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Uncovering the Path to a Successful Visual Identity: When to Follow the Pack (and Not)

The goal of a brand is to engage with members of its target audience, ideally establishing a meaningful and long-lasting relationship with them. Visual identity, whether introducing a brand or refreshing one that’s already well-established, can play a key role in the development of that relationship. One way to do that is to create a visual brand that stands out from the crowd, possibly by being unexpected in some way.

But in the interest of standing out, how much is too much? Keep reading to find out.

What is a visual identity and how do you create one?

 

Your brand’s visual identity brings your brand’s character to life. At the foundation of your visual identity lies your visual voice, composed of your brand’s color palette, typography and imagery, among other visual assets. Establishing your visual voice from the get-go provides a strategic foundation that guides the development of your visual identity, which includes your logo, packaging and all other marketing collateral.

Creating a visual identity that stands out from the crowd without attracting too much attention is the key to success. But striking the perfect balance is no easy feat. While there is no scientific formula for uncovering the correct answer, there are several criteria that can help point you in the right direction.

How and where will customers or other stakeholders interact with your brand?

If this is a product brand that will live in a physical space, possibly on a crowded shelf next to direct competitors, standing out and using your visual identity to grab attention is paramount. In this scenario, the inherent placement of your product, near other product brands your consumers are already familiar with, will do a lot of the leg work for you. You likely won’t need to communicate that you’re product is lipstick or ice cream or a chainsaw. Instead, you can focus on convincing them that you have a longer-lasting lipstick, a healthier ice cream or a more powerful chainsaw. In this case, your visual brand needs to carry the weight of communicating those differences.

On the other hand, if your brand will primarily live in a digital space, your path may be a bit more nuanced. Certainly, you don’t want to just look like every other brand on the market. And of course, you want your brand identity (and personality) to come through when someone visits your website. But what about a mobile app or online banner ads? In these situations, your brand is likely to be surrounded by a variety of brands from multiple different industries or product categories. If that’s the case, people need to be able to quickly and easily identify what your brand is and what it offers. If someone thinks you’re selling them a more powerful lipstick, a longer-lasting ice cream or a healthier chainsaw, they’ll likely just come away confused, as much as that might stand out from your competitors’ brands. Instead, you’ll need to find the right balance between identifying how your brand matches up with and against those competitors. Then work to infuse that balance into your visual identity.

What role does your brand occupy within the market?

This can be a bit more complex and can also change over time. But at the time of launching a new brand identity, the answer should be relatively clear. The clearest path forward is if you are an upstart, ready to challenge a group of established and successful brands that currently rule the roost. If this is the case, you almost have no choice but to shake things up and lean into the idea that you’re bringing something radically different to the table – and your visual brand should reflect this.

On the other end of the spectrum, what if your brand is one of those established and successful brands? You may feel like your brand needs a facelift, but you’re clearly doing something right. In this situation, it will be important to maintain a level of connection to your previous visual brand, establishing familiarity with your audience. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t opportunity for change. Smaller, more nuanced updates – maybe a refreshed secondary color palette, possibly a new angle on photography – can go a long way to communicate the idea that your brand, while well-established, is continuously looking to improve rather than resting on its laurels.

Perhaps the most difficult case to parse: When you have an established brand that isn’t necessarily a market leader. Here, you’ll need to do some internal reflection (and, likely, external research) to dig deep into what is or isn’t working for your current brand and go from there. Most likely, you’ll find that certain elements are worth keeping, but you’ll need to be strategic about which ones.

What does the larger brand ecosystem look like?

Here, we’re talking about zooming out: Rather than focusing on specific competitors’ brands, this is about looking at your product or company’s brand ecosystem in its entirety. Does your brand live in a broad category, like technology? If so, your visual identity will need to represent exactly what you offer within that larger space. On the other hand, if you operate within more of a niche, like streaming music services, standing out from the crowd may take precedence.

You can also consider the diversity of the brand ecosystem (or lack thereof). If your competitive set all aligns around a narrow band of visual elements (such as the color blue), you may have an opportunity to stand out with a relatively small tweak, like using purple as the primary color. It may be more difficult to find the right space in a more diverse field, but it can still be done. In the instance of color, for example, it may be a matter of finding a unique combination that provides differentiation, rather than a single primary color, or even how you use those colors. A website with a clean, clinical look with lots of white space is going to come across very different from a site with large blocks of color, regardless of how similar the underlying color palettes might be.

Lastly, you can evaluate how established your industry is as a whole. The longer your competitive field has been in existence, the more likely there are unwritten brand rules in place. Depending on some of the other criteria we’ve covered, you may decide to either follow or break those rules, but you should be aware of them either way. However, if you’re truly breaking new ground and entering (or even creating) a field that has yet to become truly familiar, there may be very few rules in place. In this case, you have quite a bit of freedom. The trick may be to find direction within that freedom, ensuring that you communicate aspects of your brand that are truly authentic and compelling.

Developing a visual brand identity is an art, not a science. But by being strategic and evaluating where your brand will be seen, what it will be compared against and the larger world in which it lives, you can find a direction and a path forward. If and when you do that, you just may be able to find the perfect balance that communicates what your brand is and, perhaps more importantly, how it’s different.

Need help striking the perfect balance? Our expert visual designers are ready to employ their strategic experience and creative mindset to develop a visual identity that sets your brand apart form the crowd.

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