What’s in a brand?

A brand, in customers’ minds, usually starts with a logo.

Give me a word, any word, and I will show you the root of that word is Greek.

—Gus Portokalos, My Big Fat Greek Wedding

The term logo comes from “logotype,” derived from the Greek logos (“word”) and typos (“imprint”). The logo’s job is to “promote instant public recognition.” Because many people are visual learners, the logo is a critical part of the brand. People see the visual mark and recognize its color, shape, and form. Ideally, the logo will become associated with the brand.

But a strong brand is more than a logo and some color swatches. It’s a gut feeling. The most iconic brands benefit from being instantly recognizable, not just by a logo but also by general look and feel.

Here’s a “gut feeling” test. The following photos both feature Apple products. One is a stock photo, and the other is an image from an actual Apple advertisement. You can probably tell which is which.

Some of today’s most iconic brands are leaning less on the visuals and more on the visceral. Great design isn’t just graphic—it’s experiential. And great brands live in our senses, sometimes without us even noticing. It’s easier to recall Cinnabon’s smell than its tagline. Only three chimes play when you think of NBC.

And recognizability begins with consistency.

Visual identity

Visual identity describes all the ways the brand appears to your audiences.

Think of your brand’s visual identity as a solar system. If different types of content are the planets, your design system is the sun. Its gravity keeps the brand revolving in organized patterns. It’s the base of the food chain, feeding the content and supporting the visual identity.

The visual identity supported by your brand’s design system gives your audience hints about how to think of your brand. Playful illustrations will attract one type of customer’s attention, while a more minimal aesthetic can reinforce the perception of your brand as modern and sleek.

Design system

A brand’s design system is a collection of visual devices that an organization uses to communicate the brand—graphic imagery, a color system, fonts, and, yes, a logo. The system may or may not also include collateral such as stationery, brochures, and signage, plus written content such as key messages, voice and tone guidelines, and a positioning statement.

Like the elements of a solar system, your visual identity has constant motion. Things change, but with the evergreen brand elements (logos, colors, brand name) as a base, the system stays intact through changes.

The core elements of an effective brand system include:

What you have

Assets—logos, an icon library, presentation and document templates, signage, illustration guidelines, animation guidelines, letterhead, etc.

Who uses it (and how)

Different roles in the company will have different needs for the brand system. In-house designers probably need to be familiar with the illustration style. Marketing staff need to be aware of it when asking for new collateral. A business development manager might need to know which template to use when presenting to a potential client.

Where they get it

Online, in an always-up-to-date library. Since your visual identity adapts and changes as you explore new types of content or develop your brand, your design system should live in an accessible location that can be tweaked in real time—a Dropbox folder, a cloud library, a page on your intranet. A downloadable Powerpoint or .zip file might be convenient for now, but with so many stakeholders using the design system, that approach makes it easy for someone to use out-of-date materials.

Tell your stories

With a strong visual identity, you don’t just make a good first impression. You give your brand the building blocks for effective storytelling across a universe of media. Billboards. Ebooks. Sales Presentations. AR/VR.


Curious on where to start after reading this? Check out part two of our series on design sytems here.