Using Design to Strengthen Your Brand
A lot goes into building a brand. The visual component is a crucial piece of the puzzle.
By Shawn Hazen
How often have you chosen a deodorant or cold medicine based on what looked the best? What you’re doing is judging quality based on the design of the package. Another great example of this is wine. Once you’ve decided you’ll spend $15 and want red, it’s up to the design to sell you. You’re not consciously scrutinizing the type style or examining the production techniques, you’re just looking for something that has, for lack of a better term, the right “vibe”. Every company needs to determine what impression they want the consumer to have when seeing their brand. Design is the way to control that impression.
Design is the most visible, and therefore the most accessible manifestation of a brand. In particular, bad design makes a company feel cheap or not credible. In the best of these cases it will just be a feeling of vague distrust. In the worst cases people will actually say “Ewww, I’m not going to them!” In many of the best examples of good design, the design itself is not conspicuous. It should support the message, strengthen positive associations, to connote strength and reliability, and to make information clear. How design is contributing to these qualities is not always obvious in the end product.
The levels on which a design is working can be very hard to put into words. A color palette can have the same “attitude” as an advertising headline. It’s an abstract notion, but it’s what designers do, and it works. It can be very hard to articulate the problem when something “doesn’t look good”. It’s easy to say a logo is ugly, it’s a lot harder to explain why. Designers thrive on those subtle but powerful distinctions—the smoothness of a curve, the weight of a typeface, the exact mix of a color—that make a company look authoritative rather than rinky-dink.
Most companies think that credibility comes through looking like the other brands in a category. This is true only to the extent that a brand should be identifiable as a member of the category—but often even this isn’t true. Let’s pick up our packaging examples again. The clinical aesthetic we expect on cold medicine wouldn’t be appropriate on a wine bottle. Nor would the refined, sophisticated approach that works for wine work for medicine.
But a savvy company can exploit those “guidelines” if they understand them. There’s a fine line between “inappropriate” and “breakthrough”. Consider the hip, new wines or the lower price point wines that are using modern type, bright colors, and fun illustrations. These brands use design to carefully position themselves for consumers with a different lifestyle and a different relationship to their product. So it’s also crucial that a company’s image differentiates the brand from its peers. Companies that try to do this often don’t follow through: they come up with funny ads but the identity stays mired in the past; or they get a cool new logo but the text in their communications is dry and unreadable. Companies that do it best consider their image from top to bottom. A brand isn’t just ads that look consistent over the course of a year, it’s a consistent “vibe” in everything they say and show to the world.