engage with new audiences.
The most common trap to fall into during this process is false-starting the creation of your brand identity with brand assets, instead of your brand personality.
When marketing teams start by developing creative assets without a defined brand personality, they end up with compelling standalone items that don’t align with the overarching brand strategy.
This can strain your brand marketing efforts, because the creative team is forced to start over, or even worse, you risk surfacing off-brand materials, which is detrimental to the impact of your brand.
That’s why it’s so important to crystallize your brand personality first. But for many marketing leaders, defining brand personality is simply challenging, even if you’ve done it before.
Though there are a few reasons why defining brand personalities can be challenging.
Challenges in Defining Brand Personality
Challenge #1: Defining a brand personality can be a subjective process that hinders decision-making.
Imagine you have a brother whom you are describing to a friend. He’s the eldest sibling in your family, and someone you’ve always admired. You list off personality traits like serious, dependable, and caring.
Your friend later meets your brother at an informal social gathering. Following the interaction she tells you that she perceived him as funny, charismatic, and laidback. Although you’re talking about the same person, you each landed on very different descriptions of his personality.
A similar phenomenon happens when developing brand personalities, especially because there are countless words to describe a personality, and vastly different ways to interpret a single brand.
Because marketing team members have preconceived notions about their brand’s place in customers’ lives, it’s easy for brand personality to become shaped by the subjective, individual preferences of a very small group of insiders.
This can lead to biased decision-making, which is rooted in opinion rather than brand strategy, as well as stalemates that tend to default to the most senior person in the room, or the founder. Both outcomes ultimately slow down project advancement.
According to our program collaborator John Russ, “It’s common for founders to formulate the brand personality based on how they’d prefer the business be known or how they view their personal journey tied to the business, instead of grounding it in the perspective of their users, what they value, and how they respond to the experience of the brand.”
To help avoid this challenge, brand personality needs to be rooted in objectivity.
Challenge #2: It’s easy for brand to become inconsistent across touchpoints, especially touchpoints that don’t fall under the marketing umbrella.
Brand marketing is all about consistency over time to build connections with users and customers. So a strong brand personality needs to go beyond the ad campaigns and flow through in-product experiences; communications with sales, service, and support teams; and even the internal employee experience.
When your brand personality and, therefore your brand identity, is not consistent, you lose out on the repetition that drives recall. You also create confusion for users, which can jeopardize other brand building efforts. You can even lose out on employees and customers being advocates for your brand. In short, an inconsistent brand personality is a missed opportunity to have your brand stick in the mind of your users.
Brand Personality Example
Consider Better.com, a digital-first homeownership company, whose services included mortgage, real estate, title, and homeowners insurance.
The company was founded on the principle of fixing a broken, opaque, and stressful process that benefited “insiders,” and transforming it into a fast, transparent, and low-cost experience for everyone. To that end, Better.com portrayed itself as compassionate and set on doing right by homeowners.
Then, in December 2021, Better became infamous for how it handled laying off 9% of its workforce. Employees were laid off via a brief Zoom call, immediately locked out of their computers, and received no communication or written confirmation of what was happening for hours.
To justify the move, the CEO even posted accusations on an anonymous forum that employees were stealing. Unsurprisingly, the event became a PR nightmare, with accounts of a chaotic and toxic work culture surfacing.
Sometimes layoffs are a necessary part of business, but there’s no question that Better.com’s approach lacked empathy. How the company treated employees created dissonance with how the company claims it will treat customers, and this discrepancy was captured for the world to see.
The damage may not be permanent, but following the scandal, customers were exposed to an inconsistent brand personality across touch points. The website portrayed a compassionate and righteous advocate, while press and social media portrayed a callous and cold employer.
Exercises to Determine Brand Identity
As the arbiter of brand identity, it’s up to marketing leaders to hold the line and make sure wherever brand identity is present, brand personality is consistently reflected too. Therefore, the exercise of developing a strong brand personality is important for marketing leaders to grasp.
Moreover, the motions behind the body of work associated with developing a brand personality often translate to other exercises related to brand identity, such as defining your brand’s expressive fundamentals or brand assets.
To do the important work of developing and defining all the building blocks of brand identity, you can leverage two exercises: the word game and attitudinal ranges.
Brand Identity Exercise 1: Word Game
Let’s first look at how marketing leaders can use the word game to develop strong brand personalities.
The word game is a top-down exercise that helps participants precisely hone in on the personality traits that best describe a brand. This exercise is useful when you are developing a new brand personality.
When Martina Tram initially joined brightwheel, the childcare management software solution, as the VP of Marketing, the early-stage startup had not yet codified its brand strategy, including its brand personality.
One of the first things Martina wanted to do was crystalize the brand personality, so that her marketing team could deploy it consistently via the campaigns they were preparing to launch for the peak season. She leaned on the word game to accomplish this goal.
According to Martina, “The word game is useful for all types of companies, from a scrappy startup needing a lightweight solution to an established brand seeking robust self-reflection. This exercise sparks discussion that yields rich insights about how a brand should show up.”
When you do this exercise, you’ll want to pull in key stakeholders, which often ends up involving members from marketing, such as the CMO, Head of Design, Copy Lead, or a Marketing Operations individual who’s likely to cross-manage the delivery dates and assets that are affected by this work.
You’re also likely to include the CEO and representation from the Product team, like a Head of Product Design or SVP of Product Marketing.
The perspective from product is helpful for ensuring that product teams understand what product modifications will need to be prioritized and what feedback will need to be synthesized. If your effort is tied to a specific project, such as a rebrand, then you also need to make sure the approver of that project is brought along.
Whichever stakeholders you choose to include, it’s helpful to limit the crowd to small, odd numbers, such as a group of three or five, but no more than usually seven. This helps avoid split decisions. In Martina’s case, she conducted the exercise with her CMO, a lead copywriter, and herself.
We also recommend assigning a final approver—usually the CMO or CEO—so that it’s clear who gets the final sign-off.
Martina built a Word Game Template that Reforge members use to lead this exercise with their teams. Apply today to unlock access.
When the Brightwheel team came back together after following that template, they landed on brand personality words like: “trusted,” “human,” “empowering,” and “simple.”
Since words can be interpreted differently, it helps to generate brief definitions for the words in your final set. This ensures true alignment on the final descriptors for your brand personality. Keep in mind that the development of a brand personality does not need to be completed in a single day, or after a single round of this exercise.
If you’re at an earlier stage company, you may not be ready to solidify your brand personality with descriptor definitions. But as you mature, this is a north star that you should aim for.
Brand Personality Example
Consider where a publicly-traded company like Eventbrite would land with their brand personality words.
When Martina was at Eventbrite, she recalls one of the words selected at the end of a word-game exercise she led: “inviting.” While a household dictionary might define “inviting” as simply “attractive, alluring, or tempting,” Eventbrite developed a crystal clear definition from which they operated.
They defined “inviting” as follows:
The word game lends itself to a more open-ended discovery process. The key advantages of this exercise are that it helps you figure out what attributes feel right for your brand, as well as the general bounds of the field you can play in.
This provides a launching point for making decisions on the remaining building blocks for brand identity: expressive fundamentals, brand assets, and brand guidelines.
Brand Identity Exercise 2: Attitudinal Ranges
Once you’ve boiled your brand personality down into a few adjectives, whether through the word game or through a different process, you can use another exercise, called attitudinal ranges, to sharpen your brand identity even further.
Attitudinal ranges offer a sliding scale approach that helps you figure out where within a spectrum elements of your brand identity lie. As you lean one way or another on the spectrum, it creates tradeoffs that shape your brand’s actions—how you speak to your users or show up for them.
Let's say you want the brand identity to be "bold," "informal," and "visionary." To scale, you'd use attitudinal ranges to define a spectrum of different manifestations of those attributes, and see where within the spectrum your brand fits.
A bold brand, for instance, might fall more on the "daring" side of the spectrum, but not want to get into territory that it feels "brash," or as if it’s coming on too strong.
Apply to Reforge to access our Attitudinal Ranges template in Miro.
There are multiple ways to use attitudinal ranges.
For instance, another use case for attitudinal ranges is developing the other building blocks for brand identity: expressive fundamentals, brand assets, and brand guidelines. We often use the word game as a starting point for brand personality, because there are many adjectives that can describe a brand personality. However, once a brand personality has been narrowed down to a few words, the bounds become clearer for the rest of the building blocks.
This makes attitudinal ranges a good first step for building your brand guidelines, for instance.
Martina recalls using attitudinal ranges to inform tone of voice for brightwheel. The team considered spectrums, such as whimsical versus professional, and focused on leaning toward the professional side of that spectrum. Similarly the team considered casual versus formal, realizing they aligned more with the former than the latter.
If you need to tease out your attributes, attitudinal ranges can provide that much-needed clarity. Once you have your brand personality attributes, you’ll have the bounds within which you’ll need to stay when building upon your brand identity. Attitudinal ranges are also great for achieving greater precision. You can use attitudinal ranges to evaluate everything from colors to shapes, copy to fonts, and much more.
Once you master the motion of these exercises, they can be applied to developing or refining other parts of brand identity.
From Brand Identity to Distribution and Governance
Curious about the second two parts of this wheel, brand distribution and governance? Apply to Reforge to unlock the entire program on Marketing Strategy.