What Is Brand Identity?

Brand identity is the visible elements of a brand, such as color, design, and logo, that identify and distinguish the brand in customers' minds. Brand identity is distinct from brand image. The former corresponds to the intent behind the branding: the way a company chooses its name; designs its logo; uses colors, shapes, and other visual elements in its products and promotions; crafts the language in its advertisements; and trains employees to interact with customers—all with the goal of cultivating a certain image in consumers' minds. Brand image is the actual result of these efforts, successful or unsuccessful. 

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Brand Identity

Understanding Brand Identity

Apple Inc. consistently tops surveys of the most effective and beloved brands because it has successfully created the impression that its products are sleek, innovative, top-of-the-line status symbols, and yet eminently useful at the same time. Apple's brand identity and brand image are closely aligned.

At the same time, it is possible to craft a positive brand identity that fails to translate into a positive brand image. Some pitfalls are well known, and attempts by legacy brands to appeal to a new generation or demographic are especially treacherous. An infamous example is a 2017 ad by PepsiCo, Inc., which depicted a non-specific protest that appeared to allude to Black Lives Matter, a movement protesting police violence against people of color. The brand identity it wished to project, as a spokesperson subsequently described it, was "a global message of unity, peace, and understanding."

Instead, the ad was widely disparaged for "trivializing" Black Lives Matter, as The New York Times put it. The moment in the ad when a white actress hands a Pepsi to a police officer and seems to instantly resolve all of the fictional protesters' grievances became the focus of heavy criticism. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s daughter Bernice King tweeted, "If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi," accompanied by a picture of Dr. King being pushed by a police officer in Mississippi. Pepsi pulled the ad and apologized.

Pepsi's sales do not appear to have been directly affected by this gaffe, but in some cases, a negative gap between brand identity and brand image can affect financial results. The teen apparel retailer Abercrombie & Fitch suffered a severe downturn when its once-popular brand became associated with garish logos, poor quality, oversexed advertising, and plain meanness. The company refused to sell women's clothing size XL or larger, for example, because, "We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends," the chief executive officer (CEO) said. "A lot of people don't belong, and they can't belong."

By the same token, building a positive brand image can bring in consistent sales and make product rollouts more successful. An example of the benefits of brand loyalty is seen in the introduction of two new subscription-based music streaming services in 2015. Tidal and Apple Music had to make very different choices in the marketing and rollouts of their services because of brand loyalty. Apple, an established brand with very loyal customers, didn't have to invest in the type of celebrity-oriented marketing that Tidal used in order to promote its new service. 

Brand Identity and Value

Beyond saving a company money on promotion, a successful brand can be one of a company's most valuable assets. Brand value is intangible, making it difficult to quantify, but common approaches take into account the cost it would take to build a similar brand, the cost of royalties to use the brand name, and cash flow of comparative unbranded businesses. Nike, Inc., for example, owns one of the world's most instantly recognizable logos, the "swoosh." In Forbes "The World's Most Valuable Brands" 2018 ranking, the Nike brand ranked 18 with an estimated value of $32 billion, despite the fact that, in a world devoid of brand perception, taking the swoosh off of Nike's shoes and apparel would change nothing about their comfort or performance. The top brand on the list was Apple, with an estimated value of $182.8 billion.

[Important: Building a brand identity is a multi-disciplinary strategic effort, and every element needs to support the overall message and business goals..]

Building Brand Identity

The steps a company should take to build a strong, cohesive, and consistent brand identity will vary, but a few points apply broadly to most:

  1. Analyze the company and the market: A full SWOT analysis that includes the entire firm—a look at the company's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats—is a proven way to help managers understand their situation so they can better determine their goals and the steps required to achieve them.
  2. Determine key business goals: The brand identity should help fulfill these goals. For example, if an automaker is pursuing a niche luxury market, its ads should be crafted to appeal to that market and should appear on channels and sites where potential customers are likely to see them.
  3. Identify its customers: Conducting surveys, convening focus groups, and holding one-on-one interviews can help a company identify its consumer group.
  4. Determine the personality and message it wants to communicate: A company needs to create a consistent perception, rather than trying to combine every conceivable positive trait: utility, affordability, quality, nostalgia, modernity, luxury, flash, taste, and class. All elements of a brand, such as copy, imagery, cultural allusions, and color schemes, should align and deliver a coherent message.

    Building a brand identity is a multi-disciplinary strategic effort, and every element needs to support the overall message and business goals. It can include a company's name, logo, and design; its style and the tone of its copy; the look and composition of its products; and, of course, its social media presence. Apple founder Steve Jobs famously obsessed over details as small as the shade of gray on bathroom signs in Apple stores. While that level of focus may not be necessary, the anecdote shows that Apple's successful branding is the result of intense effort, not serendipity.

    Brand Identity History

    National, religious, guild and heraldic symbols, which we might see as analogous to modern branding, go back millennia. The modern practice dates to the industrial revolution, however, when household goods began to be produced in factories, manufacturers needed a way to differentiate themselves from competitors. Thus, these efforts evolved from simple visual branding to advertisements that included mascots, jingles, and other sales and marketing techniques. British brewing company Bass Brewery and the food-processing company Tate & Lyle both claim to have the oldest trademarked brands. Other brands that emerged in that period include Quaker Oats, Aunt Jemima, and Coca-Cola.

    Fast Facts

    • Brand identity is the visible elements of a brand, such as color, design, and logo, that identify and distinguish the brand in customers' minds. 
    • Building a positive brand image can bring in consistent sales and make product rollouts more successful.
    • Building a positive, cohesive brand image requires analyzing the company and its market, and determining the company's goals, customers, and message.