WHAT WE THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT.
When people think about branding, they usually think about a few of the most fundamental elements of branding—visual branding. But branding firms, advertising agencies, design firms, and freelancers often use branding as an opportunity to showcase their own visual skills, rather than focusing on the practical (if sometimes mundane) responsibility of creating brand imagery in the visual space that authentically and consistently expresses the brand character.
In general, the visual space includes:
• Color. They say a hawk can see something like 200 different shades of distinct color within what we would call “green.” Inuit language has something like 100 words for “white,” to describe the myriad shades, temperatures, textures, and emotional meanings for the various whites in the great north country. Color is emotion. And you can almost certainly discern many times as many colors as you can articulate verbally. That’s why it’s so important for a brand to be consistent and deliberate about how it handles color. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the difference between the true brand color and something that’s “close enough” is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. Personally, I want lightning in my brand. Every time. Identifying the two or three pms colors for the logo is a good start. But it’s only a start. A brand color palette should take into account the full range of applications in which the brand will be expressing itself. Interior and exterior architecture. Furniture. Apparel. Digital components. Video. Signage. Displays. Outdoor advertising. Print advertising. Collateral materials. Illustration. Photography.
A well-conceived color palette for branding needs to consider color in terms of ink, paint, paper, natural materials, and light.
• Shape, size, proportion. Every brand has architecture, whether it lives in a building or not. And like a well-designed building, the expressions of a brand should take shapes that express the personality of the brand. A wide-bottomed triangle or rhombus, or a wide rectangle show strength and stability. Circles indicate holistic thinking and community. Asymmetrical shapes indicate energy. Combinations of similar-sized shapes show community and cooperation. Combinations of shapes that are dissimilar in size show dominance.
In building a visual brand, it’s important to consider things like overall logo | logotype shape, the amount and shape of prescribed space around the logo, the proportion of logo to other brand visual elements. If my billboard is half logo, you know that I have an oversized corporate ego, that I think I am important and that you are not. If that oversized logo breaks the “live area” of the board, I have inadvertently disrespected my own brand. The authority of a king or president, for example, is perceived not by how much space he | she takes up in a crowd, but by how much space is created around him | her within the crowd. Same with a logo. When it goes all the way to the edge of an ad or billboard (or video screen), the designer has violated the unwritten, universal king rule—the true king has abundant space around him; the pretender has a crowd, but no space.
• Type. Typography is a science and art in and of itself. Like color, it is something you know more about than you think. Not that you could design type (you probably can’t; I certainly can’t) but you can feel it when the type is wrong. Generally, different type faces are chosen to do different jobs. Headline font. Sometimes subhead font. Body copy font. Letter body font. Formal invitation font (scrolly italic stuff, usually). The art is to create a typography strategy that covers all the bases but doesn’t go all over the board. Unity and variety. The faces must go together. But they must be distinctive from each other (like my four siblings and me).
A separate issue is logotype. This is the typographic statement of the brand name that sometimes serves as a logo. Think IBM, UPS, Wells Fargo. These typically start with a standard type face (you should see the documentary, Helvetica), and are altered, nipped, tucked, and kerned into submission.
• Key visuals. A complete brand will have an entire visual lexicon. A way of talking about itself without words. Digital branding has blown out the idea of icons. Before websites came along, back in the 20th Century, icons existed, but mostly in places like European directional and traffic signs.
Characters can also be key visuals. Think of Ronald McDonald. The Blue Men for Intel. You may even remember the Charlie Chaplin mime character for IBM. As with all key visuals, they must be consistent across platforms and from one execution to another.
• Photography or illustration…or both. Within it’s visual language, each brand needs to decide how it will communicate certain representational information. In the past, this meant either photography or illustration. Even that required certain refinement. For example, the Wall Street Journal and Barnes and Noble both became known for black and white illustration of a certain style. Long after most other papers featured color photography on page one, the Journal continued to publish NO photographs, instead using stylized, “branded” illustrations.
When it comes to photography, color and light are magic! Of course, subject matter must always be consistent with overall brand aesthetics. But more than that, wardrobe, propping, setting…must all be created in the brand color palette. Also, photographic lighting must be consistent with brand…color, proportion, contrast.
Of course, the advent of Photoshop has blurred the lines between photography and illustration. This has given us entire books full of truly ghastly visual sludge. But in the right hands, a great photo illustration artist can create powerful, distinctive, and even supernatural imagery. Of course, while that is possible, it is only correct if it is authentic to the brand.
Here, we used both illustration and photography within the same piece. But we were very strategic about how we did it. The photography was broadly symbolic, while the illustration was narrowly graphic. And other brand components tied the two together.
• Logo. This is something almost every business owner has in common. We all LOVE our logos. It is tempting, even among professionals, to exaggerate the importance of the logo within the whole visual context of the brand. We tend to want it too big, too ubiquitous, too gold-plated. Your logo definitely matters. It is the one visual component that stands for everything you stand for. Because of that, it needs to be used consistently with the brand character, personality, culture, and strategy. Note, for example, that you will have a hard time locating the Proctor and Gamble logo on a box of Tide. That is an expression of the P&G brand strategy.
Most brand professionals, either on the advertising agency, branding agency, consultancy, or client side, will agree (if you make them talk) that the brands that insist on big, thumping logos tend to be small, insignificant brands that need to compensate. Of course, Coca-Cola is the exception. There is always one, and they are it. But hey, who wouldn’t like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony?
We discussed over here, that brands live in spaces we don’t own, namely other people’s heads. The way we get access to the brain space of others is through their perception portals—in this case eyes—and their emotions. A brand must appeal to it’s brand community’s inclination to empathize, and to make emotional attachments to brands that are “like me.” In order to do so, it must approach visual space with:
• authenticity—true to the brand
• consistency—same brand all the time
• empathy—within the brand’s persona, communicate appropriately for the situation
• humility. Yes, humility. When you ask someone to make your brand part of their life, you are asking for a very personal favor. You are asking to be a guest in their imagination. You are asking them to testify on your behalf in the marketplace of ideas.