Why a Coherent Brand Identity is Stronger Than a Consistent Logo

Image by Jason Tasso & Matt Steel. Repost from “Building Brands That Breathe” at mattsteelmakes.com.

We’ve explored your brand promise as being the experience and value you promise to deliver to your customers, and how your logo is just an empty vessel waiting to be filled with the public’s experience with your brand. Here, our creative director Matt Steel shares a deeper perspective on why treating your brand identity as a flexible kit of parts is far more effective than getting attached to consistent logo perimeters. You should build your brand to “breathe” and be flexible with your brand promise.

What is a brand identity? It’s a visual and verbal communication system that conveys a company’s personality and purpose to their audience. The ingredients vary, but typically an identity consists of core communication strategies, messages, and tone; nomenclature; static and/or moving image standards; colors, fonts, and patterns; print and/or interactive design principles; and of course the logo(s). In short, it’s a set of communication tools, often served up with a how-to guide for maximum mileage. It reflects what you do, not just what you say.

I love the moment of releasing a new identity into the wild. What bums me out is the typical post-launch mummification. They’re alive and evolving during the creative process. But once the work is done and delivered, brands are often thought of as fixed, immutable, inviolable – especially when it comes to their visual components. I believe this approach to brand management is slowly but surely declining, and not a moment too soon. I don’t want to fill the world with the graphic dead. I want to make things that live and move beyond the launch.

I recently watched an insightful video from the 2012 Brand New Conference, a design and communication event created by the people behind Brand New, one of my favorite branding and design blogs. One of the speakers was Simon Manchipp, creative director and co-founder of London design firm SomeOne. He described one of their primary goals in branding, which resonates with my own latest thinking. Simon notes that in the past, branding typically revolved around building consistency. Use the logo this way (not that way), these colors as strictly defined, this font as prescribed, all the time, ad infinitum, amen. But what actually resonates more deeply with followers is coherence.

Your followers don’t give a rusty nickel if your color palette is treated consistently, or if your symbol appears above or to the left of your name. What matters to them is how well you inform, inspire, and empower them.

If we treat coherence as a cardinal rule, rather than consistency per sé, we pave the way for flexible messages and visuals that are nuanced, can be delightfully combined and recombined, and most important are able to evolve elegantly. We can then create messages and images that flow in and around people’s lives.

Abandoning consistency in favor of coherence is frightening. It’s not for the timid. But neither is any project worth pursuing. I’ve come to believe it’s the best way to approach branding. Marketers have taught us that equity and consumer loyalty are fostered through consistent messaging. But if we think of brands as people rather than inanimate objects, we need to approach communication strategies in the same way we think about relating to our loved ones. When you meet a friend for lunch, do you repeat the same things over and over? Do you offer templated responses to their thoughts and questions? Of course not. (Or maybe you do, and maybe your friends have abandoned you for a more exciting robot). So why do brands treat their constituents this way?

We want to remember that branding in the truest sense is done by end users. This is one of two reasons why I sometimes hesitate to tell people that I “do branding.” (The second reason is that the term “branding” recalls how the OK Corral lets fellow ranchers know who owns Bessie’s beef by burning their symbol into her hide. I have no desire to burn people. I’d rather inform and inspire them).

Clients and designers can build informed plans, measure results, and adapt as necessary. But that’s all we can do. The real life of your brand is created by your followers. People must therefore be treated with honesty, affability, and respect. Everything you say and show should be crafted as if it’s a love letter to the most important person in your life. And like any good relationship, it should evolve and grow. The good news about branding is that it isn’t left entirely in the hands of the public. If you carefully study the needs of your following (as opposed to their wants), you’ll be able to identify and even predict which parts of your brand need improvement over time. But we must be willing to think of brand development as a never-ending project. Why? Because people evolve, and so should companies.

If we treat customers as vending machines, we’ll starve. We have to serve them. It’s a matter of life and death. Selfishness is not an option for successful brands. We saw how well that worked out for the Lehman Brothers of the world when our economy blew up in 2007. The companies who are building sustainable brand equity in the new economy are motivated first and foremost by love. They have ideas and products they love so much, that they can’t help but share them with the world.

Sometimes clients and designers have misguided expectations and priorities around logo design. The temptation is to over-think and over-design logos. It’s good to start the identity design process with the logo, since it will impact aesthetic decisions elsewhere. But the fact is that all logos are born useless, no matter how beautiful. They do not tell stories. They merely signify. Their meaning is derived entirely from context. It never pans out when we expect too much of them. Superhero logos are easy to spot (no, I’m not talking about Batman). They’re characterized by extremes. At one end of the spectrum we find logo lasagna, groaning under the weight of layered meaning. At the other end, we find marks completely bereft of meaning, mere exercises in overwrought style du jour. Superhero logos take the form of bloated 3D bellyflops, committee Frankensteinings, and too many other monstrosities to mention here.

More often than not, a word-mark, i.e. logotype is really all you need. Or as designer Erik Spiekermann eloquently put it, “A logo is a f—ing typeface.” It can still be made unique through custom lettering. After all it’s a signature, not a headline. Write and design gorgeous headlines, and your logo won’t have such a heavy load on its tiny shoulders.

When I begin an identity project I consider whether we really need a symbol, or if the day can be carried by a symphony of patterns, imagery, type, and other graphic devices. With the constant invention and iteration of communication tools, flexibility is more important than ever. A coherent toolkit is far more powerful than a consistent logo. What you get is a system that bends and breathes. When your brand is adaptable, you’re free to innovate and lead, rather than follow trends or be left in the dust by your competition.

For more on what it takes to create effective brand identities, I highly recommend Designing Brand Identity by Alina Wheeler. From writing positioning statements and names to applying graphic systems in print and on the web, Wheeler offers an insightful look into the process, with plenty of real-world case studies on companies of all sizes.