Anatomy of a Brand


Today’s entrepreneurs, raised in a culture cultivated in brand awareness, have a good understanding of the important role branding plays in the successful positioning of their enterprise on the global stage. But they may not be aware of how to get from business concept to brand creative.

Designing visual expressions of the brand is Riordon’s core competency. It involves partnering with companies to identify their strategic opportunity, finding a distinct competitive positioning and designing creative “expressions” of the brand that are aligned with and will strengthen that positioning.

But what exactly is a brand? In the simplest terms, a brand is a promise. It says “this is what we offer that is different from what our competitors offer” – both the tangible promise (e.g. leading communications technology) and the intangible (e.g. speed, simplicity, creativity, connectivity, service excellence).

Of course a brand is a far more complex, living thing that takes on meaning over time through the actions of the company and the perceptions of its target market. But for the purposes of this short discussion, we’ll stick to the elements of creating a new brand identity and its early expressions. A visual identity serves as the platform on which all expressions of the brand are based, from printed collateral and website to signage and uniforms.

The focal point of the visual identity is the corporate signature, which normally comprises three core elements: the icon, wordmark and tagline. We refer to these as the “anatomy” of a brand identity.

Not all corporate signatures require all three of these elements to be successful. Some brands dispense with an icon in favour of a dynamic wordmark. Some established brands, such as Nike, have evolved to the point of needing only an icon and tagline (the swoosh, and “Just do it”). Riordon recommends that emerging brands take advantage of all three elements to increase understanding and awareness of the brand, and to provide greater flexibility in the expression of the brand.




So what makes a successful identity?

Brand identity has the potential to be one of your company’s greatest strategic assets. Its ultimate success depends on many factors outside the realm of design – including opportunity, timing and competition. But there are certain basic factors that give a brand identity the head start it needs to get noticed, be memorable and stay the course.


In a marketplace where competitors can quickly match your products and services, the brand (the “promise”) is often the only thing that sets you apart in the minds of your target audience. Your brand identity needs to carve out its own niche, be distinct and “ownable” – something no one else can effectively duplicate. Identities that follow a trend or try to emulate another brand’s success ultimately fail. Sharing a likeness with your competition diminishes your ability to stand out and be “top of mind.”


To be truly effective, an identity needs to convey one clear, simple message. Don’t expect to be able to communicate everything your company is about, but attempt to capture the essence of what you’re about. Simplicity is not only essential to creating a brand that is easy to understand and remember, but is necessary to ensuring an identity that is adaptable.


There are two issues here. One is that your brand will continue to evolve, and that your identity, while needing to be distinct and “ownable”, can’t be so myopic that it boxes you in. As an expression of your brand promise, your identity needs to transcend the products and services you currently offer. The ultimate goal in branding is to build brand equity. That can’t happen if you’re redesigning your identity every five years to reflect changes in the company.

The other issue of adaptability comes from your identity’s need to perform effectively in multiple arenas. Will it be as effective online as it is in print? Does it work as well in black as it does in full colour? Will it have the same impact on signage as it has on a letterhead? How far can it be reduced in size and still be legible? Will it allow for effective sub-branding and co-branding as you develop additional brands and strategic partnerships?





The visual identity of a brand is defined by more than a corporate signature alone. Typography, colour and supporting graphic elements go a long way to help establish the “look” of your brand. A truly effective visual identity is one that the audience will recognize even in the absence of the corporate signature.


Primary corporate colours (those that appear in the corporate signature) are an important distinguishing feature of an identity. But alone, they don’t have the range of character needed to communicate effectively to diverse stakeholders. A secondary (and sometimes tertiary) colour palette is often introduced to create variety and visual interest throughout the series of communications your company will disseminate. These colours may be used in backgrounds, headlines, callouts, rules, charts and diagrams, as well as navigation tools (tabs, buttons and toolbars) in print and online communications. The “golden rule” is to ensure that these supporting colours never usurp the primary corporate colours. Doing so diminishes the integrity and impact of the identity.


Corporate fonts, when used consistently, can bring tremendous distinction to an identity, though it is an effect most readers aren’t aware of. An identity program usually features one serif font (a font in which the line strokes end with a structural flourish) and sans serif font (with no serif), which are used in combination. There are tens of thousands of fonts to choose from, each designed to communicate a different character. Each font has a font family (including italic, bold, condensed and expanded versions) to allow for variety of expression. Practising “recognition through repetition” makes your message stand out and helps build trust and confidence in the brand.


A distinct style of imagery, icons, shapes and backgrounds may be used to support the brand and provide a visual thread that connects pages within a publication, as well as connecting all your publications. Often a shape is taken from the corporate signature itself, supporting the core identity every time it is used.





Imagine buying a cabinet set from Ikea, opening the box and finding no instructions. All the pieces are there, but you’re not sure how they fit together. When that happens to a brand, the consequences can be devastating. A brand is only as effective as it is consistent. A brand style guide is the instruction guide that helps “users” put the pieces together, to ensure that the integrity of the brand remains intact, and the brand gains recognition and builds equity over time. Ideally it will not only cover structural elements of the brand such as signature, colours and fonts, but also provide guidelines for the implementation of brand “expressions” ranging from brochures to signage.

One of the best ways to protect an identity program in today’s fast-paced business environment is to provide a series of templates to staff and design consultants. Templates for stationery, PowerPoint, brochure layouts, print ads and Web pages help your company to keep pace with the exchange of information, while taking the guess work out of presentation style to ensure a consistent image across the company and over time.


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