What's a branding system?
A Branding System is a collection of touchpoints that ensures your brand’s mission and identity are identifiable and quickly recognizable across all mediums.
A branding system makes sure that every time people come across your content—in print or online—they recognize it.
Whether you own a business, are running a non-profit, are an influencer, are a vlogger, whatever you are; the thing people refer to as YOU is your brand. Creating a branding system for your thing ensures that regardless of where or how users encounter your content, they can easily recognize that it’s coming from you. With the rise of social media and the vast number of options available for spreading your message, consistency is the key to a successful branding system.
Regardless of where your message lives, is it obvious that it’s coming from you?
Without branding, people simply won’t recognize that you are the one speaking and will have a difficult time remembering what you said. As I laid out in You’re invisible without branding; branding gives your audience easily recognizable touchpoints to quickly recall your message and your mission. In short, branding begins to cure your invisibility. What continues the process of curing invisibility is making sure that every one of those touch points is equally recognizable as coming from you.
When your customer is on Instagram do they instantly recognize your posts? When they're ordering a low-fat latte at the local coffee shop do they instantly recognize the poster on the wall as advertising your event next week? When your friends are passing out business cards for your photography business do people recognize your work online after seeing your branding on the card?
If you're panicking, just take a deep breath! While making your material consistent across all of your platforms sounds like a scary task, you can break down the thought process into manageable categories.
The logo is the foundation of a branding system. Every other element in a branding system plays a supporting role after the logo or wordmark. Your logo is the handle that people hold onto your message with. Logos can be many different things. Your logo can be an icon combined with a wordmark. It can be an icon that eventually stands alone. It can simply be your name written in a particular style. If you are involved with marketing a company you will heavily rely on the logo in all of its iterations to represent who you are and what you stand for. Nike, Target, Burger King, and Microsoft are all companies that primarily use logos/icons to represent themselves.
Recently, we have seen a trend away from heavy reliance on icons to gravitating towards wordmarks (especially if you are a freelancer or a solopreneur). A wordmark usually consists of your name, (or the name of your thing), simply written out in a particular style or font. Influencers such as Gary Vaynerchuk and Casey Neistat take this approach; utilizing their name written in their own handwriting as their logo. Coke is an excellent example of a big name corporation that utilizes a word-mark for nearly all their advertising.
Regardless whether you use a combination of typography and symbols or a streamlined wordmark, your logo is the consistent graphic that can be reproduced in color, in black and white, at small sizes, at large sizes, on business cards, on t-shirts, and on the web. A well designed logo is able to be used across all mediums and is as effective when displayed on the top of your iPhone screen as when it's printed on a billboard in downtown Chicago.
When I say Nike, or Apple, or Target, you probably imagine a swoosh, an apple, and a bullseye. Over time, these icons have come to represent their respective companies. Iconography plays an important part in the branding system as it adds an additional tool you can use to make your content recognizable across the many different mediums you are interacting with. When you start associating a particular icon or symbol with your brand, the association won’t be strong enough for it to stand on its own. When Nike was presented their famous “swoosh” by an intern graphic design student, they just brushed it off as no big deal. But eventually Nike picked the symbol up and started associating that “swoosh” with the word Nike. After years of drilling that association into consumers mind’s, Nike now has an icon that is instantly recognizable across language barriers, across colors, in extremely tiny spaces, and in huge spaces. Investing time and energy into creating an association between you and a specific icon or symbol can pay huge dividends to your brand awareness down the road.
Typography is an often overlooked part of branding by many people just starting out into the world of business or marketing. But it is so, so, so important. Deciding on what fonts (type families, and typefaces) that you want to use in your branding material can make or break the consistency and coherence of your messaging.
Designers talk about the “Rule of 3.” Referring to the rule that you should never mix more than 3 different fonts on one design. I think this rule nicely translates into a branding system for the simple reason that the moment you begin using more than 3 different fonts in your material, people begin losing track of what fonts they can associate with you. I think a brand is wise to have 3 fonts in their arsenal but often you will find that in execution using two different types of fonts with varying weights can provide extremely effective design.
Understanding typography in branding requires a basic understanding of the different kinds of fonts available for your use. Here is a very basic (and oversimplified) breakdown of the four basic font types.
Serif: Serif fonts are most often used for “regal” or official purposes. Serif is the name given to the little flags on the tips of letters. These flags were designed to make reading print materials easier by providing the eyes a clear distinction between letters. Examples include: times New Roman, Georgian, and Minion Pro.
Sans-Serif: Sans-serif literally means “without serif.” These fonts are often considered to be more “modern” or “youthful” given their streamlined nature. Regardless of if you agree with that assessment, sans-serifs provide a beautifully clean look to a message. Be careful though, large bodies of small sans-serif text can and will hurt your eyes to read. Examples include: Benton Sans, Myriad Pro, Helvetica, and Arial.
Script: Script fonts vary from classic and elegant to fonts that were created by thick brushes. Essentially these fonts derive from classic handwriting (although handwritten fonts could absolutely be its own category). Script fonts are normally used as a display font. Meaning that you wouldn’t write a long body of copy in it but it can look amazing when used for a few words combined with a serif or sans serif. Examples include: Playlist, Bukhari Script, and Dancing Script.
Colors are incredibly important to making your message identifiable across many different kinds of content. Colors are incredible at conveying particular feelings. A quick google search for the psychology of colors will populate a vast array of psychological studies into the effects of colors in branding and marketing. In general I think the “Rule of 3” can fit quite nicely here as well. Choosing one or two main colors that will represent your brand and then branching out into variations of those colors is a fantastic way to create an identifiable palette yet leave room for diversity among your designs.
This is in no way a comprehensive overview of all the elements required to make effective and engaging branding. However, if you are looking at starting your own thing or are ready to take your business or organization to the next level these are the main aspects you should begin thinking about. Ask yourself the following questions.
What symbol or wordmark do I want representing my thing?
Do I want to associate a particular icon with my thing?
What fonts will I use when crafting content?
What feelings do I want my brand’s colors to convey to my audience?
Answering these questions will better prepare you to go into the process of developing a branding system with a sense of clarity and purpose. Always remember the end goal of branding.