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From the very first moment someone sees something related to your brand, whether it be your logo, website, business card, or product, they have begun forming an opinion about you.
Often we think about communication as being the words we speak to someone else, but it’s more than that. It is an understanding that comes from an experience. The experience can be words that are exchanged, but it can also be in the way you present yourself.
Visual identity is all about breaking down barriers between you and your audience. How you present yourself is going to be the way that others perceive you, which requires you to think strategically about how you want to be perceived.
In this episode we talk about investing in the kind of visual identity your brand deserves, the purpose and importance of visual communication, and crafting a memorable brand.
Highlights, Takeaways, Quick Wins
- Do you believe enough in your brand to invest in it?
- You have to be intentional in your visual presentation in order to attract the kind of audience you want.
- You can still have a good customer experience with poor visual identity, but it’s even better to provide a great customer experience and a great visual presentation.
- Visual identity doesn’t make a brand, it makes it memorable.
- Making an investment means you’re trusting an expert.
- Don’t touch any level of visual presentation until you have a solid understanding of what your business is doing.
- If everything is easy about building your brand, you’re not going to care about it.
- You have to feel the burn of investment in order to push yourself to the next level.
- A brand is not a logo, but visuals are there to build up the brand and to communicate clearly.
- 07:48 Cory: Visual identity is about experience and communicating something to the people you’re trying to communicate to. Visual identity is all about asking ourselves: what do we want people who haven’t heard about us to think about us? What do we want people who have heard about us to feel? What kind of experience and message do we want to deliver about our brand through what people see? It would be really easy for us to have an episode where we tell you what to do with your logo and what not do with with your colors. I don’t think we need to get into that today, we need to talk about the communication side of it. What’s the message you’re getting across?
- 08:47 Kyle: Those other topics are getting into the “weeds” of visual identity and there’s a lot more involved than the surface-level design aspects. There’s a lot of psychology in branding and in communicating a message.
Visual Identity Is an Investment
- 09:30 Cory: First, I want to talk about how visual identity is perceived by people who are establishing their brands. There’s two camps of people: the investment, long-term people who see it as being worth it, and then there are the people who think that having a visual identity is a nice-to-have. The second camp thinks that the big brands can afford it because they have seven-figures coming every year. A lot of people ask: what if I can’t afford to have a logo made or what if I can’t afford to hire a designer? What if I can’t make that investment because it feels too much like an expense? Kyle, what is key to going from viewing a cohesive visual identity as a nice-to-have to seeing it as an important investment?
- 11:02 Kyle: First of all, if you’re saying, “I don’t have enough money,” do you ever plan for your business to be profitable? Do you ever plan to make anything with your business? If the answer is no and you have no money, then I’m not sure why you have a business to begin with. In our discussions before the show we talked about nonprofits. Even the people who work for nonprofits make money. Nonprofits essentially don’t hold financial reserves. They need to spend that money and invest it. Every business makes money and when you’re investing into a visual identity, you’re spending money that will eventually be generated from the business you’re building.
- 12:24 Let’s say you plan to make $100,000 this year through your business. An investment of $4,000 to $5,000 to have a well made logo that speaks your brand’s goals is not a large investment. If you’re looking at your current cash reserves now, maybe that’s all you have to invest or maybe that’s putting you close to going in the red this month. Building a business is about investing money and if you don’t have the money now, you should get some form of padding, like a day job or something.
Do you believe enough in your brand to invest in it?
- 13:27 Cory: Do you believe in the future of what you’re doing enough to realize visual identity is worth a few thousand, or a few hundred thousand, dollars? What matters is asking yourself: are we looking long-term, or are we just looking at what’s in our hands right now? If all you’re doing is looking at the cash you have right now, instead of future-forward, then you’re not going to be thinking enough of how you’re communicating and where you want to be. Successful brands have five to 10, and even 25 year plans that say where they want to go, how many people they want to impact, and how many products they want in their line. It’s so much more than looking at what you have in your wallet and only having $1,000 to get it off the ground.
- 14::38 Could you use part of that money to hire someone to craft an appropriate goal-matching logo and color palate so that you accrue more business? I live in California and if you go to LA, you’ll find different districts. Some are high-class and some not so much, but depending on what district you’re in, there are strip malls with various businesses. A lot of them have signs that look like they just called up a sign company and said, “This is our business, make us a sign. We’ll pay you $20,” and they all look the same. If you spend a little more money or invest into it, is that going to create the correct first introduction experience to your brand that you want? I think that’s worth the investment.
- 15:54 Kyle: This may be a silly example, but take brushing your teeth. You purchase a toothbrush and toothpaste and every morning you brush your teeth. Why do we do that? Maybe right now you don’t have cavities or problems you need to go to the dentist for, but you’re investing into keeping your mouth maintained, so that later you don’t have to pay thousands of dollars to have dental surgery done. The same thing applies to your brand—you’re investing in an identity or structure that people can get behind and it reflects the goals you have.
- 16:58 We’ve been talking about essentially building what your brand should look and feel like in a personality sense—how you communicate to people, what you should be saying to them, etc. All of those come together with the visual identity because it’s the first thing people are going to see. We’ve talked about what kind of clothes you wear and how it reflects what kind of people approach you. That’s very much what visual identity is. It’s the type of logo you have, the colors you use, the typeface you use, and all of those things create an experience that a particular audience is going to enjoy.
- 17:53 Cory: And resonate with. If you want to get people through the front door, you have to have something that’s inviting and breaks down barriers between you and your audience. That’s what visual identity is all about. You want people to visit your website or visit your store and walk around, and ultimately, you want to funnel them to purchasing something. Identity shows what they can expect and that it’s for them, and then people think, “Oh, this is for me,” which breaks down the barriers. You can still have a great customer experience with poor visual presentation. I want to be clear about that.
- 19:52 You know how in movie theaters, when you go in before the previews start playing, they have ads rolling through? I saw this one ad a while back that I can’t get out of my head. It was bright yellow with red text and a red “exploding” shape for this real estate agent in town, and his headline was, “Real estate got your goat?” with a picture of him holding a goat. He is very successful and that was his logo! That’s terrible! He has a very successful business and has great word-of-mouth going about him. His visual presentation could completely be rebuilt. It’s worth the investment to make the visual experience pleasant.
You can still have a good customer experience with poor visual identity, but it’s even better to provide a great customer experience and a great visual presentation.
- 22:28 Kyle: A lot of it depends on your long-term goals. There are those low budget anomalies that may even intentionally be bad. Rhett and Link now have a daily video show, but for years they made local commercials. You always expect local commercials to be bad, but they would go in and make these intentionally terrible commercials. It was so bad that it was funny, but it was still intentional. There’s maybe some room for that but it depends on what you want to be seen as. If you’re a lawyer and you want to look well put together and have people trust you, you don’t want the bright yellow and red logo with you holding a goat. The real estate agent was able to get away with it because people want someone who’s fun and personable. They’re seeing someone being entertaining. They may not enjoy what they’re looking at, but they understand the person is personable.
- 24:39 Cory: You could even say he was communicating clearly through his visual identity. In a way that’s true. This real estate agent was saying, “I’m a down to earth country farm boy who wants to help you get a house.” That’s what people are thinking when they see him holding a goat. Some people might thing he’s a freak, but some people might think that sounds better than going to Real Estate Mega Company and having to go through all the bureaucracy. This real estate agent seems like a nice, friendly dude and seems like someone I could have a nice conversation with about getting a house.
- 25:21 Kyle: On the same note, that real estate agent needs to understand the audience he’s probably attracting don’t want to have a super formal process. I would imagine that wealthy people who want to buy multimillion dollar estates aren’t going to him because those people want someone who will be very serious with their million dollar house investment. He’s attracting a specific audience. The big takeaway here is to be intentional.
You have to be intentional in your visual presentation in order to attract the kind of audience you want.
- 26:07 Cory: We’ve talked about the importance of investing in a visual identity and how visual identity communicates clearly. I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty of design like color psychology and stuff, but I do want to answer some of the questions we got.
Which Visual Aspects Matter Most?
- 26:55 Damien asked, “Which visual aspects matter most in having your identity communicate what you want?” I think the most important part of a proper visual identity is your logo.
- 27:10 Kyle: I completely agree. Implementing colors and typefaces are pretty easy to change in general, but a logo is a very in-depth of understanding of your goals and making something that reflect those goals is very custom and definitely something you want to have a designer do. That’s probably the top investment. There’s a hierarchy for these things and I don’t want to overwhelm people into thinking that you have to do X,Y,Z—get a logo, get colors, etc. That’s not the point. Look at huge companies like Apple or Google, they’re making their own typefaces for their products. Lots of people aren’t going to do that. With this question, I think our goal is to break down what’s essential to a visual identity.
- 28:31 Everything plays a very important role. My thing is icons and I think those are very important to visual identity, especially if you have a product like an app or something. There’s huge value to be had with icons, but logos are extremely important. Odds are if you hire a very professional logo designer who knows what they’re doing, and you say, “I don’t have a brand identity yet,” they’ll at least give some color suggestions along with the logo they provide because every designer wants what they’ve produced to look good.
- 29:26 Cory: Brian asks, “Does it make sense to try to educate someone like the real estate agent on the value of branding and visual identity?” It does if they’ve hired you to do that. If you’re talking with the person or you’ve cold called them, don’t say, “By the way, your branding is terrible and here’s why.” That’s not going to work! If someone like this has a level of success and they’re comfortable where they’re at and they’re not asking questions yet, then they may not be at a place where they’ll be ready to rebrand themselves or to have a visual refresh. If a company comes to you as a designer and they say they want a new logo, then it’s your job to ask why. Why do you need a new logo? Why do you need a visual refresh? What is your company all about?
- 30:22 That exploring process is going to bring things to the surface where you can say, “You want a new logo, but it’s also going to require doing X,Y, and Z. It’s going to require updating the way your company is producing content.” Punctuation and spelling is a part of visual identity. A lot of people don’t think that copy is a part of visual identity, but when people go to your website or open up your brochure, they’re going to read things so you have to make sure that stuff is in place. If a company comes to you as a designer and they’re open to it, then you can begin that conversation about changing things. It does depend on what you’re hired for too. If a company says, “We want to hire you for a logo and don’t talk about anything else,” it’s up to you whether you decide to take on that client or not. If you’re only going to design a logo, then you need to operate within the visual guidelines that have already been established for that brand.
Hiring a Designer
- 31:34 Kyle: That’s very much talking to designers, but what if you’re on the other side of that and not a designer? Ben Toalson asked, “What question should you be prepared to answer when approaching a designer?” That’s an important question. You have to understand your goals and where your business is going. If you want to invest in a visual identity, you need to have an idea of where your business is going. What does your projected revenue look like this year? There may be a particular designer you’ve come across and they have so much expertise that it’s not an issue of the cost, it’s more an issue of, can they make this a reality for me?
- 32:38 That’s what a designer does for you. They’re coming along side you as a partner that understands their own profession. If you understand your profession and what you’re trying to accomplish, that designer is there to take those things and give you what will make the most sense for you and what will draw people in. It’s not a business owner’s job to say what they want a design to look like because that’s not their expertise. I would say that the other way around too—I don’t have much say in your business either.
- 33:22 You’re growing your business and you know what your goals are. My job is to take those, understand them, become integrated into your business, and then make something that appeals to the people you’re trying to appeal to. My goal is to make your brand a success. That’s the big different between investment and expense—investing is saying, “I want you to take this and make it a success,” not, “We need a logo, so here’s what we were thinking. We need someone to draw that real fast in Illustrator.”
Making an investment means you’re trusting an expert.
- 34:17 Cory: That reminds me of that famous story of when Steve Jobs left Apple in the 90’s to start a computer company called Next. He went to well-known designer named Paul Rand to design the new logo for this company. Paul said, “Sure. That’ll Be $100,000,” and Steve asked for options if he was going to spend that much money. Paul said, “No. I’ll provide a solution. I’ll solve your problem and you’ll pay me. If you want options, hire another designer.” He goes on to design the logo and provides a 100 page document about why he chose that solution. Steve had a level of understanding about design, but Paul was there to solve a problem and provide a solution. He was there to understand what Next was all about and decide what was going to communicate best to the people Steve was trying to reach. I love that story.
When Should I Focus on Visual Identity?
- 36:48 Steve Luvender asked, “At what stage of building a brand should you be considering your visual identity? Is it a requirement to first define your values and answer foundational questions about your brand and only then establish (or update) your visual identity?” I think he answered his own question here—of course you need to have that stuff taken care of first.
Don’t touch any level of visual presentation until you have a solid understanding of what your business is doing.
- 37:17 Don’t get a logo until you’ve figured out what your brand is about (Related: e002 Values, Mission, and Purpose). Establish what your values are and figure out who you’re doing this for. What is your purpose? Why do you matter? That’s the hard work! That’s the most of what you’re doing. People look at visual identity and say, “It’s such a big project and it’s such a big part of it!” Visual identity is the icing on the cake. You don’t eat cake for the icing, you eat cake for what’s under the frosting. Visual identity gets you past the barriers into the meat of your brand. What are you investing in? You’re going to invest in something, so why not invest in something good where people can experience your brand in a positive way?
- 39:20 Kyle: Once you have all those upfront things in place, like understanding your target audience, there’s an amazing excitement to share that with other people. Now, you understand what you’re doing, who you want to bring under your brand, and you want to share that with people. You want them to get it, because you get it. That’s when investing into a visual identity makes sense, you’re getting that out there faster. You’re bringing the right kind of people in in a much better way than just putting up a black and white website with default text. A visual identity brings people into a good experience and helps to project this excitement you’ve built about your brand.
- 40:39 Cory: The other part of that is that a designer might say, “Your brand needs really simplistic visuals.” If you hire someone that’s a professional, or you are a professional, and you realize your goals require a two-tone black and white palate. It doesn’t need to be an over the top specification, but it all depends on your goals and the needs of your audience are.
- 41:29 Kyle: Really big corporations with big teams go into things like style guides of how a menu or a button should look on your website. For a business just starting out, that’s highly unnecessary because you’re probably just working with one person who’s doing your website, or maybe you’re doing your website yourself. You don’t have to have all of that laid out. The important things to have is a nicely designed logo, some good colors, and probably a typeface to compliment the logo so it doesn’t look jarring. That’s the necessities you need to start out.
- 42:21 Cory: It doesn’t have to be this huge thing, especially if you’re a small brand. I believe in the idea of feeling the burn of investment. I want people to feel the burn of investment when it comes to their brand because if everything is easy about building your brand, you’re not going to care about it. You won’t feel like you have to put in all this work to make this money or time back. You’re going to invest either time or money into your brand and if that’s just handed to you, you’re not going to feel it. That’s why I don’t like companies or websites who hire designers and have them submit a design, have clients pick their favorite and they pay $50. You’re not going to feel the real burn of investment there. It doesn’t have to be $100,000 or even $5,000, but it has to be something. When you feel that burn, you’re serious about moving forward and I belive in the power of that.
You have to feel the burn of investment in order to push yourself to the next level.
- 43:55 Kyle: There’s not an amount we can throw out to tell you to invest because every situation and every person is different, but the point at which you know you’re investing in something you really care about is where you’re right over the line of comfortable. Maybe you have $10,000 in the bank and you have to fund yourself for a while, and you pay $3,000 or $4,000, that’s almost half your money! That burn is saying, “I believe in this so much that I’m easily going to make that t$4,000 back.” Paying to have a security issue with my site fixed yesterday was so important to me because I want people who come to my site to feel safe. I didn’t want people to have that bad experience. I didn’t plan yesterday to throw several hundred dollars into this security problem, but I invested to not only get that problem fixed now, but to also ensure people feel safe coming to my site in the future.
- 45:14 Essentially, that’s what you’re doing with a visual identity. You’re paying for someone to not only have a visual experience right now, but also for people to understand what to expect in the future. If you start out with an identity that’s thrown together without a clear direction, you’re going to attract some form of audience. If a year from now you’re ready to invest in this thing and you go toward the goals you original had, that weren’t being projected by that visual identity, you’re probably going to lose people. There’s going to be a shift in your audience because you didn’t plan that ahead of time. If you push forward with that, you’re actually taking a step back because you didn’t invest early on.
- 46:49 Cory: Damien mentioned, “I recently watched a video on branding with 50,000 views from a creative professional of over 30 years who builds brands. He said, ‘I understand if you have to spend $100 on a logo. You can change and update in six months to a year.’ It blew my mind that a professional who does this for a living would suggest such a thing. I would like to hear your thoughts on this teaching because it seems to be a common thought process.” If you pay $100 for a logo, it makes sense you would be updating every six months to a year. You don’t take your brand seriously and you don’t respect your audience or customers enough to invest in their experience.
- 47:45 Kyle: For any business, $100 is nothing. I spent multiples of that on some security thing yesterday that no one is going to see on the back end of my website. It’s not like I have a ton of money to invest like that. For someone who’s starting a very serious business, and maybe they have financial backing or maybe they don’t, $100 is essentially saying, “This is something I don’t necessarily need.” It’s like something you would go to the dollar store for—you don’t want to pay a lot for. You’re going to get what you pay for. In a few weeks you’re going to go buy another one because you didn’t invest in something decent, you just wanted to throw a dollar at because you don’t see it as something that’s important. It’s a necessity you don’t want to spend money on.
- 48:59 Cory: We need to do a whole episode on rebranding. I see people change their logo and website to follow a trend, then as soon as they finish updating their website a year later, they want to do it again because things are changing. I just want our listeners to understand: whether you’re a designer, you’re hiring a designer, or you’re a designer who needs a brand, visual identity is very serious because it’s the first experience someone is going to have with you. Your first experience can make or break the rest of your relationship with that person.
Should I Announce Changes to My Visual Identity?
- 50:09 Kyle: Steve asked, “Do you need to announce or introduce your audience to updates to your visual identity? Should you bring changes to their attention, or should you let them recognize updates organically on their own?” Let’s say it’s your first time creating this visual identity. Invest into a good designer who’s going to give you a case study of why the logo was made this way. What purpose does it have? When it has purpose, people can actually get behind it. It’s powerful when a company can say they’re extremely proud of their logo and they’ll let their customers read that case study to help them understand the company’s values.
- 51:28 Some people may not be interested, but some people want to invest their time and attention in your brand. For those people, that’s huge. They may come across your brand and not know why they’re attracted to it. They may say, “Your identity and your logo is amazing. Why I do always feel this certain way when I encounter your brand?” It would be jaw-dropping if you could hand over that case study to show them why your identity was done that way and that you put that much effort into making sure your brand is perceived the way you’d like it to be perceived.
- 52:15 Cory: Within that comes not only the first experience, but also making something that’s memorable. We talked about the real estate goat guy and that’s how I remember him. As much as I want to make fun of him, I remember him. It left an impression on me. When you’re wanting to invest and make sure the experience someone has is positive, you’re talking about content marketing (Related: e005 Set Your Brand Apart With Content Marketing). It’s the idea of helping to make something have more meaning instead of just, “Hey, I designed this thing so you can use it.”
- 53:08 Emily asked, “How can we coach clients that a new brand won’t solve their problems by itself?” Basically, she’s saying how can we help, as designers or brand consultants, show a client or a brand that it’s all long-term instead of just handing off a refresh? You have to include that in your presentation and the discovery process. If someone is hiring you to work on their visual identity, then you also need to make sure you’re talking to them about the words, the copy, the typeface, and the kind of images their using. I recently finished up a visual identity guide for an organization and as part of it, I pointed out some issues in their material. I made a whole page about why it’s not a good idea to use clip art. I mean, what year is this? People are still using clip art? I made a page that gave some examples of images they can use instead. If I hadn’t talked about that, then it wouldn’t have helped that organization realize those things are important when it comes to visual identity. You don’t convince them just by saying it, but by showing it.
- 55:06 Kyle: I’ve figured out that you know you’re getting it right with these kinds of things is when you show someone a case study and it’s so much information that they say, “Who cares about all this?” That’s when you’re doing it well. The person who built the brand cares about that stuff and should care. When you’re writing a case study, go into endless detail—don’t hold yourself back. Don’t assume you need to make it short and sweet because nobody wants to read through these details about why you made it. They do and it gives purpose. It gives the person who hired you confidence in what you’ve given them. Now, when other people say them, “I like your site,” they can go into as much detail as the other person would like. You can never overelaborate enough when writing a case study.
- 57:24 Cory: In the chat room, Guy said, “A brand is not a logo. A brand is a feeling.” Your brand is how people perceive you. Your brand is what people think about you and what they say about you when you’re not there (Related: e001 What Is a Brand?).
A brand is not a logo, but visuals are there to build up the brand and to communicate clearly.
- 57:57 Kyle: The interesting part of that is the role that visual identity plays. Your brand is essentially a person. Let’s say you’re in a meeting or a meetup with a lot of people you don’t know yet. Someone could just come up to you and say, “That guy Cory was really awesome! He was really inspiring.” You didn’t get to meet Cory, but the only way they can describe him is by the purple suit he was wearing. Something was unique and identifiable about Cory that makes them say, “He was the person who wore X.” Most identifying factors are visual.
- 59:22 If you don’t have anything to remember the company or individual by, there’s at least a visual you can remember about them. If that’s your logo, then odds are, people are going to remember your name. If you don’t remember a logo or identity, then the brand is completely forgotten. All of that was to show the importance of the visual identity.
Visual identity doesn’t make a brand, it makes it memorable.