In the current visual-focused age of social media, having a clear, distinguishable visual identity is an integral part of any business’s marketing and brand strategy. Especially for small and mid-sized businesses, having visuals that can be easily and quickly associated with your company is great for branding, building brand awareness and distinguishing your business from the competition.
Research has shown that posts with images receive 650 percent higher engagement than text-only posts—which means that images and visuals are catching and holding people’s attention. For businesses that are growing or hoping to gain new customers, developing a cohesive visual identity can help them increase consumer loyalty and drive sales.
Developing a strong visual identity for your business requires a deep knowledge of what your brand represents and who your target audience is, says John Du, a Los Angeles-based senior graphic designer and art director. It also needs to be cohesive, so that when you target your audience on different platforms, they know that what they are seeing relates to one company and/or product.
“That strategy is basically an outline or a plan of what exactly it is you’re trying to achieve and how you’re going to achieve it,” Du explains. “What are your brand’s core values? What is your brand voice? What is your messaging? In creating this strategy, I would be able to understand what the ultimate goal is and build the identity from that.”
If possible, businesses should develop their visual identity early on so that they can better map out their brand strategy to support their growth plans. Knowing what your brand’s core values are helps you determine who your target audience can be. In turn, the target audience shapes how you develop your visuals because you can research what colors, shapes and messaging will resonate most strongly with their desires and goals, which will make it easier to attract those customers. Even your business’s product can play a key role in the overall brand identity.
When Ruben Dario Villa started his car air freshener company, Fúchila Fresheners, he had a very clear idea of who his audience was and what elements he wanted to incorporate. He wanted a brand that was representative of himself and his Mexican American heritage, one that was bold and a little tongue-in-cheek.
“Fúchila in Spanish is slang for when something smells bad,” shares Villa. “So calling it Fúchila Fresheners is something ironic, and people thought it was funny.”
Fúchila’s products aren’t your typical tree-shaped fresheners. Instead, Villa, who also works as a visual designer for Google and has his own design agency, Chips n Guac Creative, drew on his chicano heritage to create unique designs that were instantly recognizable to the people from his community. The fresheners included pop-arty images of the late singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, dubbed the “Queen of Tejano Music,” and renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Although each freshener uses only a few colors, they tend to be bright and punchy, and reflective of the colors prevalent in Mexican and Mexican American cultures.
Villa had literally started Fúchila from the trunk of his car five years ago (he and his wife drove across the country to sell their products in person to retailers), but now says that Fúchila Fresheners is carried in over 100 stores, coast to coast.
“The identity has been crucial to Fúchila’s growth,” says Villa. “It has a graphical element. It’s been attractive to people; I use very bright colors. It really is being authentic to me—it’s what I like to see and what I feel my community likes to see, so that’s what I gravitated towards.”
Along with the physical product (if your business has one), there are many other elements that make up a brand’s visual identity, which is everything that a consumer sees about your brand. That includes the logo, photographs, typography, infographics, video and animation. Unfortunately, Du says, many businesses prioritize the company logo over the other elements, but Du emphasizes that in order for your visual strategy to be its most effective, it has to be tied into a cohesive visual identity across platforms and mediums. Du strongly suggests developing a branding system or guideline to help synchronize your company’s visual identity.
Businesses should develop their visual identity early on so that they can better map out their brand strategy to support their growth plans.
Of course, it’s never just as simple as selecting pairings of colors and shapes that you like. “Color is a very powerful tool,” says Du. “There are studies that find up to 90 percent of judgments are made based on color alone, depending on what the product is.” For instance, Du explains that yellow is often correlated with optimism, blue with trust and red with excitement. Round and organic shapes often signal warmth, kindness and softness, while more geometric and angular shapes are associated with traits like innovation and power.
Even the font you choose matters. “Typography is just as emotional as anything else—when you look at different fonts, they do have different personalities,” Du emphasizes. “For example, if you want to showcase your business as something very traditional or respectable, you might want to consider a serif typeface. If you want people to see your business as something more modern, something more grounded, maybe you’ll choose a sans serif typeface.”
Even the people you hire or use to represent your company should be reflective of how your visual identity aligns with your company’s brand and core values. Du uses football player Colin Kaepernick’s ad with Nike as an example of a corporation effectively leveraging another person’s identity to emphasize their own. In the fall of 2018, Nike revealed a campaign starring Kaepernick, who had allegedly been blacklisted from the NFL for kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, that not only reinforced their own brand values, but aligned themselves with a figure who represented a new generation of politically aware consumers.
“Nike just saying that they weren’t making this about the consumers they might lose, but making it about cultivating generations of consumers—that was something,” says Du. “Visual identity, yes, but also using Kaepernick’s imagery was just very impactful.”
One thing that all businesses need to prioritize is how their visual identity looks on mobile devices. Although it’s important to keep things consistent across all platforms and mediums, what works on a desktop or print ad may not work as well on a smaller smartphone screen. Typically, Du says mobile design is more rooted in user experience, and things that are “smart and quick” are better for quickly capturing a customer’s attention.
“Things have changed, and people are on their phones,” says Du. “When creating a brand identity, traditionally we just have our ads on traditional mediums. But nowadays, it’s about how it’s going to look on a phone—do things need to pop out more? Does messaging need to be more condensed?”