Brand identity

What is brand identity, and why is it important? What elements and examples should businesses have in mind when creating a brand identity?

When it comes to branding, brand identity is the moment of truth. It’s the point of impact, where strategy and market research are manifested as a company’s logo, slogan, imagery, music or other tangible forms. Ultimately, brand identity is the culmination of all those elements into a larger, cohesive personality. 

True, most businesses will never see a brand valuation like Apple’s, which is currently approaching a trillion dollars. But with the right strategy and a clear understanding of key elements like messaging, audience and market, a brand identity can be much more than a visual shorthand for a business. It can be a powerful asset in its own right. 

Here’s what businesses should know about brand identity, what elements it includes, and how to go about creating one.

What is brand identity?

A way to describe a brand’s tangible elements, a brand identity is the visual or audio representation of a brand — the actual logo, ad or jingle that people see or hear, and that they associate with a business. A brand identity is the collection of all those elements, across all media, online and off. 

As the visual representation of a business, a brand identity is an important tool for distinguishing a company in a crowded market, and for drawing awareness to new markets, too. And ideally, the elements of a brand identity all work together harmoniously and holistically to represent the company in a consistent and positive way.

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Why is brand identity important?

Applied consistently throughout an organization via formalized guidelines, a brand identity can be a means to ensure consistency in all communications and to control quality at every customer touchpoint. This not only helps to strengthen the effectiveness of sales and marketing efforts, but also provides for the more efficient training of new employees. 

If successful, a brand identity can deliver real value to a company, contributing to more than just sales. What would Nike be without its iconic swoosh logo, or Coca-Cola without its signature red-and-white color palette? Who doesn’t instantly recognize the McDonald’s arches or a Facebook share button? None of these examples of brand identity came about overnight; all were carefully created and refined over years. 

Of course, not every successful brand identity is a household name. Many others communicate a very focused message to a carefully defined audience, using specific imagery, colors, typeface and other elements to communicate a specific set of values, or achieve familiarity, foster trust or inspire loyalty among buyers.

Elements of brand identity

In a literal sense, a brand identity’s elements are the logo, imagery, color, typography, and other creative assets that are specifically designed in service of a larger brand strategy. These are the creative pieces that make a brand recognizable and distinguish it as its own unique entity in the eyes of customers and the public in general. 

Elements of brand identity can include everything from a simple logo to the language used in ad copy to the look and feel of website and product packaging. It can be the music used in commercials or a YouTube video, or even the name of the business itself — which also speaks to the importance of establishing a cohesive and coherent brand strategy at the earliest possible stage. 

The primary elements of brand identity include: 
  • Logo or “wordmark” (iconic examples include Nike, McDonald’s, Shell and CNN) 
  • Company name (Apple) 
  • Colors (Coca-Cola’s red and white) 
  • Slogan or tagline (“Just do it”) 
  • Specific imagery and/or graphics (a full ad or campaign) 
  • Style of imagery (e.g., darkly lit or matte style vs. bright and cheerful) 
  • Specific typography (font and size) 

Beyond the literal sense, a brand identity also includes some key strategic elements: 

Personality. What’s the tone of the brand identity? Is it fun or serious? Glamorous or budget-friendly? Firmly reliable or built on adaptability?  

Consistency. Are all elements aligned with one another? Are they being used consistently across all online and offline media — and if not, is there a good reason? 

Flexibility. Rebranding is often necessary over the course of time — and sometimes, urgently needed. A strong brand identity should be built to adapt to new market pressures or audience demands in a way that’s consistent with its previous history.

Brand identity examples

Examples of strong brand identity aren’t hard to come by. The logo for Toyota or McDonald’s, the music and imagery used by Disney, the layout and design of IKEA — these aren’t just household names but cultural icons, instantly identifiable by people all around the world. But even lesser-known brand identities can provide valuable lessons. 

Coca-Cola. The most popular branded drink in the world, Coca-Cola’s identity isn’t just a famous logo but also its distinctive colors and imagery. Over the decades, Coke’s brand identity has grown to include other elements like polar bears, Santa Claus and the Diet Coke logo, and even other well-known brands like Minute Maid and Dasani. 

Tom’s of Maine. A company that built an intensely loyal base of customers over decades of local availability and a singular focus on sustainability, Tom’s of Maine entered the digital era with a bang. Today, the company’s brand identity encompasses much more than its famous logo — namely, sought-after products targeted to specific and discerning consumers, in locations across the United States.  

Walmart. The Walmart brand identity is a study in adaptation. From the blocky western letters used in the 1960s and ‘70s through to the softer edges of its current multicolored version, Walmart has updated its logo multiple times over the decades, amid undiminished market domination. And as the company branches into other areas like clinical retail, it continues to adapt its image for new purposes. 

Ben & Jerry’s. Another brand that’s cultivated loyalty not only from the quality of its products but from a sense of variety, innovation and outspokenness, Ben & Jerry’s appeals to the everyday consumer as much as the selective buyer. A distinctive logo supports rather than dominates the larger brand identity as presented on social media and on store shelves throughout the country. 

Netflix. One of America’s best-known brands was virtually unheard of 20 years ago, and started out selling a different service than its main service line today. Netflix has definitely weathered negative feedback as its role as a new media pioneer — particularly the outcry when it tried to change its brand identity in 2022 (a decision it ultimately backed away from). 

Old Spice. Once firmly entrenched as an old school hygiene product for men of a certain age, Old Spice has successfully rebranded itself to newer target audiences in the space of just over a decade. A more colorful palette for its brand identity and a knack for viral creative advertising has fueled new success in product campaigns for women and younger men.

How to create a brand identity

Even with all the right elements in place, successful brand identities rarely happen without careful planning, long-term strategic thinking and skillful execution. Success will require a different approach based on each company’s unique needs. Even so, there are a few fundamental steps that every business can take to create a brand identity.

Step 1: Analysis

A foundation of data about the market, audience and company itself is absolutely necessary. This typically requires professional market research to define target customers and how to reach them, as well as a competitive analysis to understand who you’re up against and how to position your brand accordingly. For existing companies, a self-analysis is also recommended.

Step 2: Audience drilldown

Today’s sophisticated methods of market research can provide a great level of detail on prospective buyers, enabling companies to know their target audience better than ever before, and communicate with them in new and lucrative ways. Given their pain points, what emotional connection can be made? What language should be used to best speak to that audience, and where can they be found?

Step 3: Define goals and create KPIs

What’s the crossover between available market space and buyers, and the company’s goals? How can objectives be measured against current opportunities, or audience pain points, to optimize sales? Each organization will have different answers to these questions. By defining them in terms of key performance indicators (KPIs), each can be documented, measured and then improved upon.

Step 4: Define the brand strategy

How can the elements of brand identity be designed to best meet the KPIs, as defined in the previous step? Determining how to transform the findings from market research and audience analysis into actual artwork and marketing materials, and then striking the needed balance between consistency and flexibility, takes expertise — don’t be afraid to turn to a third party for guidance.

Step 5: Creative fulfillment

According to McKinsey & Company, successful branding requires not just the science of market and audience research but also expert artistry for design, and skillful craft for execution. Whether using in-house talent or an outside agency, it’s important to commit to a professional fulfillment that successfully conveys the desired look, feel and voice of the brand strategy with tangible creative elements.

Step 6: Documentation

Documenting established brand identity elements is critical to ensure consistency and to ensure buy-in (and even enthusiasm) across an organization, as well as a more seamless transition if a new creative team is needed. This is usually a printable PDF that lists the dos and don’ts of the usage of the logo, slogan, and other elements, including acceptable sizes, colors, voice, variations, and so on.

Step 7: Ongoing improvement

A successful brand is never static. Common elements of brand identity like logos and slogans can, should and often are updated to reflect changes in media, market dynamics or target audience. And by monitoring KPIs, businesses can discover new areas for improvement on a quarterly basis, helping to inform the transition to new types of brand identity elements.

Even if your organization doesn’t have the resources for a proactive brand analysis and relaunch every five to ten years, there are other metrics to keep an eye on. From Google Analytics to social media comments, customer behavior and feedback is more readily available than ever before — and the most successful brand identities are the ones that keep pace with those indicators.

GfK can help your business craft a successful branding strategy

Even with advanced understanding of your market and audience, creating an effective brand identity requires advanced skill and knowledge. Luckily, today’s technology and advanced best practices put that expertise within the grasp of virtually any organization. 

If you’re looking for guidance in creating and implementing a successful and long-lasting brand identity, our Brand Intelligence solutions can help ensure success. From market research to campaign implementation, GfK is the preferred choice to help today’s businesses meet their branding goals — quickly, efficiently and cost effectively.